A Chinese Joke

Despite having lived in China for years, I don’t speak more than a smattering of Mandarin. I’m not one of those people who can “pick up” foreign languages as if by osmosis – I don’t have the ear for that – and finding time to actively cultivate my language skills is difficult. Nevertheless, I do learn idiosyncratic bits here and there, and they’re often quite interesting.

In Mandarin, the words for most religions end in the syllable jiào, which in other contexts can mean “to teach” (jiào rhymes with the “meow” of a cat; the accent grave indicates that the syllable should be pronounced in what is called the fourth tone, similar to a “stressed” syllable in English, and other accent marks used subsequently in this post indicate other tones). A religion, one might surmise, is conceived of as a body of teachings. Buddhism, for example, is fó jiào, and Christianity is j­ī dū jiào. Atheism is wú shén lùn, which means “no god(s) theory” (Chinese languages normally don’t bother to distinguish between singular and plural forms). However, a godless person who is asked which jiào he or she follows may facetiously respond “shùi jiào”, an expression that means “to sleep”. This is funny because the jiào in shùi jiào is pronounced exactly the same way as the jiào that means “religion”, even though it’s written with a different Chinese character and has a different meaning. The Chinese languages abound in such homonyms, and they seem to provide an inexhaustible vein of humour and clever double meanings. They can also give rise to superstitions: the number four ( in Mandarin) is considered unlucky because it sounds a bit like the word for death (), despite the difference in tone.

I approve, incidentally, of the fact that the formal word for atheism ends not in jiào but in lùn, a suffix denoting a theory: the theory of relativity, for example, is xiāng duì lùn. The lùn suffix distinguishes atheism not only from religions but also from some if not all secular ideologies, which tend to end in zhŭ yì (doctrine). Using lùn goes at least some way towards positioning atheism as a limited if profound claim about the universe, not a broad worldview with moral and political dimensions, and that’s the way it should be.

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