The Use of Humor During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Taiwan

By Chunping Lin

The word “幽默 yōumò,” which means “humor” in Chinese, is originally from Jiǔzhāng 九章 of the Chu Lyrics 楚辭 Chǔcí (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.) and was used to describe the tranquility of nature.[1] Lin Yutang林語堂 (linguist, philosopher, and translator, 1895–1976) translated the English word “humor” with the word “幽默 yōumò”. This Phono-semantic matching contains the sound of “yōumò” for humor and the profound meaning of humor after smiling.[2] Lin Yutang further defined the nature of humor, saying that “humor is generous, transcendent, and at the same time incorporates the idea of compassion 幽默是敦厚的,超脫同時加入悲天憫人之念。”.[3] He promoted the use of humor, so that the word “幽默 yōumò” has occupied a place in the Sinophone world and has become more deeply rooted in the lives of intellectuals.

Humor may not cure the illnesses and symptoms caused by the Coronavirus, nor can it help in stopping the spread of the virus, but humor has been invaluable in relieving people from the stress and tension during the current pandemic across cultures.[4] In 2020, many great humorous sketches related to the pandemic appeared on Sinophone social media. On April 4th, in the German-Taiwanese students’ Facebook group “德國臺灣同學會” two jokes were posted, one in Chinese, the other in English, both of which convey the same message: 

隔離,人權沒了。不隔離,人全沒了。” (Gélí, rénquán méi le. Bù gélí, rén quán méi le. Isolation, human rights are gone. Not iso-lated, all the people are gone.) “Quarantine, No Human Right(s). No Quarantine, No Human Left.”[5]

Fig. 1: Advertisement of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, showing a figure of Li Taibai (701–762); he was a famous poet and genius in the Sinophone world and also an oenophile. Source: Facebook.

In addition to this type of exclusively word-based humor, it can also appear as a combination with images or videos. For example, Taiwan’s National Palace Shop 故宮精品 posted a series of advertisements with artifacts as a choice of different greeting methods in the pandemic, such as the picture of a late Ming Dynasty statue, seen in Fig. 1 with the words: “75% 消毒酒精” (75% disinfectant alcohol) and “敬酒式問候” (toasting greetings). These posts were used to promote Taiwan’s National Palace Museum 臺灣國立故宮博物院 at the same time.

The use of humor was not just limited to private life or advertising, even governments employed humor to promote behavioral measures during the pandemic.

Fig. 2: Hilarious posts by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education on Facebook have been reposted about 12,000 times. Source: Facebook.

For instance, the Ministry of Education, Republic of China (Taiwan), published a series of posts on Facebook, in which Taiwan’s most famous astrology expert Jesse Tang 唐綺陽 was imitated, in order to promulgate the prevention priorities. Take the case of Fig. 2 Aquarius: “因為會背洗手七字訣而被同學覺得怪。你知道你是最棒的。” (Your classmates think you’re weird because you can recite the seven abbreviations for hand washing. But you know you are the best.) The series was very well received by the public. Jesse Tang also praised the creativity from the Ministry of Education after receiving the positive feedback through the news. In addition, Taiwan’s “Digital Minister,” Audrey Tang, mentioned in the article “The Key to Taiwan’s Pandemic Success: Fast, Fair, and Fun”[6] that Taiwan employs the “humor over rumor” strategy to fight disinformation.

Fig. 3: This humorous clarification post of the Taiwan’s premier got over 100,000 positive reactions on Facebook and received attention from international media. Source: Facebook.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a rumor of a shortage of raw materials for toilet paper in Taiwan due to the increased production line for medical masks. In the government advertising seen in Fig. 3, Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌, the premier of Taiwan, is shown from the back with graphical elements which emphasize the region of his buttock, together with a well-known toilet paper brand. The caption reads in Taiwanese: “ 咱只有一粒卡臣。”. (We have only one bottom), referring to the slogan “We have only one Earth” from the environmental movement. The table below the headline lists the facts about the raw materials, which are different for toilet paper and for masks. The rumor that toilet paper was almost out of stock in Taiwan was dispelled by this advertisement, which not only made people laugh but also relieved public tension. As a result of the large number of retweets, the panic buying of toilet paper was successfully ceased after one weekend.[7]

The humorous strategy was apparently not limited to the Eastern world, but was even applied by the federal government in Germany: On November 15, 2020, the German government released a video under the hashtag “#besonderehelden”[8] on Youtube, urging young people to stay at home. The video depicted an elderly man who recalls fighting the pandemic from a future perspective by simply staying home. Although this humorous film was criticized, there were also many positive comments from the UK, Switzerland, and Germany. In the pandemic, we see humor and the diverse use of humor not only spreading across different cultures, but also used extensively across various communities (civil and governmental) to combat the inconvenience and negative effects brought on by the virus.

This article was originally published in the second issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University. You can find the newsletter here and subscribe to it here.


References

[1] the word 幽默 yōumò in 九章 Jiǔzhāng: 滔滔孟夏兮,草木莽莽。傷懷永哀兮,汨徂南土。 眴兮杳杳,孔靜幽默…。https://ctext.org/pre-qin-and-han/zh?searchu=幽.

[2] “愈幽愈默而愈妙,故譯為幽默” by 林玉堂 Lin Yutang in 論幽默 on humor, 1947 上海時代書局 S.5

[3]幽默是敦厚的,超脫同時加入悲天憫人之念” by 林語堂 Lin Yuting,
論幽默 on humor.

[4] Various Scientific Research Reports on Humor during the pandemic: “Humor in the Age of COVID-19 Lockdown: An Explorative Qualitative Study” and “COVID-19 humor in Jordanian social media: A socio-semiotic approach”.

[5] Source: 德國臺灣同學會:https://www.facebook.com/groups/17821826188.

[6] Source: https://www.globalasia.org/v15no3/cover/the-key-to-taiwans-pandemic-success-fast-fair-and-fun_audrey-tang.

[7] Tang Feng’s talk on YouTube, 7:30.

[8] See Helden.


Chunping Lin is a lecturer and research associate (Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin) at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University. Her research focuses on the Chinese language, its didacticism, and intercultural communication.


Citation: Chunping Lin, The Use of Humor During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Taiwan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.05.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31401


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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