Author Archives: TRC

Orchestra Joke: Percussionist

Q: How can you tell that a percussionist is at your door?

A: The knocking speeds up.

My informant says this joke is so widespread that she’s heard it multiple times, and she thinks she first learned it in elementary school in a children’s orchestra she was in. The stereotype in orchestras is that percussionists can’t keep beat and are constantly speeding up. This joke is an example of blason populaire—the joke relies on the stereotype that brass players have difficulty staying on beat. The joke also promotes group identity within an orchestra, since it would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra. It’s interesting that my informant first learned this joke in a children’s orchestra, where it was probably likely that most players were often off beat. Even though most elementary schoolers have trouble staying on beat, the percussionist stereotype was so widespread in orchestra culture that members repeated the joke to each other even when it wasn’t necessarily true in their own experiences.

Orchestra Joke: Oboes

Q: How do you get two oboes to play in tune?

A: Shoot one.

My informant told me that this joke is so widespread that she’s heard it multiple times, and she thinks she first learned it in elementary school in a children’s orchestra she was in. Oboes are notoriously difficult to play in tune, so the implication in this joke is that it is impossible for two oboes to play in the same key. As an oboe performance major, my informant says that this stereotype has some truth to it–it can take a few tries to play notes correctly.

This joke is an example of blason populaire. It would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra, since the joke relies on the stereotype that oboes never play in tune.

Orchestra Joke: Violist

“There was a violist in a community orchestra, and one day he meets a genie who says he’ll grant three wishes. So the violist wishes to double his musical skills. And the next day, he wakes up and he’s a lot better, obviously, so he goes and reauditions and he gets first chair in his orchestra. So he goes to the genie and wishes to double his skills again, and when he wakes up he’s a lot better so he goes and auditions for a better orchestra, and he gets first chair violist, so he’s like, ‘awesome.’ He has one more wish, he says he wants to double his musical skills again, and um, the next day he wakes up—no. wait, yeah, the next day he wakes up and he’s first chair violinist in his community orchestra.”

My informant first learned this joke from another orchestra member in high school. She said that everyone in orchestra makes fun of violas. The stereotype was that violas were just the bad violinists. If an orchestra needed violas, the last chair violinists would switch to viola. She also told me that historically, composers used to neglect violas, so “the violinists would be playing these sixteenth notes, and the violas would just basically keep the beat.”

The implication is that the violists are so far beneath violinists in skill that even after doubling his musical skill three times, the violist is only good enough to be the last chair violinist in the orchestra he started out in. This joke is an example of blason populaire—the joke relies on the stereotype that violists have the least musical skill in an orchestra. The joke also promotes group identity within an orchestra, since it would need to be explained to someone who isn’t part of an orchestra

Chinese historical legend: 四面楚歌


Si Mian Chu Ge

Four Sides Chu(a kingdom/state in ancient China) Song

Songs of Chu on all sides/Surrounded by songs of Chu

“After the Chun Qiu (Autumn Spring) period in ancient China, when the seven kingdoms were fighting for control of China, the Qin army surrounded the army of the Chu, and the general of the Qin, Yong Li Zhao, came up with a military strategy called “si mian chu ge” to get the Qin army to surrender without having to sacrifice his soldiers. It worked like this: these people’s hometown is Chu, right, and every hometown has traditional songs. And when you hear these songs, you are reminded of your home and your family. So the Qin army sang songs from the Chu kingdom all day and all night, so it seemed to the Chu army like their hometown songs were coming from all four sides, like the music was surrounding them. And so the Chu army wanted to go home, didn’t want to fight anymore, and they surrendered.”

When I asked my informant to tell me any stories he knew, he insisted on first giving me a history lesson on ancient China to ground the stories. This legend is set during the Seven Warring States period (which lasted from about 475 BC to 220 BC) towards the end of Zhou Dynasty China. The Qin state eventually defeated the other six states, including Chu, and reunified China under the Qin Dynasty.

My informant wasn’t sure where he’d heard this legend, but believes that it might have been from his father, who is particularly interested in ancient Chinese history. My informant took a sort of nationalistic pride in the legend and seemed almost offended when I asked him whether he thought the legend was true. “Of course,” he said, “it doesn’t have anything to do with magic.” He found the story compelling because it showed that battles could be won without violence.

While the story does seem to endorse nonviolence, the fact that my informant ended his story with, “But I think the Chu army were all killed in the end, because the Qin general never took prisoners,” suggested a dissonance in the legend—we associate home with safety and comfort, but in this story, the Chu army’s home and loved ones were used against them.

I think that the Chinese take a lot of pride in their ancient history, before China came under Western influence. Westerners were able to impose their will on the Chinese partly because they had more military technology and power. This legend shows an instance in which a Chinese leader uses cunning rather than force to conquer enemies, which the Chinese might see as more noble or fair.

Mnemonic device: 聽

Ting (to listen)


Shi si ge xue sheng yong er duo yi xin ting da wang

Ten four students one heart use ear listen king

With one heart, fourteen students use their ears to listen to the king

This is a way of remembering the components of the Chinese character ting, meaning to listen. 十, 四, 一, 心, 耳, and 王are the components that make up the character 聽 and all stand alone as well. This strings them into a sentence to make them easier to remember.

My informant’s Chinese teacher taught her this mnemonic device when she was having remembering how to write ting. The sentence itself is meaningless, but my informant says that she hasn’t once forgotten how to write ting since learning this memory trick.

Chinese historical legend: End of the Shang Dynasty

“Zhou Xin, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, he loved women and drinking and his favorite concubine was a woman called Da Ji.  We say she is hu li jing, a fox spirit that tricks men. Right, so Da Ji never smiled and the emperor wanted to see her smile, so he—oh wait, I have to tell you, in ancient China they had an alarm system set up, so if the emperor was in trouble, he’d have someone light a bonfire, and people further out would see the fire and light fires too and send armies to help, and then people even further out would see those fires and light their own and send armies, and so on. So Zhou Xin lit the alarm fire to try to make Da Ji smile, and a few days later, soldiers from all over China arrived at the palace, but there was nothing for them to do because it was just a joke, and Da Ji finally smiled. And because only this could make her smile, the emperor did it again and again, and finally the other towns got tired of having to send soldiers to the palace all the time, and they probably got tired of having to get new wood all the time too, so they just stopped sending soldiers when they saw the fire. And then when the palace was actually under attack, no one came, and that’s how the Shang Dynasty ended.”

My informant believes that he learned this story from his father, who has an interest in ancient Chinese history. Interestingly, my informant had never heard of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which was the tale I immediately thought of after he told me this legend. Both the Boy and Zhou Xin waste others’ time and resources for their own amusement, and by the end, people no longer believe their cries for help. As a result, the Boy loses the sheep he was supposed to protect, and Zhou Xin loses the kingdom he was supposed to defend.

This legend takes place on a much larger scale and is set during a real historical period with real historical figures.  Zhou Xin was the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and is remembered in history as 商紂王, Shang Zhou Wang, a derogatory title applied posthumously to reflect his unsuitability to be emperor. This legend explains why the Shang Dynasty ended (Zhou Xin’s allies thought the alarm fires were another joke) and gives and example of something Zhou Xin did to earn his pejorative nickname.

Chinese tale: Chang E

“Chang E originally lived in the Sky Temple. Her husband, his name was Hou Yi, he was a very famous and strong archer. They fall in love. But you know, the Chinese gods who live in the Sky Temple, they’re not allowed to fall in love—with each other, with human beings. But they do. Their punishment was banishment to Earth. So they have to live on Earth as normal human beings. They want to go back, but you know, when they are thrown out of the Sky Temple, they lose their powers and they can’t fly anymore. So Hou Yi, he goes to someone called Xi Wang Mu, a very famous Chinese god, I can’t remember if it’s a she or he, she/he’s kind of mysterious. So Hou Yi, he runs across the whole land, the land is called Sheng Zhou, it refers to China. And there is a kind of water called ruo shui, weak water. And this water is called weak because any boat that tries to go across sinks because its density is very low so nothing can go across it. I don’t know how he gets across, I don’t think he swims, but he gets across somehow. So he gets to Zhi Wang Mu, and in the beginning Zhi Wang Mu doesn’t want to see him, but he begs again and again, “my wife is beautiful and staying on earth will make her old, and she’s sad and I’m sad,.” So Zhi Wang Mu gives him two pills. Zhi Wang Mu says, these two pills can’t get both of you back to the Sky Temple, and this is what Qin Shi Huang was searching for, because if you eat one of them, you live forever, but if you eat both of them, then you can fly back to the Sky Temple. So Hou Yi is very happy and he brings the pills back to Chang E and he says, I am going to go somewhere, to work I guess, and when I get back we will eat these together. But you know, when he goes out. After he goes out, Chang E eats both of them because she wants to go back to Sky Temple. So she eats two pills, both of them. And you know what happens? She starts rising, but this rising is different from the normal flying ability of Chinese gods—you cannot return. Gods, they can fly up and fly down. But after eating these two pills, you can only fly up, you can’t go back. So Chang E flies up to the Sky Temple, but the Sky Temple refuses to accept her back, because one thing, you’re being punished, and the second thing, you betrayed your husband. So the only place she can go is the moon, because there’s nobody living on the moon.

Oh, the husband. After Chang E leaves, he lives on Earth and becomes a normal human being. But he still has his archer skills. And in that time, there were nine suns. And every sun had his own mind. These suns are the sons of some god, I don’t know, he fathered these nine suns. And the suns walk over the sky every day, they take turns walking over the sky. But one day, the nine suns all came out at the same time. It’s really hot, and lots of people and trees and animals dies, and all the water evaporated. And everyone is very angry, Hou Yi is very angry too, his wife just betrayed him and went to live on the moon! And then this happened, and he cannot live forever, and he’s mad, yo guys are making trouble for me. So he gets mad, and pulls out his arrows, and shoots the first sun. and the first sun dies. And he shoots, shoots, shoots, and eight suns died. But when he was going to kill the last sun, someone stopped him, because we need a sun to live, so this one sun now has to walk every day because his brothers are all dead. Then there is peace and Hou Yi dies, because he’s human.”

My informant says that this is such a popular story that he can’t remember where he first heard it. The story is strongly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Moon Festival, since Chang E is the goddess of the moon and immortality.

I actually learned a variation of this myth from my grandmother when I was much younger. In my grandma’s version, Hou Yi and Chang E were banished to Earth as punishment after Hou Yi shot down the eight suns, who were the sons of the king of the Sky Temple. I also heard a different version in my Saturday Chinese School class in elementary school—Chang E ate both pills because one of Hou Yi’s assistants was trying to steal them for himself.

For my informant, the most compelling part of the story is Chang E’s betrayal of her husband after all of the effort he spent getting the pills at her request. I agree that this tale could be interpreted as a condemnation of female fickleness. It could also be a warning that betrayal or disobedience could lead to Chang E’s fate—being eternally lonely, banished from both the heavens and Earth.

Annotation: China launched its first lunar probe in 2007. It was called 嫦娥一號 (Chang E Yi Hao), Chang E Number 1, in honor of the moon goddess.

A man walks into a bar…

A man walks into a bar and says “ow”

My informant overheard her roommate telling me a joke that started out with “a neutron walks into a bar…” and chimed in with this “walks into a bar” joke that she’d learned from one of her friends in high school.

This joke relies on the popularity of the “walks into a bar” structure. The joke works by using a familiar setup, but then switching the expected denotation of the word “bar.” From past experience with jokes based on this structure, the audience has been conditioned to expect that the man walks into an establishment which serves alcohol. Only after a moment of confusion does the audience realize that the “bar” in this joke uses a different definition of the word.

Chemistry joke: A neutron walks into a bar…

A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink. When it tries to pay, the barman says, “for you, no charge”

My informant first learned this joke during Orientation at USC the summer before her freshman year. She introduced herself as a biochemistry major and another student responded with this joke. The other student told the joke as an attempt to connect with my informant over the only personal information he knew about her. My informant warned me that the joke was silly before telling it to me, but the silliness of the joke was what allowed it to work as an effective icebreaker. The very familiar structure of the joke contributes to its cheesiness. At first, the audience is confused at the absurdity of a neutron walking into a bar. The “no charge” punchline, though, validates the “walks into a bar” setup. The joke plays off two denotations of the word “charge”: an electrical charge and a requested payment. The joke requires only a basic knowledge of chemistry (a neutron has a net electrical charge of zero), so the teller could be confident that my informant, as a declared biochem major, would understand the joke, and that they could then laugh about (or at) it together.

Folk Belief: Leaving rice in the bowl

My informant couldn’t remember when her family first started telling her that if she left rice in her bowl, her future spouse will have ma, acne scars. The number of grains left would equal the number of scars. She remembers that one of her parents usually followed up this warning by saying, “see, your uncle used to leave lots of rice in his bowl”—the implication being that her aunt had a lot of acne scars.

My informant isn’t sure if this is an actual superstition; she has a suspicion that her parents just told her this to get her to finish her meals. The only correlation between finishing a meal and a future spouse that either of us could think of is that grains of rice stuck to the edges of a bowl and acne scars on a face have a similar spotted appearance. This saying was a way for my informant’s parents to direct her actions; her desire for a scar-free future spouse was motivating enough to get her to finish her rice.