Joke/Blason Populaire/True Riddle

“How long is a Chinese man’s name?” After the interlocutor’s response (unless there is none), the line is then repeated: “How long is a Chinese man’s name?” If the interlocutor still does not understand, this part may be restated with different intonation, making clear that the line is a direct statement, as opposed to a question: “How Long is a Chinese man’s name.”

The informant stated that he learned the above joke (and riddle) about two months ago from a friend who told him the joke on the school bus. He said that he would tell the joke to both friends and family and at no specific time. However, he would not tell it to Asian people that he did not know well. The informant thought that this was an unusual and “unique” type of joke and that it is funny.

When I heard this joke for the first time from the informant, I had the typical and expected response: “I don’t know, how long is it?” Then, when he repeated it for me again, I understood the structure and purpose of the joke. Like the informant stated, the joke is rather unusual and unique, owing to the fact that it makes use both of a group stereotype—namely, that Asians have what might seem to many Westerners an abrupt and odd form of nomenclature—and of a quasi true riddle structure in which the answer (here, precisely that there is no answer, or response which should be given) is contained in the question. This piece of folklore thus incorporates not only the generally pervasive genre of jokes in which people of nearly every age group participate, but also the scarcer genre of riddles, which is more commonly found among children (though the informant here is perhaps a few years past childhood) who, being themselves novice language users, take greater delight than many older individuals in the enigmatic applications of language so often found in riddles.