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What Onion saga says about China's sense of humor

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
November 30, 2012 -- Updated 0713 GMT (1513 HKT)
Too sexy to be true? Kim Jong-Un (L) at the 100th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15, 2012.
Too sexy to be true? Kim Jong-Un (L) at the 100th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese news site lampooned after taking an Onion satire for a real story
  • Onion reported that North Korea's Kim Jong-Un was "sexiest man of 2012"
  • The joke belies a strong sense of humor in China, China watchers say
  • Chinese writers, artists, cartoonists use satire to mock, question, challenge

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- China's state-run People's Daily newspaper is known for political correctness rather than a sense of humor.

So when a report surfaced this week that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had been named the 2012 "Sexiest Man Alive", the self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party cheered its Korean comrade on its website -- only this "news" came from satirical U.S. website, The Onion.

China is North Korea's major ally and aid provider. Reporting something flattering on Kim must have been considered politically correct. Its website editors even built a gallery of photos to accompany the report, with slides featuring Kim riding a horse, inspecting troops and being hugged by female soldiers.

While the item spiced up the usually staid pages of the website, it led to wave of sniggering as international media lampooned Chinese state media for being fooled by a bogus report from a well-known purveyor of offbeat humor and satire.

Read: Onion: We just fooled the Chinese government!

Was the omniscient People's Daily really this gullible or was it the work of a mischievous insider with a penchant for satire?

China falls for 'Onion' jab on Kim
Sorry China, Kim Jong Un not 'sexiest'

On Wednesday, a woman who took our call at the website's office in Beijing insisted that it was "impossible that the People's Daily would quote from any unreliable media -- we do verify our news and sources."

The woman, who declined to identify herself, said the story and pictures had been removed a day after being posted.

But the damage had been done and The Onion was relishing the publicity.

"Please visit our friends at the People's Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion," read its statement. "Exemplary reportage, comrades."

Chinese micro-bloggers couldn't resist getting in on the act too.

"The world was fooled by the People's Daily, because no Chinese believes this paper," wrote @Hai_Dao_Wu_Bian.

So the Chinese have a sense of humor?

Christopher Rea, who is writing a book on the cultural history of humor in modern China, says the Chinese have "a robust sense of the farcical and the absurd, as well as a keen appreciation of watching those in power screw up."

Rea, a scholar at the Australian Center on China in the World, says "the Chinese sense of humor runs the same gamut as elsewhere."

Linda Jaivin, a veteran China-watcher and co-author of "New Ghosts Old Dreams," a book on Chinese literature and culture, said Beijing people's sense of humor tends to be "very topical, political and satirical."

When a giant statue of Confucius suddenly appeared in Tiananmen Square, not far from Mao's iconic portrait early last year, tongues wagged about what it all signified politically -- was Confucius back to dislodge Mao as China's spiritual leader?

The statue was moved off the square just as abruptly a few weeks later, prompting some in political circles to joke that the venerated sage, who hailed from rural Shandong, had been busted for not having a Beijing residence permit.

The primary lesson that all journalists -- not just Chinese -- should draw from this is that all information needs to be verified before it is published.
Richard Hornik

For centuries political satire has been a staple for much of Chinese humor, and remains so during the Communist era.

In the 1980s, when the first signs of official corruption related to economic reform began appearing, humorists cleverly minted ditties like these:

"I'm a big official, so I eat and drink, eat and drink..."

"It's not my money we're spending after all, so eat and be merry and let's have a ball!"

Nowadays, Chinese writers, artists, cartoonists, comedians and netizens resort to humor and satire to mock, question, challenge and document social phenomena, events and incidents.

"A lot of Chinese humor is pun-based and probably always has been," said Jaivin, who speaks Chinese fluently. "The Chinese language is exceptionally rich in homonyms and is ripe for punning."

Much of it can be lost in translation but some does overcome any linguistic limits.

When some Beijing residents nicknamed the new Koolhaus-designed office complex of CCTV, China's flagship television network, "da kucha" (the Big Underpants), for its resemblance to underwear, the government tried to give it a nicer sounding moniker.

"So they tried 'zhichuang' -- Window on Knowledge," recalled Jaivin. "Catchy but worse, because as Beijing funsters worked out in about a microsecond, it's also a homonym for hemorrhoid."

The Chinese sense of humor has also become more global, Rea said, citing the "E'gao phenomenon" of spoofing and parody on the Internet that started in 2005 and is still popular, especially among tech-savvy youths.

"It draws strongly on international influences, down to the images, sounds, and texts used in video mash-ups," he said.

So if Chinese humor is so robust, why did the editors at the People's Daily get duped?

"Maybe because many Chinese editors and journalists lack good knowledge of journalism and English so they find it hard to spot satire," suggested a graduate student in journalism in Beijing. "Maybe because there is so much fake news and they lack the ability to distinguish real news from the fake."

Rea blamed the "pervasive plagiarism of foreign news outlets in the Chinese official news media, combined with shoddy quality control or fact checking."

Is there a serious lesson to be learned here?

"The primary lesson that all journalists -- not just Chinese -- should draw from this is that all information needs to be verified before it is published," said Richard Hornik, a lecturer in journalism at Stony Brook University, who once covered China for Time Magazine.

"Since new media such as Weibo, Facebook and Twitter have made all of us publishers in the digital era, all responsible citizens should verify information before they publish, forward, 'like' or retweet it."

How embarrassed should the People's Daily be?

"Extremely," quipped Jaivin. "That said, I do hope no one gets sent to a labor camp over it."

CNN's Wendy Min contributed to this report.

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