Will Smith’s slap was heard all the way to China, where the actor is loved and ... humor is, well, different

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Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, are back pursuing cross-cultural understanding through current events — this time the Hollywood smack heard ‘round the world.

“Hello, Lei! Can you hear me? I know you are 7,767 miles away.”

“Yes, Buck, I hear you.”

“Did you hear about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock?”

“Yes, Buck, I could hear the smack clearly myself.”

“What do you think?”

“Oh, Buck, it’s just so sad for everyone concerned.”

“Can you imagine something like that play out on CCTV?”

“No, it’s unimaginable. But I know some Chinese people, like me, who would like to teach Chris Rock a lesson.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, Buck, in 2016 when Chris was the Oscars host he took a cheap shot at Asians. It wasn’t a one-liner — like the one he fired at Will’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. It was a well-orchestrated slap.”

“You’ll have to remind me, Lei.”

“Chris said he was going to introduce the ‘hard-working’ accountants for the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers who tabulated the Oscar ballots. Then he called up three Asian children on stage. They were an 8-year-old girl and two little boys dressed in tuxedos; they were all holding briefcases.”

“Oh my.”

“Chris gave the kids the names Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz, then he doubled down by saying, ‘If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.’”

“Oh, Lei, get me the child labor law police on the horn!”

“And, Buck, that was the year following the protest over a lack of diversity. Remember the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite?”

“Yes, I do. So what was the reaction?”

“Asian Hollywood types filed a protest letter, Twitter heated up, but that was about it. You know, Chris Rock stepped in it again with Asian people on slap night, right?”

“No, what happened?”

“Well, after he amazingly regained his composure, he turned to introduce the winner of the Oscar for best documentary. It was ‘Summer of Soul’ with director Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson.”


“Except Rock said the winners were ‘Questlove and four white guys.’”


“Buck, one of the producers was Joseph Patel, an Indian American. He was furious.”

“Sorry to hear that, Lei.”

“We’re used to it, Buck. We Asians just take those slaps and move on.”

“Sadly, that’s not the case for the Will Smith slap. That story keeps going and going and going.”

“Yes, Buck, as you woke Americans like to say, ‘There’s a lot there to unpack.’”

“I’ll say, Lei.”

“Didn’t somebody even blame Trump?”

“Yes, Lei, more than one somebody!”

“Well, Buck, if there’s one big difference between our two countries, it’s that you have a black-and-white race relations problem that can make a complex issue look Byzantine.”

“So what’s the view in China?”

“Oh let’s see, Buck. It will take a minute for me to analyze the thoughts of 1.4 billion people.”

“Sorry, Lei. Let me try again: Do you see any online support for Will Smith?”

“Yes, for two reasons: one, his great popularity, especially for his movie ‘The Pursuit of Happyness,’ and two, a high loyalty to family combined with a low tolerance for insult comedy.”

“Hmm, tell me more.”

“Will Smith is a big star in China, and he’s been quite active on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and Douyin for years.”

“Wait, Lei, Weibo is like Facebook and Twitter combined, right?”


“And both Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, right?”

“Right again. Will Smith’s apology statement to Chris Rock was posted in Chinese on Weibo simultaneously with the English-language version posted on Will’s Facebook page with its 111,657,102 followers.”

“That’s 111 million followers, you say?”

“Yes, Buck, give or take a half million.”

“Wow. So what is Douyin?”

“That’s TikTok, Buck.”

“Oh, I see. So Will Smith and his people have spent a lot of time and effort creating a positive image in China.”

“Right, Buck. He’s burnished a good father/family man persona. People here are still inspired by him.”

“And what about support for Chris Rock?”

“Yes, there’s support for Chris, too. As much as some people might want to smack him, or do something worse to a comedian — not laugh at his jokes — they draw the line at physical violence.”

“Lei, there must be a wise ancient expression to share about that.”

“Yes, Buck, as Confucius once said, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’”

“LOL. You’re too much, Lei.”

”An idiom that many Chinese people know translates to something like, ‘A gentleman uses his tongue but not his fists’ or ‘A man of honor reasons things out and does not resort to force.’”

“Anything from the ‘Art of War’? It looks like the Smith-Rock feud dated back to at least those same Oscars in 2016, when Chris Rock made another crack about Will and Jada.”

“Yes, Sun Tzu’s advice was to subdue the enemy without fighting — to win without going to battle.”

“Thanks, Lei.”

“Buck, for all the deep issues wrapped up in the slap, there’s one question that intrigues me.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s funny?”

“Oh, Lei, I know enough about China to say that’s one thing that divides us — the Great Wall of Humor.”

“Right, Buck. The closest thing we have to the Oscars as a national telecast is CCTV’s New Year’s Gala. And, frankly, the jokes and skits are really not that funny.”

“So who do you think is funny, Lei?”

“The G.O.A.T. for me is George Carlin.”

“Now that’s funny. Why?”

“He was a linguist, a philosopher and a comedian, all rolled into one — and a trailblazer, too. I’m a fan of political satire, so he was my go-to guy.”

“Carlin, of course, made a name for himself in 1972 with his ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’ monologue.”

“Well, Buck, in China there’s three topics in the Forbidden City of Laughs: politics, people with disabilities, and sex.”

“Oh, you don’t say.”

“That’s why so many Chinese people like watching ‘Saturday Night Live’ — that’s how they get their political news about the U.S. and laugh at raunchy jokes.”

“Oh gee.”

“Buck, I remember one SNL skit that was an epilogue to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I can still picture actors smacking Old Man Potter in his wheelchair. Nothing’s off limits.”

“Or so it seems, Lei.”

“You know, Buck, there’s another ancient expression that comes to mind: ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity.’”

“Wait, Lei, that was P.T. Barnum!”

“Yes, Buck, and P.T. would have loved to cash in on the Smith-Rock Circus. Did you see what’s happening to the $40 tickets for Chris Rock’s shows?”

“Yes, The Hollywood Reporter and CNBC are reporting that the asking prices for resale tickets on StubHub range from $444 per ticket to $1,705.”

“Slap-dab, Buck! That’s capitalism for you.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT.


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