Three inmates in a Peking prison asked each other how they had gotten into such a fix.

"I am here because I supported Deng Xiaoping," said one, referring to China's controversial vice premier.

"I am here because I opposed Deng Xiaoping," said the second inmate.

The two looked at the third man who said: "I am Deng Xiaoping."

After some hard times, this type of Chinese humor -- understated, sardonic and tickling at the ribs of irrational authority -- has bubbled back to the surface of Chinese life. Communist leader still don't understand what has hit them.

The art of the comic dialogue, formed by centuries of history and once enjoyed in secret by Mao, has been revived in recent months by hundreds of thousands of professional and amateur performers. These dialogues, known as xiangsheng , or "face and voice," call for clever use of ambiguity and double meanings. When the target is corrupt or oppressive authority, the comedian must skewer his victim deftly, then patch up the wounds swiftly before anyone has noticed.

A favorite target of today's Chinese comedians is the revolutionary excesses of the Communist Party and its most fervent followers. Two comedians, Jiang Kun and Li Wenhua, do a number called "The Photo Studio":

When Jiang, a customer, can get no service, he sees a sign on the wall: "Every revolutionary comrade who steps through the revolutionary entrance and wants to have a revolutionary photo made in this revolutionary studio must shout revolutionary slogans."

Jiang: Serve the People! Excuse me, comrade.

Li: Fight Selfishness and Repudiate Revisionism! Yes, what can I do for you?

Jiang: Eliminate Bourgeois Ideology, Foster Proletarian Ideology! I want to have a photo made.

Li: Overcome Selfishness and Foster Public Spirit! What size?

Jiang: Revolution Is Blameless! Three inches.

The comics say they are lampooning the excesses of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 -- 76, but sloganeering lingers on in China. The point cannot be lost on present-day audiences.

Ma Ji, a chubby comedian who is sort of a Chinese Buddy Hackett, was discovered in Hollywood fashion in 1956. A humble bookstore clerk, he entered and won a national xiangsheng contest. After the contest, China's leading master, Hou Baoling, took Ma under his patronage. But doing the Cultural Revolution, both Hou and Ma were bitterly criticized, and Ma spent five years at a work farm in Henan Province, where he collected manure and grew vegetables. He was released in 1972 and by 1974 he had sufficiently returned to favor to receive a visitor from America, comedian Steve Allen. Ma liked Allen, but says he could not understand most of his jokes.

Ma and his partner, dour and slender Tang Jiezhong, have a routine that satirizes -- and, in the ambiguous way of xiangsheng , also justifies -- the unrevolutionary lives that many Chinese youths are now trying to lead. In the rather cold-blooded fashion of Chinese romance, Ma is about to be questioned by his girlfriend, so Tang shows him how to answer:

Ma begins: "What's on your mind each day?"

"I want to contribute more each day to the Four Modernizations," Tang replies.

"What's your goal?"

"I'm trying to get more technical information."

"What are your shortcomings?"

"I feel I don't have enough education."

"What are you doing about that?"

"I will study hard . . . What do you think of my answers?"

"No, good," Ma replies. "You haven't passed this test."

"What not?"

"Those answers are not for lovers, are they?"

So Tang questions Ma: "What's on your mind each day?"

"I want to carry on our love each day?"

"What's your goal?"

"To get a sofa and a wardrobe."

"What are your shortcomings?"

"My only shortcoming is I don't have enough money."

"What are you doing about that?"

"I want to borrow a little more."

Several current jokes lampoon the resurgence of materialism in Chinese life. A friend asks pretty Miss Wang, "I hear you are not dating Zhang anymore."

"Yes, my feelings toward him have changed."

"Then you will return his watch to him?"

"No, my feelings toward the watch have not changed."