A New History of Laughter in China

In the popular western imagination China has long been represented as a mirthless place. This was a reasonable position during the Mao years when catastrophic famines and political mass-campaigns took place against a backdrop of ideological purity where class struggle and the construction of a socialist utopia was no laughing matter. Humour was dangerous: a misplaced snigger or ill-conceived joke could lead to struggle sessions, self-criticisms, education through labour or worse. But even today, four decades since Mao’s death and with China having reclaimed its position as a major world power, China retains a dour image among westerners, with nothing much to laugh about except for the sneering fun to be had from mistranslations of signs and headlines in “Chinglish”.

Is it something about the grey uniformity of the Politburo, the formality of the Chinese banquet or the crush and clamour of China’s uber-competitive urban jungles? Even among China watchers Chinese comedy does not rank very highly. Ask a China-based expat to name a Chinese comic and, if anyone, the majority will say Mark Roswell, aka Dashan, a Canadian expat and virtuoso of the traditional northern Chinese art of “crosstalk” (xiangsheng). Summing up this year’s CCTV Spring Gala, the 5 hour variety show that ushers in Lunar New Year for hundreds of millions of Chinese people (Chinese TV’s “superbowl”), New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley described it as “a mash-up of a Politburo report, Pee Wee’s Playhouse and a PLA parade”.

The Chinese reputation for humourless drudgery is, as one might suspect, a negative and undeserved stereotype. From the Zhuangzi, a foundational Daoist text from the Warring States period more than two thousand years ago, which overflows with irreverent anecdotes, through the Ming Dynasty classic Journey to the West, to the modern fiction of Lu Xun and Lao She and the reform-era writers Mo Yan (Nobel Prize laureate in 2012) and Wang Shuo (whose postmodern satirical stylings have been described as “hooligan literature”), Chinese literature and philosophical texts of all stripes have diverse comedic elements. Chinese internet users, partly due to the necessity of evading the censors, are masters of satire as demonstrated in the parodic mash-ups of egao and the language play of the Grass-Mud-Horse lexicon (Caonima). Dealing with the exigencies of continuing Communist Party rule and dog-eat-dog capitalist competition, many Chinese are past masters at laughing in the midst of pain (kuzhong zuole).

Befitting a long comedic tradition, Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A new history of laughter in China, is the latest in a long line of anthologies, studies and collections by Chinese scholars going back hundreds of years. A China historian of the highest regard at the University of British Columbia, Professor Rea has produced an indispensable history of Chinese comedy during the tumultuous, formative period from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the Civil War (approximately 1890-1930). During this period of forced reckoning with western modernity, Chinese intellectuals debated, adopted and modified every conceivable ideology, form, genre, etc. Combined with the affordances of modern printing methods for Chinese characters, there was a huge outpouring of writings in politics, economics, history, cultural studies, and comedy. The abundance of Chinese tabloids in the 1920s and 30s, particularly in Shanghai, were full of satire and ribald jokes to rival our current day red tops.

Rea’s study is beautifully written and meticulously researched; it comes with 65 pages of endnotes and a hugely useful list of humour collections and a glossary of Chinese terms. The book is divided into an investigation of five comedic forms: jokes (xiaohua), play (youxi), mockery (maren), farce (huaji) and humour (youmo). The latter was a contemporaneous import from the west, a device and springboard for the work of the writer and editor Lin Yutang. Lin’s 1934 essay “On Humour”, and the journal he had founded in 1932 “Analects Fortnightly”, were major sites for the investigation and contemplation of the tradition and future of Chinese comedy. But this fertile period for the production of Chinese comedy did not last beyond the civil war and Japanese occupation. Lin emigrated to Taiwan via the US and then Mao began the serious task of building socialism (when humour was restricted to the nasty fingering of landlords and evil capitalists). The fate of Lao She, a humorous writer and dramatist styled as a “peoples’ artist”, was symptomatic; he was humiliated and abused during the nascent Cultural Revolution and committed suicide in 1966.

This wonderful book reminds us of the importance of the Republican Era, in many ways the intellectual basis of China’s (ongoing) quest for modernity, and the centrality of various forms of comedy in Chinese literature and life. At a time when western interest in and access to Chinese “cultural products” have never been greater, books like this are essential for challenging entrenched stereotypes and fostering greater appreciation of the country.