The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China

The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China

by Christopher Rea

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The Age of Irreverence tells the story of why China’s entry into the modern age was not just traumatic, but uproarious. As the Qing dynasty slumped toward extinction, prominent writers compiled jokes into collections they called "histories of laughter." In the first years of the Republic, novelists, essayists and illustrators alike used humorous allegories to make veiled critiques of the new government. But, again and again, political and cultural discussion erupted into invective, as critics gleefully jeered and derided rivals in public. Farceurs drew followings in the popular press, promoting a culture of practical joking and buffoonery. Eventually, these various expressions of hilarity proved so offensive to high-brow writers that they launched a concerted campaign to transform the tone of public discourse, hoping to displace the old forms of mirth with a new one they called youmo (humor).

Christopher Rea argues that this period—from the 1890s to the 1930s—transformed how Chinese people thought and talked about what is funny. Focusing on five cultural expressions of laughter—jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor—he reveals the textures of comedy that were a part of everyday life during modern China’s first "age of irreverence." This new history of laughter not only offers an unprecedented and up-close look at a neglected facet of Chinese cultural modernity, but also reveals its lasting legacy in the Chinese language of the comic today and its implications for our understanding of humor as a part of human culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959590
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/08/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 356
File size: 29 MB
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About the Author

Christopher Rea is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the editor of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu and the coeditor of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia, 1900–60.

Read an Excerpt

The Age of Irreverence

A New History of Laughter in China

By Christopher Rea


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95959-0


Breaking into Laughter


In 1903, Wu Jianren, one of the most innovative and prolific Chinese writers of the early twentieth century, began serializing two works in the same issue of Yokohama's New Fiction, a leading literary journal of Chinese reformers in exile. The first, a novel, he entitled A History of Pain; the second, a series of jokes, he called A New History of Laughter.

These two titles appeared at a moment when China's future was unclear. The Qing court was still reeling from an 1895 defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, an aborted reform movement in 1898, and, close on its heels, the Boxer Rebellion. Wu was among a group of educated men who might once have sought a position in the government bureaucracy but were now turning to literary and entrepreneurial pursuits for a living. In expressing their emotional state, these writers tended to put anguish front and center. A History of Pain appeared at the front of the journal and A New History of Laughter at the back. Then there is the novel The Travels of Lao Can, which Wu's contemporary, Liu E, started writing that same year, and which begins as follows: "When a baby is born, he weeps, wa-wa; and when a man is old and dying, his family forms a circle around him and wails, hao-t'ao. Thus weeping is certainly that with which a man starts and finishes his life. In the interval, the quality of a man is measured by how much or little he weeps, for weeping is the expression of a spiritual nature." "The passionate weeper," as Liu styles himself, invites readers to join him in weeping.

Liu was invoking an age-old idea: that tears are a powerful vehicle of communion among humans, or even with the cosmos. In the legend of Meng Jiangnü, a northern peasant woman goes in search of her beloved husband, a corvée laborer on the Great Wall, only to discover that he has died and been buried within it, and her weeping causes the wall to collapse.

Cultural revolutionaries of the modern era spoke of tears as a vehicle of social empowerment. One catalytic moment was the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when students and other citizens of the Republic of China, infuriated at its poor treatment under the Treaty of Versailles, demanded radical changes to Chinese culture. In 1921, activist Zheng Zhenduo called for writers to reject the traditional focus on beauty and replace it with a "literature of blood and tears" that would accurately represent the sufferings of the Chinese people.

In 1924, a popular Shanghai writer named Cheng Zhanlu published a response to the current literary trend: "A Delightful Story of Blood and Tears." He noted, by way of introducing the piece: "People nowadays who write tragic stories [aiqing xiaoshuo] always like to sprinkle them with words like blood and tears. But whether or not a story is sad is not, in fact, determined by the literal meaning of the words themselves. Today I've written a joyous story [xiqing xiaoshuo] and mixed in the word 'blood' eight times and the word 'tears' ten times. Based on the words themselves, it should be excruciating. But actually, this is a tale of not pain, but delight." Sure enough, his story is awash with tears of joy. It begins: "The blood-like sun set slowly in the west. In an upstairs apartment two newlyweds were whispering sweet nothings to each other. Their blood cells were filled with a million of the deepest passions. As blood pulsed round and round in their veins, the husband said, 'My darling.'"

Cheng's parody inverted an old cliché: if laughter is often a cover for tears, a writer can also use tears and blood to evoke laughter. "Selling tears," the scholar-writer Qian Zhongshu later remarked, has been no less useful to writers "than the courtesan's ploy of 'selling smiles.'" Even the famed "debt of tears" owed by Lin Daiyu, the tragic heroine of the canonical Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber, he said, was something of a bribe, one that used pathos as currency in an emotional transaction.

The tears–laughter pairing has remained a conspicuous part of modern Chinese culture since Wu Jianren's day, but it seems to have been a particular obsession during the early twentieth century. One of the best-selling novels of the 1930s, Zhang Henshui's Fate in Tears and Laughter (1931), invoked it as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of life. A decade later, Lin Yutang's polemical English-language book Between Tears and Laughter (1943, later translated into Chinese) used it as a symbol of intellectuals' anguished frustration. Left-leaning, politically progressive films of the 1930s, such as Sun Yu's Daybreak (1933), habitually represented the lives of the urban lower classes as tragicomic.

Modern Chinese writers have invoked blood and tears even when cracking jokes. One of the most prolific fiction writers of the Republican era went by the pen name Bao Tianxiao, or Embrace Heaven and Laugh. When he coauthored works with the writer Cold-Blooded, they combined their noms de plume into a Cold Laugh, or Sneer. The 1914 joke book Laughing Through Tears tells of a "man of conscience" who moves his audiences by weeping at the beginning of each speech; the stimulant turns out to be raw ginger hidden in his handkerchief. The Travels of Lao Can, plaintive preface notwithstanding, offers a zesty picaresque tale, and generations of readers have found it to be a very funny book.

The Chinese Communist Party turned displays of tears into a political ritual during the civil war of the late 1940s, and again during the Mao era, by organizing meetings at which the people would "speak bitterness" (suku) about hardship under the Nationalists. But a few early promoters of realism for ideological purposes became aware that tragic catharsis has its limits. In 1924, the celebrated writer Lu Xun wrote "The New-Year's Sacrifice," a short story about a peasant woman who has suffered the death of two husbands, the loss of a job, and the shock of having her young son eaten by a wolf. Xianglin's wife goes around repeating her tale of woe to fellow villagers: "I was really stupid, really ... I only knew that when it snows the wild beasts in the glen have nothing to eat and may come to the villages." At first, her story draws genuine tears and sympathetic sighs from her audience. After several retellings, however, their sympathy turns to indifference and eventually contempt. They mimic her self-reproaches and mock her to her face. Her son's fate has not changed, but tragedy has collapsed under the weight of repetition.

Stories of trauma abound in contemporary scholarship on China. Michael Berry's study A History of Pain, which takes its title from Wu Jianren's novel, chronicles a litany of traumas that have buffeted modern China from without and within since the nineteenth century. David Der-wei Wang writes of a legacy of violence that has left modern Chinese literature haunted by "the monster that is history." Wang Ban, drawing on the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, has likened modern Chinese history to an accumulation of wreckage. Official responses to historical trauma, which subscribe to a narrative of revolutionary modernization, "stare at the bloody image for a stunned moment, and then turn away to weave a narrative in a hurry, [striving] to shape nonmeaning into meaning, the absurd into the tragic, the stagnant into the progressive, the horrific into the triumphant." Writers who rejected this progressivist narrative, he continues, learned instead to "linger on such images a bit longer, collect more fragments from the wreckage, and archive them for criticism and reflection."

Another way of regarding history, as we saw with Wu Jianren's A New History of Laughter, is as an accumulation of jokes. Suffering does not always preempt laughter; it may even call for it. At the end of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Rosalind exhorts the glib-tongued nobleman Biron to use his wit not to court her but to cheer the sick and dying. Only this penance will convince her of his sincerity. He objects that "Mirth cannot move a soul in agony," but Rosalind reminds him that

A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.

Chinese writers of the early twentieth century did not need a lover's encouragement to seek humorous ways to minister to the citizens of a dying empire (or, later, a sickly republic). Many threw themselves into cheering everyone up with gusto, conceiving of uses for laughter besides the palliative. Jokes could inspire reform; playfulness could lead to new discoveries; mockery could shame the powerful into better behavior. Conversely, laughter could be a symptom of cultural illness. In one of Lu Xun's most famous stories, "Diary of a Madman" (1918), the narrator raves about seeing daggers in men's smiles in a China as hypocritical and murderous as Macbeth's Scotland. Writers spoke of laughter and tears not just as opposites but also as symbols of a complex spectrum of feeling. They did so within a literary market increasingly subdivided by genre. This may be one reason why Wu Jianren wrote separate histories of laughter and pain, rather than just consigning laughter to a supporting role in a grand drama of historical trauma.

I use the word "laughter" in this book to denote a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors ranging from amusement to buffoonery to derision. I am interested in when and why certain modes of laughter have become culturally endemic and, at times, propelled history in unexpected directions. Few would argue that China's modern experience has been primarily jolly. But its wits and wags have arrested attention and influenced public sentiment. "Humorists fatten on trouble," E. B. White noted, and in modern China there was plenty of that to go around. Even poison, the pharmacologist Li Shizhen discovered in the sixteenth century, can induce laughter if prepared with the right re cipe. And modern Chinese writers and artists have been adept at comic alchemy, converting toxic politics into nourishment for cultures of mirth.


Shixiao, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the phrase appearing in this chapter's title, means to give an inadvertent laugh, or to break into laughter. The word xiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] itself has multiple possible meanings, as a verb (to laugh, to smile, to mock), as a descriptor (laughable, ridiculous, derisive),and as a noun (laughter, smile, joke, jest). Chinese shares the semantic overlap of smile/laugh with Romance languages such as Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, and with German (lächeln, to smile; lachen, to laugh), though not with English. The graph [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is rooted in natural imagery. A love poem in the Classic of Poetry, dating back more than twenty-six hundred years, likens a young woman's fetching smile to "peach flowers blossoming bewitchingly, shining with youthful radiance." The metaphor of the smile as a flower in bloom can be found in other languages too.

Chinese characters, however, allow for unique forms of visual wordplay (more examples of which appear in chapter 3). During the Song dynasty (960–1279), the poet Su Shi once criticized the overly literal interpretations in fellow poet Wang Anshi's book Chinese Characters Explained with a riddle that alluded to an ancient form of the graph. "Why does using bamboo to beat a dog result in laughter?" (Put bamboo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] on a dog [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and you get laughter [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) Zhu Zhanji, who ruled as Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming dynasty, used a similar graphic pun in his 1427 painting A Laugh (see figure 1.1).

Shixiao, to adopt a literal reading, could mean not to lose oneself to laughter but to lose laughter itself. In Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a medieval Italian monastery leads to a copy of Aristotle's lost book on comedy. The murderer, who sees mirth as a metaphysical threat to the Benedictine order, has poisoned its pages so that readers laugh themselves to death. Discovered, he burns the book (in the process setting the entire library ablaze) so that the source of laughter is lost forever.

In "A History of Laughter," a short story by the May Fourth writer Zhu Ziqing published around the same time as Cheng Zhanlu's parody, a young woman tells how her childhood penchant for hearty laughter eroded away. She marries, and her laughter is suppressed by in-laws who demand that she conform to standards of ladylike propriety. The family falls on hard times and, step by step, her hearty laughter gives way to muted laughter, then silence, tears, and finally a numb inability to laugh or cry. Reaching abject middle age, she comes to resent the laughter of others.

The story makes an implicit call for women's liberation typical of socially progressive fiction of the 1920s. Readers responded with expressions of "inexpressible sorrow" and sympathy for the protagonist, calling her the oppressed "sacrificial object" of China's patriarchy, even as some blamed her for being too weak to cast off her slave mentality. In this story, laughter is a pathetic foil to a broader social tragedy, and Zhu's history of laughter turns out to be about its disappearance.

In the 1930s, Zhu's story was anthologized in the influential Compendium of China's New Literature, making laughter's disappearance part of the modern Chinese literary canon. Nor has the loss of laughter been purely fictional or metaphorical. When it appeared in 1902, the political reformer Liang Qichao's futuristic novel The Future of New China (discussed in chapter 3) was accompanied by playful commentaries; most later anthologies left them out, in doing so hiding Liang's participation in the bantering side of Chinese literary culture.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, every schoolchild learned that the Old Society was a time of bitter suffering; the only people who laughed in that era's propagandistic depictions of the Old Society were evil capitalists and landlords. Any other past laughter became something to explain away. At best, as symbolized by the Party-lauded satire of Lu Xun, it testified to the resilience of the Chinese people, their ability to "make merry amidst their bitter lives" (kuzhong zuole), to allow themselves a "bitter smile" (kuxiao), or to mock their tormentors.

Various local forms of comic performance, such as Beijing- and Tianjin-based xiangsheng ("face-and-voice," often rendered as "comic cross-talk") and Shanghainese farce (huaji xi), had long provided vibrant, bawdy, and often politically satirical entertainment in village marketplaces, city streets, tea houses, theaters, and, during the Republican era, on the radio as well. During the early days of the PRC, as part of the Party's rejection of elite culture in favor of popular folk traditions, scholars transcribed routines by old masters of Shanghainese farce. Yet they were compelled to "clean them up" for political correctness. As the editor of Jiang Xiaoxiao's "Ah Guan from Shaoxing Rides the Train" explained in 1958, the play had originally made fun of country bumpkins, but, as peasants were now a venerated social class, he "realigned the satirical barb" to point at the son of a rustic rich man.

In a very real sense, then, China's modern literary history is one of lost laughter. Yet, as many historians have pointed out, history is experienced differently than how it is later reconstructed as a series of events (contextualized with the benefit of historical hindsight) or transformed into myths to serve pre sent agendas. Histories of events tend to focus on the traumatic and the dramatic, rather than on everyday moments of communal or private amusement. The Old Society was a time of tears and sorrow — this is the bedrock myth on which the Communist Party after 1949 built its narrative of socialist progress. This book is a "new" history in part because the laughter of the preceding era tells a different story.

Breaking into laughter is, after all, an involuntary act. Doctors of early imperial China diagnosed excessively frequent or hearty laughter as being a symptom of mental illness, demon possession, food poisoning, poor circulation of the qi, or illness of the viscera. (A common prescription: stop laughing.) The Ming dynasty Systematic Materia Medica records pathological cases of involuntary, excessive laughter, including one woman who laughed uncontrollably for six months. In late Qing and Republican China, people laughed in spite of authoritative voices claiming either that they should not laugh or, after the fact, that they did not laugh. What a person does with the "uninvited snicker," E. B. White wrote, with hyperbole that his contemporary Lin Yutang, then hailed as China's "Master of Humor," would appreciate, "decides his destiny." Not a few Chinese writers invited snickers by parroting injunctions to gravity. Zhang Tianyi introduced his 1931 novel Ghostland Diary: "I have refrained from putting anything amusing, funny, or irreverent in this diary. My attitude has been entirely serious, so I must request that you also — read it seriously."


Excerpted from The Age of Irreverence by Christopher Rea. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Executive Preface

1. Breaking into Laughter
2. Jokes
3. Play
4. Mockery
5. Farce
6. The Invention of Humor

Appendix 1: Selected Chinese Humor Collections, 1900–1937
Appendix 2: Which Classic? Editions and Paratexts

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