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

By Christopher Rea

Reviewed by David Moser
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2018)

Christopher Rea, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. ix-xvi + 335 pp. ISBN: 9780520283848 (Hardcover: $70.00)

Chinese Humor and its Discontents

A generation ago, China scholars were to be forgiven for having the impression that Chinese culture suffered from a puzzling humor deficit. Much was made of the fact that the Chinese word for “humor” youmo 幽默 is borrowed from English (in the same way the loan word luoji 逻辑 “logic” was used as evidence that Chinese philosophy lacked this feature as well). Anthologies of Chinese folk humor were usually just joke collections framed as anthropological data (usually badly translated) rather than case studies of laughter. Early popularizing books on Chinese humor tended to merely highlight nuggets of subtle irony mined from Zhuangzi or Dream of the Red Chamber, or to cherry pick passages from the works of a Lao She or Lu Xun. This paucity of examples left the impression that Chinese culture may have produced a few gems of gentle mockery, but the full, variegated range of what we call “humor”—particularly humor that is irreverent, challenging, and even cathartic—was simply not in the Chinese cultural DNA.

Christopher Rea, in one masterful stroke, dispels all these mis-impressions and simplistic characterizations in his book The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter, winner of the 2017 Joseph Levenson prize. Rea has uncovered treasure troves of humor from the late Qing and Republican era previously overlooked by Chinese scholars, offering a variegated grab bag of eye-opening historical materials that are both delightful and revelatory. Part of Rea’s success in discovering these obscure veins of humor was in simply knowing where to look. Reminiscent of the old joke about the drunken chap looking for his keys under the street light instead of the place where he lost them, because “the light is better there,” previous humor researchers have tended to look for humor in terrains that were already well illuminated. Rea’s genius was to search out the authentic humor of the late Qing and Republican era where it was actually present, in the less respectable formats: tabloids, joke books, cartoons, satirical novels, slapstick theater, novelty photographs, comedy films, popular magazines, and the like—the sort of “low brow” stuff that is quickly digested and tossed aside. In retrospect, it might seem obvious that the bulk of the era’s humor output was more likely to be found in such “sub-literary“ forms that were, quite literally, not meant to be taken seriously. It took a scholar of Rea’s caliber to do the yeoman’s work of unearthing these long-buried cultural artifacts and, with the patience of a paleontologist, to classify and categorize the specimens.

Rea’s choice of turn-of-the-century China is also a significant decision, for there seems to have been a veritable explosion of humor in all its forms during this period. What accounts for this flourishing of laughter? Ironically, Rea prefaces his book with a reverie on tears and tragedy; the early decades of the twentieth century, after all, were not exactly the stuff of light-hearted mirth. The “age of irreverence” of which he writes was an era of uncertainty and traumatic change, a time when all the Chinese cultural orthodoxies were being challenged or overturned. The laughter and the woe blended together; the phrase “not knowing whether to laugh or cry” (哭笑不得) applied. It was also a period of conflict and conflagration, when humor was used a political weapon to wage war against antagonists in the cultural sphere. It is no wonder the teahouses of the time had a sign on the wall reading “Don’t talk politics” (莫談國事).

The Age of Irreverence provides the reader with a broad sampling of various media from the late Qing and Republican eras, the fruits of years of of archival research. The variety of humor examples is both kaleidoscopic and revelatory. Techniques and formats range from scathing political cartoons (a moon cake, symbolizing China, being devoured by maggots clustering into configurations resembling the Chinese characters for “Japan,” “England,” and “Russia”), whimsical trick photography (double-exposure photos in which the same person could appear in the frame in two different roles, such as master and servant), parodies of Tang poems in which the content is altered to profane effect (the exiled court singer of a Du Fu poem is replaced with a common street prostitute), bilingual character play (the English word “hand“ covering up the Chinese character kou 口, “mouth,” a criticism of foreigners stifling Chinese discourse), and so on.

Across these varied creative expressions, every technique in the humor toolbox is employed, including mockery, parody, imitation, spoof, exaggeration, invective, and sarcasm. The sheer scope of the material Rea juggles in this book is so varied and rich that even the most historically informed reader would need some kind of framework to make sense of it all. Rea has come up with a category scheme that works quite well, dividing the kinds of humor into jokes (笑話), play (游戲), mockery (罵人), and farce (滑稽), and of course humor (幽默). Rea informs us that at some point during the time frame in question, each of these terms was employed as a catchall term for humor in general. Like all category schemes, this one also leaks, but at least it provides the reader a foothold into what is very slippery territory. His five categories, like the Five Elements of fengshui theory, intermingle and interpenetrate, at various times assuming prominence while at others receding into the mix.

The spirit of the “play” category occupied the culture for the last few decades of the Qing dynasty. Writers and artists experimented with whimsical and rebellious new literary devices, experimental genres, cartoons, puzzles, and visual puns. There was also an influx of new technologies during this time, and the Chinese began to play with their newfound “toys” (玩意), things like cameras, trick photography, gadgets, funhouse mirrors, film special effects, and so on.

“Play” also encompassed “word games” (文字遊戲), puns, riddles, and character play, for which the Chinese language and script is marvelously facilitative, and here is one of the great delights of the book. For readers with a love for linguistic humor (yours truly included), the examples of language and character play documented in the book are great fun. Rea is a meticulous translator, and he does a masterful job of rendering and explaining the intricacies of the verbal and visual puns. Many of the jokes involve the deconstruction and rearrangement of the Chinese character components (similar to the fortune-tellers art of glyphomancy, chaizi 拆字), which presents virtually insoluble translation problems, yet Rea seems ever capable of arriving at renditions that convey both the form and content of the humor to the reader.

Examples of such wordplay are intricate and involved. When the Qing court rescinded on a 1906 promise to draft a constitution, a newspaper published a calligraphic figure of the four-character idiom “[just] an empty dream” (空生夢想) and, by stacking these characters on top of each other and highlighting selected components, fused them into the character for “constitution” (憲), the character shapes themselves implying that constitutionalism was a mere pipe dream. Yuan Shikai’s name was also the object of such character shenanigans. The character for “ape” (猿) was often substituted for Yuan’s surname, the two characters being homonyms, and Yuan was often caricatured as an ape in cartoons. One publication removed the top of the character for Yuan Shikai’s surname, 袁, creating the character ai 哀 “mourning,” thus forecasting the leader’s reign would end in sorrow.

Part of the fun for the contemporary reader, of course, is that such language games presage the kind twenty-first century Internet wordplay devised by Chinese netizens to confound censorship mechanisms. One can’t help but be reminded of the recent online cat-and-mouse censorship avoidance tactics, where website contributors would post images of “river crabs” (河蟹), the characters for which were close homonyms for the word “harmony” (和谐), thus poking fun at Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” slogan. And like the word satirists of the early Republican era, current Chinese bloggers also “chop off the heads” of sensitive characters to disguise their meaning, e.g., decapitating the two characters in “democracy” (民主) to result in the harmless string 氏王 as a coded reference. It is historically instructive to be reminded that the “new” Internet slang is merely the latest incarnation of a centuries-old tradition of manipulating Chinese characters to insert subversive political messages into the discourse.

Rea’s treatment of his “mockery” category (perhaps better translated as “invective”) also invites comparisons to the present day. The book’s depiction of the era’s sometimes very profane public rhetoric will be eye-opening for most historians who have only examined the usual anthologized material of the time. The extremes of obscene invective that made it to print are, frankly, quite startling. New Culture movement intellectuals passed around an obscure book written in the mid-Qing dynasty entitled Which Classic? (何典), a ribald novel that ruthlessly mocked classical tradition, presenting a litany of explicit scatological and sexual scenarios Rabelaisian in their excess. Advertisements for the book promised that the content would make readers “spit out their rice” in disgust. Writers waged literary battles with innuendo so caustic as to make the recent Internet “grass-mud horse” (草泥馬) meme look like a tired old nag. It seems that during this turbulent era cursing in print became quite fashionable among intellectuals, among whom swearing was equated with egalitarianism and an attack on elite culture. Lu Xun, for one, defended the widespread use of the “national curse” (他媽的) because its use transcended class boundaries, and no less a figure than Lin Yutang said that writers should aspire to “curse skillfully and artistically” so as to encourage a kind of “healthy belligerency.”

The book’s most memorable example of the spirit of invective is Wu Zhihui, one of the founders of the Kuomintang, an anarchist, polemicist, language reformer, and a famed public potty-mouth. One would seemingly have to go to current US social firebrands such as Howard Stern for adequate parallels. Wu pulled no punches with his attacks on the Qing regime, calling the Manchus a “dog-fucked race” and reviling the Empress Dowager as a “withered old hag” and a “whore.” In fact, in 1903 Wu had to flee to Europe to avoid retaliation for an obscene tirade against the Empress Dowager that he published in a Shanghai newspaper. While in the safety of Europe he merely ramped up the raunchy ferocity of his attacks, publishing a satirical piece in which Cixi denigrates the New Revolutionary Party with the insult “their three thousand Mausers couldn’t stand up to half our old Li Lianying’s shriveled dick.” (Li Lianying being Cixi’s favorite court eunuch.) Such quips gained growing notoriety for the writer, and a loyal fan base quickly arose, eagerly anticipating the latest lurid bon mot from “Old Wu.”

The reader accustomed to the generally prudish tone of Chinese public discourse may wonder how this stuff ever saw the light of day. Rea paints the historical backdrop well: popular publications were uncensored in part because governance itself was so chaotic. All the unseemly discourse in the low-level publications also fed into literary culture, since most fiction and essays appeared first in magazines or newspapers, thus blurring the line between popular and elite literature.

Into this chaotic mix came Lin Yutang, who in a series of 1924 essays was the first to introduce the Western term “humor“ into the social discourse. Lin called for a new cultural sensibility in which humor, in its rightful sense, would displace the raucous and vulgar discourse of the time. Lin maintained that the Chinese people possessed a sense of humor, but it had been prevented from developing naturally, resulting in its current debased state. For Lin, humor was an essential human impulse, a humanistic virtue, one that should be a constructive force in the intellectual and artistic life of a society. But for him, China’s elite writers had become pretentious and moralistic, unable to employ humor naturally as a literary device, while popular satire had devolved into shallow, clownish excess.

Due to Lin Yutang’s influence, in the 1920s humor became the focus of much public debate. Scholarly articles began to appear discussing the differences between “humor,” “satire,” and “irony” and questioning which aspects should be a part of respectable intellectual discourse. The subject of humor became all the rage. What was this concept of “humor” all about? What was its social role? Was it a Western notion, or was it a cultural universal? And did the Chinese people lack a sense of humor?

There was at least some reason to wonder whether humor itself might be some kind of foreign import. China was suddenly awash in all forms of foreign humor. One of the realizations that arises from the book—and something China scholars need to be periodically reminded of—is that China has never been as culturally isolated and independent of foreign influence as is often assumed. Since the mid-1800s British expats published magazines in the style of the London satirical magazine Punch, and there were foreign-language humor publications such as The Rattle that were widely read by both expats and Chinese alike. A publication called the Analects Fortnightly featured foreign cartoons reprinted from The New Yorker and Colliers, with bilingual captions. The movies of Charlie Chaplin were being shown in theaters, and the humor of Will Rogers and George Bernard Shaw were not unknown to Chinese audiences.

Rea’s examples also show that much of the satire of the Chinese humorists was directed at Chinese culture itself. Given the repeated shocks that Chinese culture had undergone in the previous decades, this sort of self-directed parody is perhaps not surprising. Self-deprecating humor is a psychological tactic often employed defensively by marginalized or persecuted groups. (Scholars have noted, for example, the self-mocking quality of much Jewish humor.) An example from the book is the essay entitled “The Opium Addict as Master of the Sciences,” which sets out to prove that “the sick man of Asia” is actually an expert in every field of scientific endeavor: “Chemistry: He processes raw opium into smokable paste. . . Philosophy: He lies peacefully and lets his mind wander. Ethics: The scene of wife, concubines and children chatting nonchalantly as he lies passed out on the couch is one of domestic harmony,” and so on. Readers at the time must have squirmed uncomfortably as they laughed at the satire.

Whether the reader is a scholar of this period or merely a reader interested in Chinese humor, this book is a true delight, whether you merely wish to peruse it or delve deeply into it. The book is a model of scholarship, clarity, and academic rigor. The translations are meticulous, masterful, and helpful to Sinologists and non-specialists alike. The sources and appendices take up half the book’s length, but are essential to the full appreciation of the text. Readers shouldn’t skip the chapter notes; they are a rich trove of historical detail and “meta-punch lines.”

For the cultural historian, what The Age of Irreverence provides is a fascinating record of culture in crisis, challenged to rethink its very geopolitical identity, and turning to humor in all its forms as a way of psychologically processing and coping with the uncertainty of the times. From the purveyors of popular culture to the elite scholars, all were channeling humor into a social palliative that was everything laughter should be: cathartic, distracting, disruptive, subversive, consoling, empowering, and ultimately liberating. In this sense, the humor of the time, in all its manifestations, was fulfilling the very transformative role on society that Lin Yutang had envisioned. “This I conceive to be the chemical function of humor,” Lin wrote in 1937, “to change the character of our thought.” And messy as the social context was, the malaise of the time created a fertile environment for humor that became a catalyst for new ways of thinking, and new ways to approach a Chinese modernity.

The book concludes, as it began, with a mixture of laughter and tragedy, a brief coda entitled “Laughing to Death” (笑死).  The book’s historical survey ends just before the Mao period, and it’s a stark fact that humorists have not done well since 1949—the fate of Lao She being one of the most egregious examples. Despite the fact that the CCP, like all authoritarian regimes, is quite allergic to humor, real laughter is still able to enjoy brief moments of flourishing in the society. Rea notes that Mao, while pronouncing that “the satire should continue,” nevertheless insisted it should be counterbalanced with a dose of “praise” (歌頌) or what in Xi Jinping’s China would be called “positive energy” (正能量). The tragedy is that, the kind of humanistic, liberating humor envisioned by Lin Yutang has been problematized—and crippled—in the PRC. One of the provocative aspects of reading The Age of Irreverence is the unspoken counterfactual question that the book evokes: “What would Chinese humor look like in the current moment if it were unshackled from the CCP censorship apparatus?” The answer is that we will never know. Reading Rea’s book is great fun, but the historical account also points to a sad irony: humor in public discourse in early twenty-first century China is arguably more restricted than it was in the early twentieth century. As freewheeling and transformative as “the age of irreverence” was, China is not likely to experience another one any time soon.

David Moser
Yenching Academy at Peking University