Comedy and Cultural Entrepreneurship
in Xu Zhuodai’s Huaji Shanghai

By Christopher G. Rea

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 40-91

How did Shanghai laugh before the arrival of Lu Xun’s satire (fengci) or Lin Yutang’s humor (youmo)? This essay brings to light the forgotten culture of huaji (“funny”) laughter, which flourished in Shanghai’s entertainment market during the first half of the twentieth century. Though indebted to the motif of “play” (youxi) that had dominated the city’s entertainment press during the late Qing dynasty, huaji culture in the 1920s developed a distinctly gay and celebratory comic sensibility in Republican Shanghai’s increasingly diversified media environment. The catalysts for this change were cultural entrepreneurs like Xu Zhuodai, a popular fiction writer who was also an actor, editor, translator, educator, filmmaker, and businessman. Such cultural polyvalence was central to the new ethos, aesthetics, and techniques of huaji comedy. Focusing on Xu’s public personae and fictional works, Rea shows how he fostered a comic culture through parody and playful manipulation of the mass media conventions he and his readers knew so well. The essay highlights in particular the mechanism of the hoax, a world-ordering device that generates its comic payoff through an arc of deception followed by revelation. More than just a comic motif, the hoax also serves as a link between comic aesthetic and comic practice–a method of implicating and engaging the passive reader/consumer in an interactive process of cultural production. Plagiarism and false advertising, for instance, were demonstrated with glee both to make readers laugh and to prepare them for the pitfalls of the urban media. In huaji laughter, then, we see not only a comic side of Republican mass media culture, but also a highly imaginative mode for coping with the growing pains a modernizing city.