WEAI Author Q&A: Christopher Rea’s “The Age of Irreverence”

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We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in Chinapublished by the University of California Press. The book’s author is Christopher Rea, associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia.

In his book, Professor Rea 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).

Professor 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.

In addition to its endorsements by scholars, Professor Rea’s book has been hailed by famed comedian Eric Idle, who provided the blurb: “I am confident that it is the finest in its field to include a lyric by me.”

We thank Professor Rea for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

Why did you decide to write a book about laughter in China?

Funny you should ask. Partly because I watched a lot of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers growing up. I loved their mix of silliness, absurdism, and zaniness, and I later came to appreciate the esoteric jokes and double entendres. So I like comedy that works at multiple levels. When I started studying Chinese in college I found it to be a fabulously funny language, with all the pithiness and punning. In graduate school I read early twentieth-century writers like Ding Xilin, Lin Yutang, Lu Xun, and Qian Zhongshu who are hilarious because they’re such meticulous stylists. Then I discovered that period’s vast humor industry of tabloids, cartoons, amusement halls, plays, novelty photographs, films, and the like. Popular culture was quite vaudevillian back then, and it convinced me that hacks and entrepreneurs can be taste-makers too. So it was really a process of discovery. My goal then became to weave it all into a readable cultural history.

Why do you characterize the time period covered in your book—the 1890s to the 1930s—as an “age of irreverence?” 

Because nothing seemed to be sacred anymore. Some people wanted to dump China’s cultural traditions and others clamored to save or reform them, but they all agreed that the old authorities weren’t being taken as seriously as before. The popular press was democratizing public opinion. Thousands of people were moving to the cities, and all the new magazines and newspapers were hungry for content that would catch readers. So they offered a steady stream of jokes, parodies, and cartoons, and raucous commentary. Public figures became objects of open contempt. The Manchus were vermin, President Yuan Shikai was an ape, and Cao Kun, who bribed his way into the presidency in 1923, became known (for reasons I explain in the book) as the “sperm president.”

Was there much censorship?

Censorship was uneven. The press was frothy in part because governance was so chaotic. All the derision, flippancy, and farcicality in public debate also fed into literary culture, since most literary works appeared first in magazines or newspapers. But it wasn’t a pure free-for-all. Writers and cartoonists who offended powerful people were frequently assassinated. In the 1920s and 1930s, the writer Lin Yutang began promoting youmo (humor) partly as a self-deprecating mode that would allow him to criticize the government without getting shot. At the same time, he wanted this new comic sensibility to supplant those he considered to be less civilized.

What kinds of sources did you use in your research? 

The early twentieth-century Chinese humor market was international and multilingual—cartoonists read Punch and filmmakers produced slapstick shorts with English subtitles and foreign actors—so my sources reflect this. I mostly relied on a few dozen periodicals, in Chinese, English, and French, published in China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Europe, and North America. I read novels, essays, scripts of stage plays, joke books, and mixed-genre humor collections. Some of these were canonical works of literature; others were ephemera often thought of as sub-literary. I also looked at films, cartoons, and photographs printed in magazines and on postcards. Databases have been making materials from this period more and more accessible, but I sought out originals where available, which led to some important discoveries.

You organize your book around five “cultural expressions of laughter”: jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor. Why?

I wanted to write a history of Chinese comedy from the inside out, so I focused on a few key terms that had particular resonance during one era. All of the chapter titles are bilingual, and with the exception of maren (mockery), each of the key terms—xiaohua (jokes), youxi (play), huaji (farce), and youmo (humor)— at one time stood for “humor” or “comedy” in a general sense. That’s the broad map. But the fun is in the details of how, for example, late Qing writers tried to modernize the joke. Or why popular writers in Shanghai were so obsessed with hoaxes. Or how polemicists in the 1920s and 1930s tried to discredit opponents by claiming that their criticism and satire was really just invective. The book’s in English, obviously, but I try to give readers a sense of how comic categories have been defined, blurred, and policed in Chinese.

How would you describe youmo—the concept of humor that highbrow writers promoted in the early decades of the Republic?  How successful were they in spreading youmo in Chinese popular culture? 

It was really quite audacious: China had all of these rich comic traditions, and then along comes Lin Yutang, who launches a bilingual campaign to change everyone’s sense of humor. To Lin, China’s jokesters were trivial, its mockers beyond the pale, and its farceurs buffoonish. Writers who took themselves seriously, on the other hand, tended to be insufferable moralists. The result was a polarized cultural climate that neither understood nor had room for humor. To be humorous was to be reasonable and tolerant. It was to catch fancies in flight and ground them, and to respond to human folly with an “understanding smile.” Virtually everyone who was anyone in 1930s China had something to say about Lin’s modest proposal, and I spend some time on these polemics, which are fascinating in themselves. But in the short run, “humor literature” carried the day, and in the long run, youmo became the word for humor in Chinese.


What findings surprised you most in the course of your research?

I was impressed by the variety of comedic styles and techniques I came across, a lot of which are still popular today. There’s an existing humor canon from the period, but it’s a rather tame one. Edgy, vulgar, and obscene works rarely got anthologized. Reading some of those now requires a strong stomach (as does revisiting, say, American minstrel shows from the same period). I also was struck by how many A-list intellectuals like Wang Guowei, Liang Qichao, Wu Zhihui, and Lu Xun became humorists or humor theorists. And as the humor collections I dug out got into the hundreds, I became more and more surprised that no one had studied them, so I ended up cataloguing them in an appendix. There’s a treasure trove out there for future researchers.

How did the cultures of laughter you describe in the book change after 1949?

I’m working on a new book called The Unfinished Comedy, which I hope will answer that question. It’ll pick up the story in the 1930s. War with Japan in 1937 scattered China’s humorists, and many of them ended up roaming the interior or fleeing overseas. You have guerrilla satire taking off during the Anti-Japanese War and a lot of pulp publishing (especially of comic books) during the Civil War. Then, after the communists took over in 1949, humorists were literally institutionalized by being folded into the new cultural bureaucracy. Not a recipe for edgy humor, to be sure, but top-down control was imperfect in the 1950s and some funny stuff did slip through the cracks. Scholars did important research on classical joke collections during the Mao era and translated a lot of western humorists, like Mark Twain. And—this surprised me too—not all of the government-sponsored humor sucked.

Finally, how did you get Eric Idle to endorse the book?   

Eric Idle has always been a great fan of mine. He loved my films, such as Christopher Rea and the Holy Grail and Christopher Rea’s The Meaning of Life, and he’s watched every episode of my TV show, Christopher Rea’s Flying Circus. When he heard that I was writing a book, naturally he wanted to be the first to endorse it. So, the simplest answer would be: a polite request, followed shortly by a gracious response.


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