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.

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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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WEAI Author Q&A: Chuck Wooldridge’s “City of Virtues”

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We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: City of Virtues: Nanjing in an Era of Utopian Visionspublished by the University of Washington Press. The book’s author is Chuck Wooldridge, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, the City University of New York, and an associate research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. In his book, Professor Wooldridge examines the ways a series of visionaries, drawing on past glories of the Nanjing, projected their ideologies onto the city as they constructed buildings, performed rituals, and reworked its literary heritage from the late 18th century until 1911. Encompassing the Opium War, the Taiping occupation of the city, the rebuilding of the city by Zeng Guofan, and attempts to establish it as the capital of the Republic of China, City of Virtues shows how utopian visions of the cosmos shaped Nanjing’s path through the turbulent 19th century.

We thank Professor Wooldridge 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. 

How did you first become interested in this particular period in Nanjing’s history?

When I first heard about the Taiping, I was taking a course on Chinese history my junior year at Swarthmore.  The circumstances were extraordinary.  Most of the students in the seminar had been in China or Taiwan during Tiananmen, and Lillian Li, the professor, had a tremendous ability to highlight ways the past might give insight into questions about China at the time.  We would hang out after class, and I would just listen to my classmates’ stories about China. We also baked cookies; it was a good time.

I remember reading about the Taiping and it’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, and just not understanding how it was possible that a man could claim to be the younger brother of Jesus and still gain millions of supporters.   At the same time, all through 1989 and 1990, extraordinary things seemed to be happening, in particular the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. I got interested in how people can imagine that transformations might happen, and I found that I just kept returning to the Taiping.

Were “utopian visions” realized in Nanjing? Why or why not?

I should make clear that the book is about “utopian visions,” attempts to create what adherents claimed would be a wonderful and harmonious state.  Even if the visions had been fully realized, I doubt the result would have lived up to the claims.

Nanjing was never actually a utopia.  Sometimes it was quite the opposite.  At the end of the Opium War, the British threatened to bombard the city, and throughout the Taiping period it was under near constant siege.  In 1864 most of the city lay in ruins following the defeat of the Taiping.  Yet throughout the nineteenth century, different people tried to make Nanjing a place where one could see the true nature of the cosmos, could experience a form of government that perfectly reflected the reality of the world, could learn to understand the world, and could come to act in a way that would bring about utopia.  Writing about the city, constructing buildings in the city, and performing rituals, especially rituals to the dead, were the strategies employed again and again to convince people that this time would really be great.

What is the significance of the title “City of Virtues?”

Let’s say you want to bring about some radical political change.  In nineteenth-century China, you would have a number of strategies available to you.  You could, for example, try to convince the imperial court to issue edicts. You could try to create incremental change by solving particular administrative problems (for example, some scholars devoted a lot of energy to try to promote a new way of transporting grain to the capital because they thought the old system was inefficient and corrupt).  Later in the century you could study abroad, or seek help from foreigners in other ways.

In Nanjing, however, a number of groups chose a different path.  They tried to transform politics by claiming that the current world was completely out of alignment with the true nature of the cosmos.  The Taiping claimed that demons had taken over, preventing people from seeing that the world was actually a part of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  Other thinkers, borrowing in particular from Song Dynasty Learning of the Way interpretations of Chinese Classics, argued that personal selfishness had spawned a host of problems, including an imbalance of qi in the universe that helped spawn corruption, natural disaster, and troubled relations with foreigners.  Later in the century, inspired by the writings of the visionary Confucian thinker Kang Youwei, others imagined an eventual “Great Harmony.”

These various groups had radically different visions of the cosmos, but they shared a common strategy for communicating their ideas.  They claimed that only truly virtuous people could effect meaningful political transformation. The truly virtuous could see the true nature of the cosmos, and thus knew the right things to do.  So to win adherents to your political cause, you created models of virtuous action.  If people followed these models, they would come to see your political program as true, and in so doing, they would condemn the politics of your opponents. As a result, as Nanjing is destroyed and rebuilt several times in the nineteenth century, each time allows leaders to use the city to depict the true nature of the cosmos and the kind of actions that would bring about a utopia.

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What kind of sources and archives did you consult in writing this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

The sources for this book are quite diverse. First I created a database of everybody I could identify as having Nanjing as their native place, and I tried to track down all their extant writings.  Then I made a list of gazetteers of the city, and went through them.  Then I located accounts of the Taiping in the city. Then I went to Taipei and Beijing to go through the archives there.  And after all that, I still didn’t really have the story down.  The period of rebuilding the city after the Taiping was still a big blank.

It took me a long time to fill the hole.  Natives of Nanjing had mostly been too poor after the war to contribute much to rebuilding, and there was very little recorded in Qing government archives.  It turned out that Zeng Guofan, the architect of the Taiping defeat, had not used official channels to manage the rebuilding, but had instead employed an extensive, informal network of logistical support.  So a lot of people were involved who, at first glance, seemed to have no connection to Nanjing.

Then there are a lot of odds and ends: poetry, ritual manuals, and letters. I had a good time reading prefaces to different books to figure out how certain manuscripts had survived the Taiping War.  My favorite source is a catalog of the archive of the governor-general’s office.  Apparently the archive was extant as of 1937, and the catalog lists all kinds of different bureaus responsible for different aspects of urban administration. Sadly, the archive itself seems to be lost, and I could only make very limited use of the catalog.

Are there any cities – whether in China or elsewhere – that you think are being shaped by utopian visions today?

I argue in my book that all the individual elements of nineteenth-century political strategies are still around, but people have not thus far combined them.  I don’t know that promoting a vision of cosmic harmony would be desirable, but I do think it is still possible.  Groups promoting religious visions of change have mostly been suppressed, and therefore have not been able to shape contemporary cityscapes in quite the same way.  Protests, as for example recently in Hong Kong, have made use of urban geography, but not linked it (so far as I know) to cosmology.

The most powerful vision of the future shaping China today, including Nanjing, is neoliberalism.  Most of the neighborhoods I visited while the research for this book have been torn down in the name of economic development, which promises a future of prosperity with a vehemence that I find utopian.

WEAI Author Q&A: Shellen Wu’s “Empires of Coal”

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We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920published by Stanford University Press. The book’s author is Shellen Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In this study about the international battle over control of China’s coal reserves, Professor Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.

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

What first drew you to the topic of Western interests in China’s coal reserves?

I first read the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen’s writings years ago and found them fascinating. Here’s a Prussian aristocrat traveling extensively in China right after the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s with his Indian tea (he didn’t like Chinese tea, thought it too weak) and American whiskey and writing down all his impressions, as well as long reports on mineral deposits in the interior to send to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. His expeditions took place at a time when very few Westerners went beyond the legation quarters of Beijing. Richthofen eventually coined the term “silk road” and correctly hypothesized the origin of loess in the North China Plains, the two things for which he is most known for today.  He also wrote a lot about coal in China.

I made the connection between Richthofen and the turning point in Western interest in Chinese coal, and realized that he was pivotal to a changing perception of China by the late nineteenth century. We know the expression “not for all the tea in China.” Richthofen and his writings led many in the West to see China not just as a source of luxury goods like tea and silks, but also as a place with vast reserves of coal. This shift in view in turn led to a Great Race between European and American companies and Chinese interests to be the first to develop these mineral reserves and reap the profits.

What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in researching this study? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this topic?

I used a number of archives and published documents, including the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the Hubei Provincial Archives, eight volumes of Qing documents related to mining published by Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the German Foreign Ministry Archives. It turns out that the Germans kept extensive documentation of expats in China and records of German engineers who worked at one of the earliest iron foundries and modern coalmines established in China. Everyone, the Germans, the British, and Qing officials, were keenly aware of the importance of coal to the process of industrialization.

Doing these kinds of new global histories requires language skills and a lot of travel. Research for the book took me to three continents, Europe, the US, and Asia, and turned up massive amounts of materials. The very abundance of archival and published document sources turned into the main challenge. Mining engineers’ reports don’t make for the most exciting reading. It was a very unwieldy process to weed through all this material and distill it into a 200 -page monograph.

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During your research, did any of your findings surprise you or change the way you thought about the history of China—or about the history of the West–during this era?

We take for granted now that we live in an age of globalization, but it’s quite surprising how much ground people covered in the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans traveled extensively in China before the railroads were built; at a slightly later period, Chinese students and Qing officials traveled abroad to Europe and North America. Far from one sided, everyone was observing and studying everyone else and people were open minded in a way that I don’t think many of us are even today.

How are the global trends detailed in your book relevant for our contemporary times? 

I detail in my book the process of industrialization and the creation of a new mindset necessary for China’s switch to a coal based economy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was apparent to officials, intellectuals, and writers then that if they didn’t seize control of Chinese mineral resources, they might lose it to the acquisitive expansion of Western imperialism. Today we are living with the consequences of that transition. The intensive exploitation of coal and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese economy has resulted in extensive environmental damage. Even studies conducted by the Chinese government show that up to 20% of the farmland in the country to be dangerously polluted, much of it from heavy metals and the run-off from ecologically damaging mining practices. The global trends begun during the period covered in book are extremely important to understanding these contemporary problems.

How would you like your book to affect people’s understanding about China’s history?

I’ve always found China to be similar to the US in that it’s a very big country and a place where it’s very easy to focus exclusively on local and, at a stretch, national concerns. My book is part of a growing movement taking place in Sinology. More and more of us are examining the various connections both within and beyond China’s borders, as part of particular global turns in history. I would like my book to help open up the horizons of people’s understanding of Chinese history and to see China in the context of global changes in the way we use and exploit natural resources to produce the energy that makes modern life possible.

April 22 Event: “Human Rights Under Xi Jinping: Is There Room for Optimism?” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the April 22, 2015 event “Human Rights Under Xi Jinping: Is There Room for Optimism?” The event featured a lecture by Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch.  Her talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event Dr. Richardson talked about the current situation of human rights in China and possible future outcomes resulting from the present Chinese leadership. Professor Nathan and she also discussed careers in the field of human rights.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

 

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April 1 Event: “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the April 1, 2015 event “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy.” The event featured a lecture by Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute.  His talk was moderated by Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University.

During the event, Dr. Pillsbury, who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, talked about his new book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, published by Henry Holt. He also discussed his background as an adviser about China to several presidential administrations, from the Nixon presidency to the Obama presidency.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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February 23 Event: “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution:” Photos and Audio


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Photographs and audio are now available from the February 23, 2015 event “Speech and Media Freedom – New Lessons of the Umbrella Revolution.” The event featured a lecture by Margaret Ng, who is a noted politician, barrister, writer, and columnist in Hong Kong. Dr. Ng’s lecture was moderated by Benjamin L. Liebman, Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, and Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School. 

During the lecture and the discussion afterward, Dr. Ng addressed current legal issues in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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February 4 Event: “Chinese Dreams and Chinese Nightmares, 1989 to 2014:” Photos and Audio

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Photographs and audio are now available from the February 4, 2015 event “Chinese Dreams and Chinese Nightmares, 1989 to 2014.” The standing-room only event featured a lecture by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History, University of California, Irvine. Professor Wasserstrom’s lecture was moderated by David Stark, Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Columbia University. 

During the lecture and the discussion afterward, Professor Wasserstrom addressed the following questions: How has the Chinese Communist Party stayed in power so long after similar organizations fell in Eastern and Central Europe?  Are the strategies that it has been using to deal with protest since 1989 still effective?  What makes Xi Jinping similar to and different from his immediate predecessors?  Referring to a range of photographs and illustrations, Professor Wasserstrom discussed the different sorts of dreams that inspire hope and nightmares and that can cause anxiety among various groups within the People’s Republic of China, from officials in Beijing to students in Hong Kong, from migrant workers in Dongguan to Uyghurs in Urumqi.

The event was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and The Harriman Institute. It was part of Harriman’s 2014-15 series “Learning from Transition: From the Local to the Global: Who is Learning From Whom?” and it was led by Professor Stark and postdoctoral fellow Elena Krumova.

For audio of the event on iTunes, please click here.

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