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.


Photographs and a Report From Former Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu’s Lecture


Photographs and a report are available here from the April 23, 2014 event My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power, which featured the former Vice President of the Republic of China Annette Lu (Lu Hsiu-lien) and was moderated by Weatherhead East Asian Institute professor Andrew J. Nathan. The event was co-sponsored by the APEC Study Center and Taiwan Focus.

Former Vice President of the Republic of China Annette Lu spoke at Columbia University on April 23 about her new book My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power. The standing-room only event, held in the East Gallery of Buell Hall, was co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (WEAI), the APEC Study Center, and Taiwan Focus. Her lecture was moderated by Andrew Nathan, the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. The book’s co-author, Ashley Esarey, who earned his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia, also spoke. Lu—who has experienced imprisonment as well as election to the vice presidency– spoke candidly about her life, saying “everyone has stories to tell, some good, some bad.”

Lu said that her career in politics began in Harvard Law School when word spread about the United States ceasing its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and her law professor, Jerome A. Cohen, urged her to return to Taiwan. When she arrived in Taipei, she helped found the magazine Meilidao (Furmosa Magazine) in opposition to the Guomindang Party (KMT). KMT crackdowns on the magazine sparked a pro-democracy movement.

At a pro-democracy protest, which coincided with an International Human Rights Day rally, Lu was arrested along with other leaders of the opposition. Eventually, 152 were arrested and 51 were sentenced to prison. Her twenty minute speech at the rally resulted in a twelve year jail sentence. “I didn’t expect the price to be so high,” she said. On the first day of the trial, she said that she retracted her testimony, “a watershed moment” that shocked the media and encouraged other defendants to overturn their testimonies. Before the trial, they were criticized by the journalists and public, but after, journalists reported truthfully about what they heard in the court. Their testimonies, according to Lu, “opened people’s eyes to the injustice of autocracy.”


Lu said that the trial inspired more men and women to become active in politics, culminating with the establishment of the first opposition party: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Twenty years later, in 2000, she campaigned with Chen Shui-bian and won the election. “People used to see economic prosperity as a miracle, I will say that Taiwan’s democracy is another miracle,” she said in relation to Taiwan’s history.

Looking back on Taiwan’s history, she discussed the Treaty of Shiminoseki, which– until the end of World War II–marked Japanese occupation of the country. Chiang Kai-shek’s arrival brought war and economic depression, where martial law was established and used by the KMT to monitor its citizens. Political discussion and activities were inhibited due to the presence of KMT spies. Lu mentioned being spied on by one of her classmates while studying at Harvard in 1977. “It was amazing how horrible it was,” Lu said about that period of time. She described how journalists and intellectuals were all repressed.

Lu reflected on this grim history in order to contrast it with the present. She said that the Sunflower Student Movement has begun a new phase of Taiwanese democracy. The movement has opposed the current president Ma Ying-jeou’s secret negotiations for a cross-strait agreement with the People’s Republic of China. Additionally, she said that the recent annexation of Crimea has revived fears of a Chinese annexation of Taiwan. At a time when “Taiwan had almost been forgotten,” the movement made headlines internationally. There were moments of confrontation in the movement, but, according to Lu, it has remained largely peaceful. She said she spent a night with the protestors, “watching and listening, rather than speaking.” Lu said she was very proud of all their achievements, especially the achievements of women.

Lu has long been an advocate for women in Taiwan, even running a coffee shop to provide a center for women’s activity and founding the “good housekeeper’s project.” She said that there have been massive gains in women’s rights during her lifetime, during which the numbers of women with a college education in Taiwan have increased ten-fold. Women’s participation in business and politics has increased concurrently. Leaders have taken a number of measures to protect women legally and to create more equitable policies, she noted.

Lu concluded by saying she is very proud of Taiwan’s development in two specific areas: nonviolent democratization and women’s emancipation. She said in this five-decade struggle, “the process was bitter, but that the fruit was delicious.” Although she has faced a number of difficult challenges, including an assassination attempt, cancer, and prison, she said that “I’m proud that I have never surrendered.”