The outside world mostly does not know China for its humor, although it adopted a Chinese variation youmo. Journalist Ian Johnson discusses with Christopher Rea, author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China, at the New York Times humor in China.
China isn’t usually thought of as a funny place.
State repression is one reason for that. China’s leaders are deathly afraid of ridicule. And the China story has, for various reasons, tended to emphasize suffering, struggle and grievance. This is what’s so refreshing about writers like Qian Zhongshu, who had an ear for wordplay, a nose for “ingenious disingenuousness” and the guts for scorched-earth satire. China in the early 20th century — my book’s focus — was, to put it mildly, a rough and tumble place. But it fostered a whole industry of mirth populated with cultural figures from hack jokesters to respectable writers slumming it as humorists.
It seems that many Chinese humorists back then turned to cursing. Why?
For a couple reasons. First, a print culture boom made disputes public as never before. Now you’re taking down your adversary not in a teahouse, but in the newspaper. Slights and sarcasm quickly escalate to name-calling and character assassination. Writers with a penchant for funny insults became famous as “renowned revilers” — ming ma — cursing celebrities, if you will. Second, early 20th-century China was a violent place of rampaging militarists, political assassinations, foreign invasion and crushing poverty. Many critics felt that extreme conditions called for extreme rhetoric. Hypocrites, traitors and wimps became objects of contempt.
Can you share an example that could be printed in a family newspaper?
In 1923, when the northern warlord Cao Kun bribed his way into the third presidency of the Republic of China, Wu Zhihui, one of the founders of the Chinese Nationalist Party, called him the “sperm president.” Wu reportedly explained this epithet as follows: If a man could turn each of his sperm into a human in one go, Cao could have just had his millions of descendants elect him and saved all the money he spent on bribes.
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Ian Johnson will publish in 2017 his book on religion in China, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao