A man on roller skates entertains a crowd. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The use of humor is as common in China as it is elsewhere in the world. From the ancient philosophers to contemporary television, from political satire to regional insults, humor has always been a part of Chinese culture.
Playful writing and amusing anecdotes survive from China’s earliest times, and they continued to be produced throughout the imperial era (221 BCE–1912 CE). As in other cultures, humor has served a variety of purposes in Chinese history, including entertainment, cultural criticism, personal denigration, and bolstering group solidarity against outsiders. It is important to study humor, therefore, for a fuller appreciation of the complexity, tensions, and joys of Chinese life over the ages.
Zhuangzi on Confucius
The most famous and influential humorist of ancient China was the philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 369–286 BCE), whose eponymous writings are considered one of the two primary texts of Daoism (the other being the mystical Daodejing). Zhuangzi used playful parables, parody, and clever wordplay to mock other philosophers’ beliefs in the power of human reason. According to Zhuangzi, people’s understanding of the world is always restricted by their own limited perspective, just as a frog in a well cannot see more than a small patch of the sky or a sleeping man has no way of knowing that he is not the butterfly he dreams himself to be. Zhuangzi’s stories have delighted Chinese readers for generations and served as models of humorous writing.
A chief target of Zhuangzi’s wit was an earlier prominent philosopher, Confucius (551–479 BCE). In contrast to Daoists like Zhuangzi, who believed in living in intuitive harmony with the natural order, Confucius promoted a strict code of ethics and social hierarchy. Confucius is often depicted as a rather stern teacher, but there is evidence in the conversations with his disciples recorded in the Analects that he, too, had a sense of humor. One of the most amusing images from ancient China was actually produced to illustrate the Confucian ethical principle that one should be respectful to one’s parents: A stone carving in the funeral shrine of the Confucian scholar Wu Liang, constructed during the second century CE, relates the well-known story of a seventy-year-old filial son persuading his even more elderly parents that they are still young by acting like an infant.
Confucianism and Humor
Since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Confucianism has tended to dismiss humor, seeing it as incompatible with sincere devotion to ethical principles. The female historian and writer Ban Zhao (c. 45–116 CE) stated that a good woman should shun jokes and laughter and solemnly devote herself to serving her husband and his parents. Some Confucian scholars criticized as frivolous all humorous popular novels and plays, which were often banned by governments that tended to adopt the most rigid Confucian perspective on humor as subversive of the social order. Even whimsical poetry did not escape the attacks of sterner Confucian critics in the late imperial era (1368–1912), who saw it as a waste of time that instead should be spent studying history and promoting morality.
The question of the value of humor was never definitively settled within the Confucian tradition, however, and Confucian thought continuously coexisted and interacted with other schools of thought (such as Daoism) that did appreciate humor. Buddhism came to China during the Han dynasty, and the Chan school of Buddhism made use of the “shock effect” of humorous and absurd images to bring about knowledge, much as Zhuangzi used humor to question rationality. The use of amusing yet incongruous images for their shock value was borrowed by poets in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and later periods.
Humor in Periods of Unrest
Advances in printing and publishing beginning circa 1100 in the Song period (960–1279) contributed to the wider dissemination of humorous literature in China. Two periods of political unrest and technological change in later Chinese history produced a flood of writing that spanned the spectrum from escapist entertainment to harsh satire: the early seventeenth century, when the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was in decline; and the Republican period between the fall of the Qing dynasty (1912) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949). In the earlier period, occasional bawdy and erotic novels, such as Jinpingmei (Golden Lotus), and comic short stories, such as those collected by Feng Menglong (1574–1646), were immensely popular. During the 1920s and 1930s, China’s greatest satirist, Lu Xun (1881–1936), criticized Chinese society and politics in essays and short stories published in some of the hundreds of newspapers and literary journals that appeared in those years; he also promoted woodblock printing and satirical cartoons that the illiterate masses could understand. Also during this period, the writer Lin Yutang (1895–1976) introduced the English word “humor” into the Chinese language and argued that China needed more of it.
During the era of Mao Zedong (1949–1976), and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), sincere revolutionary fervor was held up by the Communist Party as the only proper attitude toward life. Humor did not entirely die out, but it was politically dangerous.
The themes of Chinese humor often resemble those in other parts of the world: Published joke books abound with stereotypical characters such as the henpecked husband and the lusty widow. Confucian and Buddhist institutions and thought are also popular objects of humor, especially in plays and operas that existed prior to the twentieth century. Residents of one part of China often make fun of those of another, but this sort of regional humor and jokes about foreigners are not as prominent in China as humor involving ethnicity and nationality is in Europe and North America. Instead, the nature of the Chinese language, which has a relatively small number of different sounds, encourages puns and wordplay. These are particularly common in the performance humor called xiangsheng, which resembles vaudeville dialogue.
The decades of the 1980s and 1990s, during which ideological orthodoxy disintegrated in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the use of the Internet mushroomed, may have been the beginning of another great age of humor in Chinese history. A growing appetite for humor in the PRC led publishers to comb traditional literature and excerpt the funny bits in best-selling anthologies. Lin Yutang’s writings from the 1920s and 1930s are enjoying new popularity, and the television sitcom has become a well-established form in the PRC. Chinese bloggers experiment with the full array of humor, visual and textual, on the Web, keeping the government’s Internet censors busy removing anything deemed subversive. Much of the online humor, political or otherwise, has made its way onto sites outside of China managed by overseas Chinese. In this way Chinese humor is increasingly global.
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