China’s entry in modernity was not just traumatic, but uproarious. As the Qing last dynasty fell, prominent writers compiled jokes to form collections called “histories of laughter.” In the first years of the republic, novelists, essayists, and illustrators used humorous allegories to make veiled critiques of the new government. Yet political and cultural discussion repeatedly erupted into invective, with critics gleefully jeering rivals in public. Farceurs drew followings in the popular press, promoting a culture of buffoonery. These expressions of hilarity proved so offensive to high-brow writers that they launched a campaign in the 1930s to displace old forms of mirth with a new one they called youmo (humor). What can we learn about history from those who laugh their way through it? Focusing on the case of China, this talk will discuss how political turmoil, new media, and other forces nurtured cultures of humor in a modernizing society, from the last days of empire to the digital age.
Christopher Rea is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and co-editor of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently co-translating a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.