Christopher Rea


On his book The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China

Cover Interview of October 25, 2016

The wide angle

E.B. White said that “humorists fatten on trouble,” and in modern China there’s been plenty of that to go around. One of the broad concerns of my book is to identify conditions that nourish certain cultures of mirth or amusement. Incompetent political leaders and social turmoil both help. So does a rambunctious, unevenly-regulated mass media.

A more specific concern has to do with intonation. My book doesn’t get up to the television age, but try comparing prime time pap with the anything-goes humor of cable—the style is partially a function of the venue. Jokes in Chinese tabloids tended to be edgier than in government mouthpieces. Another analogy: the internet and the availability of Photoshop software create ripe conditions for parodists, since it’s easy to share and manipulate texts; the periodical boom in early twentieth-century China created similar conditions, since it was suddenly cheaper to do cut-and-paste comedy.

Think, too, of what happens when mockery becomes a spectator sport—as with YouTube comments, Facebook trolls, or American presidential elections. When Chinese literati started publishing open letters to each other in magazines, a type of one-upmanship set in for who can come up with the most hilarious insult. One writer during the “warlord period” even published a parodic manifesto called The Fine Art of Reviling.

Another basic question that crops up in the book is how useful it is to use humor to take the measure of a people or to draw conclusions about how they think. Witty French. Humorous Brits. Self-deprecating Jews. Outgoing Americans. Early twentieth-century Chinese writers—and I do deal mostly with literate folks, since there’s more material by them—started to theorize humor in relative terms, sometimes resorting to stereotypical characterizations like these. Then, in the 1930s, many of the discussion of humor became self-searching: What is our sense of humor? What should it be?

It’s commonplace to say that humor is subjective, since what’s funny to you might not be funny to me. But humor is also a loaded concept. If you—or your people—have no sense of humor, or the wrong one, that means you’re less rational, tolerant, understanding, or civilized. You don’t get it. Or, worse, you lack something human. Modern Chinese debates about humor were very much caught up with these fundamental questions of value.