Christopher Rea


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

Cover Interview of October 25, 2016

A close-up

The Chinese press dubbed 1933 the “Year of Humor.” The catalyst was the Analects Fortnightly, a new magazine inspired by The New Yorker and other contemporaries, which since its launch in 1932 had sparked a craze for youmo (humor). This moment has long been the most famous one in the modern history of Chinese comedy because it established youmo as the word in Chinese for humor. I delve into the process behind this change in terminology and point out one of its consequences: the advent of this transliteration rendered most pre-existing indigenous terms for humor suddenly archaic. It was, among other things, a moment of erasure.

The Analects set out to change the tone of public discourse, which its editors thought had become frivolous or abusive. Many A-list writers joined the cause. Some dabbled in humor, but others reinvented themselves as humorists. Humor was, to them, not just a style but a way of being. To be humorous was to embrace the Doctrine of the Mean—to be moderate in tone and realistic in what one expected of life. Instead of wallowing in self-pity about the state of the nation, these humorists projected self-confidence and broad-mindedness, their preferred form being the personal essay. While they criticized China’s follies and outrages, they acknowledged them as being part of the human comedy. This was a campaign of archeologists and cosmopolitans: the Analects writers scoured a vast Chinese literary archive and translated the latest and greatest from abroad. And a couple of them—Lin Yutang and Lao She—even found success in English.

The movement provoked a backlash. Humor was but a plaything of the upper class. It was the product of callous elites insulated from or indifferent to bombs and destitution. Promoting humor in today’s China was something only an out-of-touch hedonist would do, like offering cigarettes to people in need of rice. The humorist lived in a world “as mentally snug as the world of women’s magazines with its cute babies, cozy living rooms, and gleaming refrigerators.” China needed to wake up, but if a little humor could be a stimulant, too much was narcotic. Humor wasn’t just a new form of escapism; it was numbing.

Lin Yutang, who coined the word youmo, said that he had turned to humor out of necessity: he wanted to criticize the powerful without getting shot. (He did have to move house several times.) His broader agenda was to help Chinese people find a new way to appreciate life, beginning with embracing a new way to talk—something between two idioms they already knew too well: the stifling moralizing of “serious-talk” and the triviality of “laugh-talk,” or joking. Youmo was an invention—a brand of humor to serve as a middle way.

This idealized conception of humor endured, as did the word youmo, but the Analects did not. War with Japan, declared in 1937, cut short its life and scattered its contributors. Militant satire and eulogistic comedy in praise of New China became the approved form when the communists took over after 1949.