Christopher Rea


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

Cover Interview of October 25, 2016


The laughter of the past can inspire condescension or awe, depending, in part, on whether or not the prejudices it reflects match our own. The challenge for the historian is to avoid letting one’s own sensibilities determine the selection, since just choosing only what you think is funny will result in a picture of what you think should have been rather than what was. Corny jokes and buffoonery might be even more culturally significant than the satire of the dissident on the right side of history.

In any case, we need to get close up. Without a sense of its texture, theories about humor fall flat. That’s one of the things that’s so unsatisfying about the notion of a national sense of humor, which tends to be invoked to satisfy a political agenda. It’s an invention, and a rather reductive one. My book gives a glimpse of just how many different comedic sensibilities coexisted in China in the span of a few decades, and of how varied they were in their influences, drawing on everything from the Confucian canon to Charlie Chaplin. It’s a small part of a big story. There’s plenty more to be said about Chinese contributions to humor as a part of human culture.

Beyond the history and politics, my book is about ways that people can be funny in the Chinese language. It gives room to the joke-crackers, the pun-mongers, and the bomb-droppers. If it has one bias it’s in favoring the humor that can sing in translation. Among the crabs, ghosts, frogs, turtles, and other curiosities, readers should find plenty that strikes a chord.