christopher rea is associate professor of modern chinese literature at the university of british columbia and author of the age of irreverence: a new history of laughter in china, published by university of california press and winner of the 2017 aas joseph levenson book prize (post-1900 china).
to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
the book’s about how chinese humor changed (and how it didn’t) in the modern age. it reconstructs the emergence of several comic cultures over about forty years, from the 1890s to 1933, the “year of humor.” part of the story is about language, about how people started talking about what’s funny in new ways. it tries to convey how you can be funny in chinese—and how people were, using modern technologies like cinema. another part of the story is about cultural values, about how people in a tumultuous age used laughter as a barometer for what matters to the individual, to the group, and to humanity at large. i argue that irreverence, meaning an insouciant attitude towards authority and received wisdom, was not just a symptom of the age but a force driving changes, often with far-reaching implications. it was a disposition shared by conservatives, radicals, and moderates. big picture, the book offers several answers to the question: “what can china tell us about humor?” i argue, for example, that the history of laughter isn’t just a backwards look at what was funny but is also a history of anticipation, of “tell me another one.”
what inspired you to research this topic?
personal interest, mostly. chinese is an endlessly entertaining language, and i find that humorists, like poets, have a knack for realizing its potential. i’ve written elsewhere about my debts to monty python and to works like qian zhongshu’s novel fortress besieged, which inspired some of the treasure-hunting. but i wanted this study to be more than just an assemblage of precious jokes, and it made sense to use historical chinese terms for humor—the genre or modal markers of the age, if you will—as the narrative threads. that way i could show how the vocabulary and grammar of humor changed, and how one brief period gave rise to a diversity of comic sensibilities. one implication of the study is obvious: there exists no single, unchanging “chinese sense of humor” but many. plenty more comic cultures have yet to be written about, and i’m hoping this book will encourage more forays in that direction.
what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better/easier than you expected it would?
the main conceptual challenge was how to get a handle on a topic as vast as humor or laughter. that led me to the keyword approach described above and to structuring the narrative around significant developments related to humor, like the founding of a new magazine, rather than the familiar geopolitical chronology. the main methodological challenge was just getting my hands on the primary sources, which included literary magazines, newspapers, books, play scripts, films, advertisements, and various print culture ephemera. i made an effort to use originals whenever possible, since anthologies and later editions—and even digital scans from databases—can be unreliable. (i discuss a few cases of censorship and bowdlerization.) i spent years gathering materials from china, taiwan, hong kong, singapore, australia, france, the uk, germany, the u.s., and canada. fortunately, i had a lot of institutional support and a lot of assistance from colleagues, who shared their own research and helped me to crowd-source funny stuff. i ended up with much more than i needed for one book, so i have a sequel planned called the unfinished comedy.
what is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
i was taken aback by some of the mockery, the culture of competitive vituperation involving celebrities like lu xun and the radical intellectual, linguist, and political figure wu zhihui. so i ended up writing a whole chapter on the humorous curse. another “ah-ha” moment was when i was looking through issues of the chinese-language yokohama-based journal new fiction, edited by liang qichao in the 1900s, and discovered that one of the most important writers of the late qing period had published two works in its pages simultaneously: a history of pain and a new history of laughter. wu jianren clearly saw a market for both pain and laughter and saw no contradiction in offering readers both at once. this finding opened up a whole host of questions.
what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?
this is a very incomplete list, but studies i admire and draw on in the age of irreverence include geremie barmé’s an artistic exile, pierre bayard’s how to talk about books you haven’t read, henri bergson’s laughter, kirk denton and michel hockx’s literary societies of republican china, mia fineman’s faking it, harry frankfurt’s on bullshit, patrick hanan’s the invention of li yu, neil harris’ humbug, michael gibbs hill’s lin shu, inc., henry jenkins’ what made pistachio nuts?, perry link’s mandarin ducks and butterflies, juan wang’s merry laughter and angry curses, and works by rudolf wagner and david der-wei wang.
what are you working on now?
swindles. stories of premeditated deception for gain are a rich thread in chinese literary history, and i’m working on a new study about how and when we see keen interest in, to borrow con artist lingo, “the telling of the tale.” my colleague bruce rusk and i have a new translation coming out this fall called the book of swindles: selections from a late ming collection (columbia, 2017), which i’m excited about. the stories are hilarious, and the work is historically significant. the book of swindles is said to be the earliest chinese collection of stories about fraud, so it could be considered a forgotten literary classic. and this eventful year, 2017, happens to be its 400th anniversary.