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  • Contagion of Laughter:The Rise of the Humor Phenomenon in Shanghai in the 1930s
  • Diran John Sohigian (bio)

Laughter as a Historical Event: Identifying the Phenomenon

The humor phenomenon hit China full force in 1932 with the launching of the Analects Fortnightly (Lunyu banyue kan) humor magazine. Arriving like "a live cinder that flitted its way toward the gasoline fumes," the contagion of laughter spread across China in 1933, which was declared the Year of Humor (youmo nian, 幽默年).1 Humorism (youmozhuyi) remained strong until 1937, when war with Japan broke out. Subsequently, the impact of the humor contagion persisted through later decades, despite efforts in Mao-era China to contain it. The very presence in Chinese of a new word, youmo, derived in 1924 by Lin Yutang from the European word humor, is tangible evidence of its historical significance. What follows is a study of how the concept of youmo took on a life and meaning of its own in semicolonial Shanghai during the 1930s. [End Page 137]

In a 1933 article on humor, Zheng Boqi, a major figure in the Shanghai publishing world, observed that "suddenly, in China's silent literary scene humor is all the rage; here's humor, there's humor—every which way you turn there's humor!"2 A spate of Analects Fortnightly imitators arose with such titles as Discussion Wind (Tanfeng), Golden Mean (Zhongyong), and Make-do Studio (Liaozhai). The laughter was excessive and alarmingly frivolous to many, a numbing anesthesia at a time of national crisis. "Suddenly, with a resounding bang," Lu Xun wrote, "there's no place in the world where humor can't be found taking on so many forms."3

Following the enormous popularity of the Analects Fortnightly, Lin Yutang helped launch two more magazines, This Human World (Renjian shi) in 1934 and Cosmic Wind (Yuzhou feng) in 1935. It was at this time that Lao She, China's greatest humor practitioner, underwent a profound transformation, eschewing acid satire and turning to humor in a time of personal and national crisis. "Unceasingly people are asking me what Humor is," he joked, "but I, not being an American PhD in Humor Studies, cannot answer them." Known as the King of Laughter (xiao wang), Lao She went on to write several treatises on humor, believing he "might as well put in his two cents."4 Among the over two dozen of his works that first appeared in Lin Yutang's magazines were two novels, Heavensent (Niu Tianci), which was serialized in the Analects in 1934, and Camel Xiangzi (Luotuo Xiangzi), often called the greatest novel of twentieth-century China, serialized in Cosmic Wind in 1936. Through these works, he became an Analects immortal, finding in its pages "a wisdom that abides in knowing foolishness."5

Besides Lao She's expostulations on the subject and masterpieces such as "On Humor" ("Lun youmo") by Lin Yutang, who was known as the Master of Humor (youmo dashi), a spate of other works burst on the scene.6 Among those treatises that appeared in the Analects were "Isms and Humor" ("Zhuyi yu youmo") by Quentin Pan (Pan Guangdan), "On Humor" ("Lun youmo") by Zhou Gucheng, "Essay on Humor" ("Youmo lun") by Xu Xu, and "The Effectiveness of Humor" ("Lun youmo de xiaoguo") by Qian Renkang.7 The pages of the Analects were filled with contributions by humor writers, some of whom came to be associated with the Analects literary school (Lunyu pai) and referred to as the immortals of humor (youmo baxian), including Lin Yutang, [End Page 138] Zhou Zuoren, Lao She, He Rong, Yao Ying, Dahua Lieshi (Jian Youwen), Lao Xiang, Huang Jiayin, and Tao Kangde. The magazine's writings represented the spectrum of political and intellectual belief and literary style of the time, including those of leftists like Lu Xun, A Ying, and Guo Moruo. And the humor phenomenon was not to be ignored by Zhao Jiabi's edited volumes Great Compendium of Modern Chinese Literature (Zhongguo xinwenxue daxi), the major encyclopedic repository of the 1930s. In its pages, Yu Dafu explained the great proliferation of humor, acknowledging that "in the minds of most there has arisen a [modern] conception of what humor is...