- The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China by Christopher Rea
This book is both a catalog of amusing things that were written, drawn, photographed, filmed, and performed in China from 1900 to 1937 and a detailed, scholarly account of the Chinese discourse of humor during these years. Christopher Rea’s history is “new” not because it rewrites the standard account of laughter in China—in English-language sources, The Age of Irreverence seems to be only the third book and the first single-author monograph on the general topic of funny stuff in modern China—but because it counters histories that depict late Qing and Republican China as a time of nothing but tears and sorrow (p. 7). Rea grants that the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century were crisis-ridden, but he argues that this period was nevertheless characterized by “an insouciant attitude toward convention and authority” (p. 9) and that there was plenty of “wit, sarcasm, glee, and irreverence” that made the era “bearable and even fun” (p. 14). It is difficult to imagine many Chinese adults looking back at any decade of the twentieth century and saying of their experience, “That was fun,” but Rea presents more than enough evidence to support his fundamental assertion: “Chinese writers and artists responded to . . . social and political convulsions with various forms of laughter” (p. x).
Rea’s research—his “treasure hunting” (p. xiii)—was thorough, and his presentation of his findings will influence the way we think about Chinese culture as it was one hundred years ago. Rea’s book draws attention to material that has not been discussed before or that has been noticed but not gathered in one place for sustained examination. The Age of Irreverence is a first-rate contribution to the writing of the social history of Chinese culture in its complexity and heterogeneity. [End Page 273] One of several pleasures of reading the book is encountering lesser-known texts, authors, and facts. I doubt it is widely known that Lu Xun 魯迅 was a fan of an 1878 novel notable for its vulgarity and funny enough to make people “spit out their rice” (p. 89); that a collaborator of progressive dramatist and filmmaker Zheng Zhengqiu 鄭正秋 was the “Artisan of Laughter,” Xu Zhuodai 徐卓呆; or that more than one hundred collections of humor were published in China from 1900 to 1937.
Rea’s argument that scholars have paid insufficient attention to the “bantering side of Chinese literary culture” (p. 5) is convincing, and for this reason alone his book is indispensable. The Age of Irreverence was deservingly awarded a Joseph Levenson Book Prize for making “the greatest contribution to increasing understanding of the history, culture, society, politics, or economy” of post-1900 China among all books published in 2015.
Rea devotes one chapter to each of what he argues are the five “most important comic trends of the early twentieth century”: xiaohua 笑話 (jokes); youxi 游戲 (play); maren 駡人 (mockery); huaji 滑稽 (farce); and youmo 幽默 (humor) (p. 9). This taxonomic organization, which Rea outlines in his introductory chapter, helps one make synchronic sense of the cornucopia of modern Chinese humor and provides structure for Rea’s diachronic narrative that traces how ideas about what was funny changed as the language of humor changed. Chapter 2 is about the “joke boom” of the late Qing and Republican eras (p. 22). The exponential growth of the Chinese publishing industry meant that hundreds of new periodicals demanded copy, and the supply included many jokes. Rea writes that the joke boom was a global phenomenon, and there was an import-export trade in jokes: China got jokes from England and North America and sent jokes everywhere that there was an audience for Chinese-language newspapers (p. 31). While funny anecdotes were favored in the late Qing, formulaic jokes dominated the Republic (p. 31), when “rare classical jokes” were republished (p. 33). From the 1890s through the 1920s, “jokes were appearing everywhere” (p. 38). “Some proponents...