- The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China by Christopher Rea
Conventional understanding of China's early modern era is full of serious concerns over imperial China's "inferiority" in terms of politics, military, and culture. Presenting an insightful alternative to this paradigmatic narrative of tears and blood, Professor Christopher Rea's book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China, shows how laughter was a crucial [End Page 400] component in the overarching themes of modernity and revolution during the turn of the twentieth century. Such distinctive contributions have been well recognized by its receipt of the 2017 Joseph Levenson Post-1900 Book Prize as well as in other book reviews. As a scholar of premodern Chinese literary culture, I discuss in this review two themes that intrigue me the most in this monograph. One regards "a history of laughter" in China: the book's approach to the topic of laughter in the Chinese tradition; the other regards the question of "what makes it new": the reevaluation and debate of laughter's role in China's cultural heritage.
To start with, I would like to highlight several merits of Rea's approach to laughter in China. As the first monograph on the comic culture of early twentieth-century China, the book deals with a topic that is difficult to conceptualize. Laughter embodies a wide spectrum of subcategories, many of which overlap or contradict with each other in one way or another. To induce laughter, one can be joking, sarcastic, or ironic; caricaturing or eccentric; ludicrous or judicious. As Rea notes, the main interest of the book is historical rather than theoretical: it focuses on "when and why certain modes of laughter have become culturally endemic" (p. 4). Therefore, attempts to theorize Chinese laughter would be distracting from the objectives of the book and Rea provides a good example of exploring the cultural issues behind laughter's wide categorical labels without compromising its conceptual complexities. In this sense, this book is both about humor and not about humor. It is about humor because to general English readers in the West for whom "China is not usually thought of as a funny place,"1 this book shows that not only is China a place full of laughter but also a place where the diversity and sophistication of literary genres and media representations of humor is phenomenal. At the same time, this book is not about (trying to define a Chinese sense of) humor because, to readers familiar with modern Chinese literature, the book's key objective is not to explain why these materials triggered laughter. Rather, through the dialectical lens of the comic culture, the book presents a refreshing narrative of early modern Chinese intellectuals' subversion to the authority of powerful social-cultural norms which they deemed as lagging forces that hindered China's transition into a modern nation.
That said, readers who expect to find a theorization of Chinese humor might be somewhat dissatisfied, but it should not prevent them from gaining perspective and insights on laughter in early Republican China. These insights, scattered throughout the book, do not confine themselves within Chinese boundaries but tell a global story of Chinese laughter. For instance, Rea views China's early twentieth-century joke boom as a "part of a global phenomenon" (p. 31). And he shows that some of the humor periodicals based in China spread as far as England and North America within a few years of their debut (p. 32). Additionally, Rea's global approach is also demonstrated in the [End Page 401] seamless employment of seminal western theories on humor and laughter in the Chinese context. These theoretical insights range from classic superiority theory dating back to Plato and Aristotle (p. 80) to twentieth-century philosopher Ted Cohen's scattered insights (p. 21). They do not lead to a systematic theory on laughter in China, yet they suffice to illuminate laughter's role and function...