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  • China's Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai
  • Zheyu Wei (bio)
Xu Zhuodai. China's Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai. Translated and with an Introduction by Christopher Rea. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2019. 263 pp. Paperback $65.00, isbn 978-1-939161-94-9.

The studies on literature of Republican China had been much focused on the activists of the New Culture Movement until in the 1980s Chih-Tsing Hsia, followed by other literary critics, drew people's attention to non-revolutionary writers. Since then the significance of the popular literature of the Republican era has eventually been recognized in the field of modern Chinese literary studies. The Mandarin-Butterfly School 鸳鸯蝴蝶派 of the period, once popular for their romantic portrayal of the petty bourgeoisie in the colonial city of Shanghai, also became appreciated by the public again. Nonetheless, the width of the relevant research is comparably narrow, which makes Christopher Rea's new book timely and inspiring.

In China's Chaplin Rea introduces the ingenious writer Xu Zhuodai 徐卓呆 (1880–1958) and offers the translation of five stories and six farces by Xu. Rea has been working on modern Chinese literature for a long time. And in [End Page 69] recent years, with his monograph The Age of Irreverance: A New History of Laughter in China (2015), Rea focused on the idea of humor 幽 默 and how it evolved from the 1890s to the 1930s in Chinese society. Rea's research recognizes the significance of Xu as a writer and a practitioner. Usually in modern Chinese literary history research, Xu Zhuodai is considered as one of the representative figures of the Mandarin-Butterfly School, but he was much more than that. A distinctive Shanghai-style 海派 intellectual, Xu was multitalented and productive: Xu wrote novellas, jokes and even advice columns for the general public. He wrote for the stage (for both spoken drama and the traditional comedy form huajixi 滑稽戏) and the screen, and he acted in and directed plays and films. He translated Japanese stories and plays. He ran film companies and also the first physical education school in China. Xu's life and achievements in Republican and World-War-II Shanghai reflect the dynamics of urban China in the first half of the twentieth century.

Rea has put his appreciation and understanding of Xu into informative writings and sparkling translations in China's Chaplin. Rea offers the reader a general introduction to Xu Zhuodai, summarizing Xu's life story and the reasons why this man was so talented and funny. Rea highlights great success in Xu's writing, theatre, film and other creative careers and critically evaluates Xu's contribution to the those fields. Rea sharply notices Xu's endeavor to portray the rapidly growing cosmopolitan city of Shanghai as a "funny" place, a stage where people from different social classes and cultural backgrounds met and interacted. However, this funny place was full of trickery, and therefore everyone was urged to adapt to the changing and conflicting world so as to laugh at others rather than be laughed at.

Following the introduction, Rea translates five stories by Xu, showing the richness and cleverness of Xu's comic imagination. For instance, "Plagarist in Western Dress" and "Appendum: Expose Plagarism!", in which Xu ingeniously appropriates an excerpt from Dream of the Red Chamber into an American slavery story, show Xu's satire of Shanghai's cultural production. Meanwhile by "The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao," from which the character became not only a fiction series but also a film franchise, Xu illustrates his creativity and vigorous ethos in making jokes about marketing, the excessive enthusiasm of the commercial city. In general, Rea's mastery of Chinese language and knowledge of slang in Shanghai dialect helped him finish the high-quality translation. For clarification, in the appendix Rea attaches a list of joke names, offering the translator's notes including the original names by Xu and the possible implications (puns, equivocation, etc.).

The six farces, selected and beautifully rendered in dramatic language by Rea, not only showcase Xu's talents in creating funny and sarcastic moments on the stage, but also offer the...


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