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Reviewed by:
  • Maoist Laughter ed. by Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath
  • Richard King (bio)
Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath, editors. Maoist Laughter. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2019. vii, 224 pp. Hardcover $59.00, isbn 978-988-8528-01-1.

How should the "Maoist laughter" in the title of this multi-author work be understood?

"Maoist" first: is it a periodization, the years from Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong's Yan'an talks on the arts in 1942 to his death in 1976? Or does it refer to an ideological tendency, the deployment of culture in class [End Page 95] and political conflict? Or perhaps the system of leadership in the ministries, departments, and associations that oversaw literature, film, television, and the performing arts after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949? The editors have left it to the individual authors to decide.

And "laughter"? In the introduction, Ping Zhu declares its importance as "a crucial social practice for the reproduction of socialist ideology, state building, and subject formation" (p. 3). While the socialist state might frown on laughter for laughter's sake as degenerate and bourgeois, it promoted laughter that was "euphoric, rhapsodic, and optimistic" (p. 6), a shared expression of delight at progress to a shared utopian future. This is a study of purposeful humour in a transitional, hopeful, and volatile age.

The ten chapters in this volume take the form of case studies of works produced between the early 1940s and the 1970s. Most date from three periods: the years immediately following the Yan'an forum, with a focus on the humorous fiction of Zhao Shuli; the early 1950s before the "anti-rightist" campaign of 1957, featuring experimentation in the performing arts and film; and the years 1962–1964, in the recovery from the famines of the previous three years, with the brief flourishing of "socialist comedies." A single entry, the final chapter, dips into the final decade of Mao's life, the Cultural Revolution, a period not remembered as a heyday for laughter production.

The chapters are divided into three sections. The first three chapters deal with the "utopian laughter" of shared aspirations, two of them deriving their appeal from the charm of exotic women from minority nationalities showing their unity with the more staid men of the Han majority. A further three explore "intermedial laughter" produced by versions of the same stories in different media. The final four chapters are devoted to "laughter and language," including cases where language is a vehicle for representing social convention and mocking outdated or corrupt behaviours, and finding humour in mutual incomprehension. The divisions are convenient, if somewhat arbitrary—almost all the laughter is intended to be utopian; most of the chapters deal with sharing of material between different media; and sensitivity to the way language interacts with changes in ideology, society, and culture is shown to be crucial to the artists' enterprise of inducing laughter and the state's responsibility to evaluate its propriety.

The first section begins in a burst of "eulogistic laughter" with Ban Wang's reading of the 1959 film Five Golden Flowers, a charming romantic comedy featuring five women of the Bai nationality with the same name, and carrying a message of economic and social progress. Here the good-natured humour in the courtships of the five Golden Flowers is at the expense of excessive or clumsy zeal of positive characters. Following Li Zehou, Ban Wang offers the distinction that while comic laughter "gravitates towards laughing down," the eulogistic laughter of this film arises "from the embarrassment and distortion [End Page 96] of norms" (p. 34). Charles Laughlin's chapter looks at the 1955 collectivization novel Sanliwan Village, by the leading humorous writer of the early Mao years, Zhao Shuli, and its 1958 adaptation as the film Happily Ever After. The comedy depends on gentle mockery of less enlightened older peasants unwilling to see their land become collective property, and plays on the discontinuities between official discourse and social reality. The sympathy shown by Zhao Shuli to the unprogressive may explain the harsh criticism of both novel and film shortly after the latter's release in the...


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