- China's Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai
Together with Weimar Berlin and pre-WWII New York, Republican Shanghai has become a historic city symbolic of the tumultuous development of capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century. This curated image of Old Shanghai contributes to and is in turn shaped by the city's rise as a global financial and business center in recent years. Accompanying our cultural imagination of the metropolis are mushrooming fictions, non-fictions, films, and theatre as well as Shanghai studies, an academic field that has been expanding since the 1980s. In contrast to these interpretive efforts that either conform to or interrogate the "Old Shanghai" construct, translations of primary sources, especially popular writings, are scarce. Luckily, China's Chaplin, Christopher Rea's translation of Xu Zhuodai's comic stories and farces, is a step to remedy this gap in the current scholarship. The project is an extension of Rea's 2015 book The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China in which he investigates Chinese modernity from the 1890s to the 1930s through "five cultural expressions of laughter," namely jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor (p. x). Here Rea zooms in on Xu Zhuodai (born Xu Fulin 1880–1958), an iconic player in the late Qing and Republican cultural industry. Despite modern Chinese literature specialist Fan Boqun (1931–2017)'s pioneering research on Xu and other writers of popular literature,1 Xu's multi-faceted career only started to receive due attention in both Chinese and English academia in the past decade.
Known in the theatre world by his stage name Xu Banmei, Xu was a playwright and actor of xinju (new drama), an early and hybrid form of modern Chinese theatre. His Huaju chuangshiqi huiyilu (My Memory of the Creation of Spoken Drama) remains a crucial eyewitness account of the early days of modern Chinese theatre to scholars today.2 In his well-researched introduction, Rea introduces readers to Xu's [End Page 593] many identities. In his youth, Xu studied gymnastics and ballroom dance in Japan and established, with his wife Tang Jianwo, Shanghai's earliest sports academies (p. 4). As a literary man, he edited and published widely in newspapers and magazines and translated foreign literature from Japanese to Chinese. In the burgeoning film industry in Shanghai, he co-founded production companies, wrote screenplays, took on comic roles, and penned how-to manuals (pp. 7–9). Associated with the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school (a group of writers of popular literature, especially romances), Xu was mainly known for his comic stories and scripts and is regarded as a notable figure in the history of huajixi (Shanghainese farce). Given his output as a writer and actor, self-promotion in the public sphere (he assumed various nicknames in different occasions), and business endeavors (including a soy source factory in the 1940s), Xu's reputation as "the Laughter Artisan of the Page and a Charlie Chaplin of the East" (p. 2) was as much well deserved as self-made. He was the very embodiment of performance.
After detailing Xu's career at the beginning of the introduction, Rea paints a picture of Xu's social and cultural milieu of Republican Shanghai (1912–1949). Xu was among the many writers who, by writing comic works, captured the ludicrous aspects of the life in Shanghai as the city was ushered into modernity. "A farcical sensibility" (p. 17) was part and parcel of this disorienting urban experience and manifested itself through various media, including comedies, jokes, cartoons, shenanigans and entertainment provided in the amusement halls. From here Rea goes on to provide a guided reading of Xu's writings, directly addressing specific pieces included in the current volume. Featuring five stories and six farces, Rea's selection provides a good sample of Xu's body of work. They showcase the breadth of his plots and thematic concerns such as commentaries on plagiarism, false advertising, whodunit intrigues...