幽默: You Having a Laugh? The Birth of Humour in Modern China

Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (University of California Press, 2015) was awarded the Joseph Levenson Book Prize (Post-1900 China) at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in March 2017. The prize is given in recognition of books that offer ‘the greatest contribution to increasing understanding of the history, culture, society, politics, or economy of China’ during the preceding year.

The citation for Chris Rea’s award reads, in part:

The Age of Irreverence offers a fresh perspective on the late Qing and early Republican era, focusing on the use of humor. The book balances with levity the better-known accounts of this period as steeped in ponderous intellectual debates. Rea taps into previously ignored sources, honing on parodic verses and essays, fantastic novels, cartoons, amusement halls, and photography, to show how these and other materials produced “cultures of mirth.” As the book demonstrates, the discourse of irreverence, manifested in specific practices, took part in forming and challenging claims to modernity.

Christopher Rea is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and former director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. Among other things, he was also in the first group of Post-doctoral Fellows at the Australian Centre on China in the World, founded in 2010, and during his time in the Centre he pursued work on this book project. Chris also contributed generously to China Heritage Quarterly and, with William Sima, was the co-guest editor of the last issue of that journal, the focus of which was The China Critic. He is also the editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011), as well as being co-editor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia, 1900-60 (UBC Press, 2015).


‘A Laugh’ (1427), by Emperor Xuanzong of the Ming. The character for laughter, 笑, can be written with a dog under bamboo. Source: Rea, The Age of Irreverence, pp.5-6.

Chris Rea has kindly allowed us to select material from The Age of Irreverence and we offer a sample of his work to celebrate this significant award. As he notes:

Youmo 幽默 (humour), a transliteration coined by the popular writer Lin Yutang 林語堂, came to stand for a new comedic sensibility that sought to displace the irreverence of the early 1900s. In the 1930s, in his new Chinese-language humour magazine, The Analects Fortnightly 論語半月刊, Lin popularised not only youmo but with it the notion that humour was a humanistic virtue that China (for all its preexisting comic traditions) lacked. The vogue for humour literature influenced scores of writers and continued for more than half a decade before being cut short by war. During that time, humour and laughter became the focus of unprecedented theorising and polemical debate. What was humour? Did China need it? How could and should Chinese people laugh? (Or should they just smile?) Lin’s campaign to promote youmo as a moral ideal that would refine the individual and civilise the body politic left a legacy that outlasted the 1930s heyday of humour.


China Heritage celebrates the humanistic virtues of Chinese culture as championed by such writers as Lin Yutang, Zhou Zuoren 周作人, Feng Zikai 豐子愷 and others. As we argue elsewhere, their endeavours belong to a particular sensibility, a cultivated approach to life and letters that resonates with a long tradition of writing and thinking.

A variant form of the character for 笑, ‘laughter’ or ‘to laugh’: 竹, the bamboo radical, over 犬, dog.

China Heritage has acknowledged the legacy of members of The Layabouts Lodge 二流堂, and in our earlier work we have featured the essays, art and humour of such writers as Bo Yang 柏楊, Li Ao 李敖, Hah Kung 哈公 and Yau Ma Tei 尤瑪蒂.

In the People’s Republic irreverence is compromised and the glum aspect of party-state leaders like Xi Jinping, Wang Qishan, Liu Yunshan et al, as well as that of unctuous toadies (hābagǒu 哈巴狗) like Zhou Xiaoping 周小平, overshadows the rambunctious, and humane, spirit of a China that will flourish long after they have joined the Great Majority.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage

An Age of Irreverence 

Christopher Rea

When a baby is born, he weeps, wa-wa 哇哇; and when a man is old and dying, his family forms a circle around him and wails, hao-t’ao 嚎啕. Thus weeping is certainly that with which man starts and finishes his life. In the interval, the quality of a man is measured by how much or little he weeps, for weeping is the expression of a spiritual nature.

Liu E 劉鶚, Travels of Lao Can 老殘遊記

Modern Chinese writers have invoked blood and tears even when cracking jokes. One of the most prolific fiction writers of the Republican era went by the name Bao Tianxiao 包天笑, or Embrace Heaven and Laugh. When he coauthored works with the writer Cold-Blooded 冷血 [Chen Jinghan 陳景韓], they combined their noms de plume into a Cold Laugh 冷笑, or Sneer. The 1914 joke book Laughing Through Tears tells of a ‘man of conscience’ who moves his audiences by weeping at the beginning of each speech; the stimulant turns out to be raw ginger hidden in his handkerchief. The Travels of Lao Can, plaintive preface notwithstanding, offers a zesty picaresque tale, and generations of readers have found it to be a very funny book.

A Rising Tide

China’s Republican period was one of remarkable openness, a new climate of earnest searching and experimentation with roots in the exploratory culture of the late Qing. Irreverence — meaning an insouciant attitude toward convention and authority— was one disposition driving the exploration. Breaking rules, disobeying authorities, making mischief, mocking intransigent behaviour and thought, and pursuing fun all contributed to an atmosphere of cultural liberalisation. Open contempt for the Manchu royal court fuelled the 1911 revolution. Irreverence also helped to enable positivistic blue-sky thinking, as seen in a wave of futuristic science fantasy novels in the 1900s. Impudent humour, of course, is not the exclusive province of modernists or traditionalists, conservatives or radicals. Chinese writers and artists of the early twentieth century were equally irreverent in inveighing against the fads, excesses, and new sacred cows of the modern era.

During the first four decades of the twentieth century, playfulness, derision, frivolity, profanity, absurdity, and other expressions of humour abounded in China’s public sphere. One driver of the proliferation of funny stories, cartoons, parodies, curses, and other expressions of mirth was a fast-growing transnational Chinese-language publishing market…. At the turn of the century, a wave of new urban tabloid or ‘small’ newspapers emerged — between 1897 and 1911 more than forty were published in Shanghai alone — offering readers an alternative source of entertainment and political commentary to ‘big’ (and often more conservative) papers. Between 1876 and 1937, more than three hundred publishing houses and bookshops set up operations on Fuzhou Road in Shanghai, the centre of Chinese publishing. By 1929, the southern province of Guangdong had more than two hundred periodicals and Jiangsu Province (on the Yangtze River) more than three hundred; by 1935, Shanghai had almost four hundred.

The Invention of Humour

On 13 May 1933, Chen Zizhan 陳子展 said he had a ‘stupid question’ for readers of his opinion column in the Shun Pao: What year is this? It was a question that any smart citizen of the republic could answer. For politicians, it was the Year of Constitutional Reform; for military officers, it was the Year of Bandit Eradication (i.e., wiping out communists). For industrialists and businessmen it was Buy ‘Made in China’ Year, and for economists and agriculturalists it was Rural Revival Year. For thinkers it was Attack Hu Shi Year; for professional authors, it was Publish Your Autobiography Year; and for the rest of the literati it was the Year of Humour 幽默年.

Lin Yutang.

Humour exploded onto China’s literary scene on 16 September 1932 with the arrival of the Analects Fortnightly, a new Shanghai magazine edited by Lin Yutang. Lin had coined the new term for humour, youmo, and the Analects broadcast his transliteration to a broad audience, along with a new philosophy of how to think, speak and live. Within weeks of the magazine’s first issue, Chinese critics were using new phrases and concepts such as a ‘sense of humour’ 幽默感, ‘ humour literature’ 幽默文學, and the ‘humorous sketch’ 幽默小品. Pundits like Chen Zizhan (who also wrote for the Analects) filled the popular press with their opinions about the ethos behind — and implications of — a new literary movement that had, in a few short months, become a nationwide phenomenon.

Lin Yutang first used the word youmo in May 1924 in an essay for Beijing’s Morning Post 晨報. He was then just returned from several years of graduate study at Harvard and Leipzig and was teaching English at Peking University, where he was a regular contributor to Threads of Discourse 語絲, the journal that had fuelled 1920s debates about civility and cursing. In 1926, he was among a group of intellectuals whose public statements antagonised a northern warlord, and he fled south, ending up in Shanghai the following year.

His 1924 essay identifies humour as a ‘major imperfection’ in the history of Chinese literature. Chinese people had a sense of humour but had forgotten how to cultivate it, resulting in a stifling intellectual scene. Writers had an ingrained didactic streak and found it hard to be natural. In the West, even academic books contained off-hand jokes, he pointed out. But these jokes were ‘of a different sort’ than Chinese jokes, he added more vaguely, ‘they were “humour” ‘. What China needed was for Zhou Shuren 周樹人 to tell jokes not just as the literary celebrity Lu Xun 魯迅 but as the famous Professor Zhou. Then everyone would see that being humorous did not result in a loss of face.

A Reasonable Age

‘Reasonable’ was one of Lin Yutang’s favourite words. Like the nineteenth-century novelist George Meredith, Lin believed that humour was the ultimate expression of a reasonable spirit, and he leavened this message with his own wit and hyperbole. In 1935, he endorsed the American nudist movement by saying that ‘I have been a nudist all my life without knowing it’, just a reasonable nudist who was ‘all for nudism at certain hours and in certain circumstances, in the bath-tub, for instance.’ In 1937, with war brewing in Europe and Asia, he suggested: send ‘five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats, and the world will be saved.’ As humour represents ‘the highest form of human intelligence’, all war plans would collapse as each delegate vies to deplore his own country’s folly. Self-deprecating humour would spread across the globe, changing the character of human thought, and leading to a Reasonable Age in which good sense and a ‘peaceable temper’ reigned supreme.

T.K. Chuan 全增嘏, a fellow bilingual writer and publishing colleague of Lin’s, was more skeptical about cross-cultural humour. He wrote in 1931:

Laugh, and the world does not usually laugh with your, because the world generally fails to see just what there is to laugh about.

But the burgeoning humour movement in China was thoroughly multilingual in its sources, vocabulary, and audience.

Youmo, Lin acknowledged, was a rather arbitrary transliteration of humor. In his 1924 essay he had even included an alternative transliteration, huimo 詼摹, made up of the characters for ‘humorous’ and ‘copy’ or ‘imitate’. Colleagues and readers nominated other alternatives such as yumiao 語妙 (‘witty speech’), youmiao 幽妙 (‘abstruse and wonderful’), and youma 優罵 (‘superior cursing’). In one Lao She 老舍 story, two boys overhear their father exclaiming ‘How humorous!’ as he reads the Analects and mistake the word youmo for a synonym meaning ‘apply paint’. Wags talked about you ta yi mo 幽他一默, turning youmo into a transitive verb akin to ‘pull his leg’. None ever mentioned oumuya 歐穆亞, a transliteration of ‘humour’ that literary theorist Wang Guowei 王國維 had coined as early as 1906.

The magazine’s launch in September 1932 attracted the attention of China’s foreign-language press. The 8 December issue of the China Critic carried a cover feature ‘Introducing The Analects‘, by T.K. Chuan, who translated article excerpts from its first issues, as well as its full decalogue:

  1. We will not be counter-revolutionary.
  2. We will not pass any judgment upon those who are not worth our criticism (Our column ‘Ye Antique Shoppe’ 古香齋 takes care of those), but we will criticise those whom we cherish, such as Our Country, the militarists, the promising writers, and the not-unpromising revolutionaries.
  3. We will not resort to oaths and filthy epithets (Humour and good humour are one in the same; to honour the traitors as our parents would not do, but neither must we call them d—d fools—Chinese 王八蛋).
  4. We will not want any outside financial help; we will not be anybody’s mouth-piece (we do not propagandise for money; but we may propagandise or even counter-propagandise for love).
  5. We will not play satellites to the élite, the powerful, or the rich (we do not ‘press-agent’ for dramatic stars, cinema stars, social stars, intellectual stars, political stars, et al.).
  6. We will not be a group of mutual admirers; we are against ‘Flesh-creepy-ism’ 肉麻主義. (We will avoid using such terms as: ‘The famous Scholar’, ‘the famous poet’, and so on; and we are determined not to use the expressions: ‘My good friend, Hu Shih’.)
  7. We will not publish any cheaply sentimental and romantic poetry.
  8. We will not advocate justice; we make known only our honest prejudices.
  9. We will not swear off anything (e.g., smoking, tea-drinking, late-rising).
  10. We will not admit that our writings are poor and in bad taste.

A Sensibility

Writers of old liked to quote the Classics (‘Confucius says…’), Chen Zizhan observed in 1933; now it was all ‘Sun Yat-sen says…’, ‘Marx says…’, ‘Plekhanov [the Marxist author of Art and Social Life] says’. But since youmo was a foreign loan word, he added, Chinese humour theorists invariably felt compelled to root the concept in a domestic antecedent like Confucius or Zhuangzi.

Youmo became part of a broader fundamental reappraisal of Chinese culture that intellectuals had been engaged in since the late-nineteenth century. Lin Yutang believed that Neo-Confucianists of the Song dynasty had misled generations of Chinese by distorting Confucius into a solemn patriarch when his teachings were essentially about how people, rulers included, ought to live their lives. … Lin later often insisted that the ‘true’ Confucius was a flawed human being, but one who always retained ‘personal charm and a good sense of humour’ and was able to ‘laugh at a joke at his own expense’.

Lin was also enamoured of the poets Tao Qian 陶潛 and Su Dongpo 蘇東坡 and the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi 莊子, whose works he translated. Lin considered Zhuangzi, who routinely made fun of Confucius, to be a paragon of the unrestrained, absurdist strand in Chinese humour. The title of Lin Yutang’s This Human World 人間世, an encore of the Analects Fortnightly, came from one of the Zhuangzi‘s chapters. Tao Qian, who turned his back on court life to tend to his farm, was, to Lin, one of several classical exemplars of a humorous lifestyle and worldview. Su Dongpo was a ‘gay genius’ of marvelous wit and human insight. All offered wisdom on how to live life.

The Analects Fortnightly, cover.

In 1934, a little over a year into the Analects‘s life, Lin Yutang brought together some of his ideas in a  three-part essay, ‘On Humour’ 論幽默. Invoking George Meredith’s 1877 claim that laughter is an ‘excellent test of the civilization of a country’, Lin surveys instances of humour in the philosophical, literary, and historiographical canons of Chinese civilisation, drawing contrasts between major personalities in Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist strains of thought. The essay’s recurring theme is that ‘humour is a part of life’. In its second and third parts, Lin identifies orthodox moralists as the prime foes of humour; distinguishes it from other forms of comic writing; endorses Meredith’s notion that to have humour is to possess a sympathetic, cosmic view of the world and mankind; and exalts the virtues of the humorous essay. He concludes with an appeal to humour’s utility:

If The Analects Fortnightly is able to persuade the warring politicians to cut down on their fighting, swindling and deceitful propaganda, then our accomplishments will not be insignificant.

The Year of Humour consecrated youmo as the new blanket term for humorous sensibilities that had been known by other names. It became a cultural standard by which China reassessed its literary traditions and its place in the world. One could dislike a particular type of youmo, but that was a disagreement between individuals or groups. Humour itself was inherently virtuous, an expression of broadmindedness, understanding, wisdom, reason. To possess humour was to have cosmopolitan empathy, an antidote to common contempt sprung of social divisions. Now the debate was over true humour and false, traditional and modern. Huaji 滑稽 and other indigenous terms for humour suddenly became archaic.

Ed.: If you want to know what happened before this, and thereafter, click here.


This material is drawn from Christopher Rea, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China, pages 1, 9, 10, 12, 132, 133-134, 136-137, 138, 146-147, 151-152 & 157-158 (footnotes deleted). Minor stylistic changes have been made to the text and, where relevant, Chinese characters as well as links have been added.