The Age of Irreverence tells the story of why China’s entry into the modern age was not just traumatic, but uproarious. As the Qing dynasty slumped toward extinction, prominent writers compiled jokes into collections they called “histories of laughter.” In the first years of the Republic, novelists, essayists and illustrators alike used humorous allegories to make veiled critiques of the new government. But, again and again, political and cultural discussion erupted into invective, as critics gleefully jeered and derided rivals in public. Farceurs drew followings in the popular press, promoting a culture of practical joking and buffoonery. Eventually, these various expressions of hilarity proved so offensive to high-brow writers that they launched a concerted campaign to transform the tone of public discourse, hoping to displace the old forms of mirth with a new one they called youmo (humor).
Christopher Rea argues that this period—from the 1890s to the 1930s—transformed how Chinese people thought and talked about what is funny. Focusing on five cultural expressions of laughter—jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor—he reveals the textures of comedy that were a part of everyday life during modern China’s first “age of irreverence.” This new history of laughter not only offers an unprecedented and up-close look at a neglected facet of Chinese cultural modernity, but also reveals its lasting legacy in the Chinese language of the comic today and its implications for our understanding of humor as a part of human culture.
1. Breaking into Laughter
6. The Invention of Humor
Appendix 1: Selected Chinese Humor Collections, 1900–1937
Appendix 2: Which Classic? Editions and Paratexts
Christopher Rea is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the editor of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu and the coeditor of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia, 1900–60.
"The Age of Irreverence devotes meticulous attention to primary sources, and crafts its findings into a narrative of humor in popular culture from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1930s, with a nod in the epilogue toward the socialist era and beyond. As a scholarly intervention, however, the book’s central argument most directly targets not history, but literary studies... certain to engage an audience."—Frontiers of Literary Studies in China
"Beautifully written... Rea has managed to write a very scholarly but nevertheless interesting and even entertaining book about a subject of considerable importance that has been neglected by literary scholars."—Israeli Journal of Humor Research
"Not only does The Age of Irreverence o?ffer an engaging new take on the cultural history of a momentous period, it also raises a number of leads for future research." —Journal of Oriental Studies
Abounds with examples and provides a learned apparatus... informative.—Monumenta Serica
"I am confident that it is the finest in its field to include a lyric by me."—Eric Idle
"Academic books do not always reflect their subject matter. Studies of sex, for example, are notoriously unsexy. But Mr. Rea’s book is funny, beginning with its hilarious “executive preface.""—Tim Johnson, The New York Times
"China’s tumultuous and painful history during the last two hundred years has led many of its writers to focus on heavy questions like 'What went wrong?,' 'Whose fault was it?,' and 'What can we do now?' Scholarship, both Chinese and Western, has generally followed this emphasis. Now The Age of Irreverence
shows, in marvelous variety and detail, how laughter and raillery—not separate from the pain but complexly involved with it—infused the cultural scene as well."—Perry Link, author of Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics
"Rea's study is beautifully written and meticulously researched. At a time when western interest in and access to Chinese 'cultural products' have never been greater, books like this are essential for challenging entrenched stereotypes and fostering greater appreciation of the country."—Jonathan Sullivan, Comedy Studies