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Full referenceRea, Christopher Gordon, "A history of laughter: Comic culture in early twentieth-century China" (2008)
Author(s)Rea, Christopher Gordon
Title"A history of laughter: Comic culture in early twentieth-century China"
UniversityColumbia University
Keywordsculture; cultural
AbstractThis is a history of comic cultures that flourished in China during the first half of the twentieth century. Whereas previous cultural histories of modern China have focused on plaintive responses to historical trauma, this study draws attention to a different 'structure of feeling,' namely, the needs of different communities of writers, readers, artists, and audiences to laugh at, laugh with, and laugh away the social and political circumstances in which they lived. It reveals that for many cultural agents laughter constituted an imaginative and rhetorically powerful alternative to mimetic realism, which was canonized as the dominant discourse of representation in China following the 1919 May Fourth Movement. Treating laughter as a discursive practice that extends across genres and modes of cultural production, I show how influential authors, playwrights, cartoonists, and filmmakers rejected the fashionable affective mode of 'blood and tears' and articulated their own comic visions through an array of laughter-inducing strategies. This study's main contention is that early twentieth-century China had 'comic cultures,' and that these cultures have been integral to the affective, aesthetic, and political dimensions of modern Chinese literary and cultural practice. It argues that China's comic cultures often projected a totalizing cosmic vision at odds with mainstream discourses of cultural production and critique, which emphasized mimetic representation and upheld blood, tears, and calls to arms as legitimate expressions of genuine emotion. Drawing on literary texts, stage plays, cartoons, advertisements, films, and a variety of other primary materials, I analyze the comic conceits, mechanisms, motifs, and modes of address underpinning each culture. Each chapter reconstructs one of early twentieth-century China's comic cultures and explains its origins, aesthetics, politics, and historical significance. Chapter One illustrates the theoretical and methodological advantages of studying laughter as a cultural phenomenon with a brief look at the late Qing mass media culture of joking promoted by Wu Jianren. Chapter Two shows how Liu Fu, Lu Xun, and a community of cultural critics re-wrote the genealogy of Chinese literary comedy through their 'war of words' over the 1926 republication of the mid-Qing novel Which Classical Allusion? Chapter Three highlights the hoax as a recurring mechanism that cultural entrepreneurs such as Xu Zhuodai used to draw readers and audiences into Shanghai's culture of 'funny' (huaji) laughter between the 1920s and the 1940s. Chapter Four examines how Chinese comic culture took a visual turn in the 1930s with new trends in domestic filmmaking and the development of the comics industry, drawing examples from Ye Qianyu's popular Mr. Wang comic strips and the films of Sun Yu. Chapter Five surveys the theatrical, fictional, and pictorial discourses of traveling comedy that refugee artists like Lao She, Xiao Hong, and Ding Xilin used to imagine the 'Greater Rear Area' of China's wartime hinterland. Chapter Six examines the laughter of Qian Zhongshu as the modernist intellectual's response to entrapment in occupied Shanghai.
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