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Humor literature as a lens to Chinese identity.

Lin, a scholar from China, was visiting her friends Mr. and Mrs. Lee. The telephone rang, and Mrs. Lee answered it. Mr. Lee asked who had called, and Mrs. Lee answered casually, "It was your girlfriend."

A few days later, Lin returned to visit again. Talking to Mrs. Lee about the telephone call, Lin said to her, "Don't make that kind of joke. It might have been a real girlfriend." (A true story)

Chinese humor to some may seem an oxymoron, like legal ethics, artificial intelligence or exact estimate, and literature in Chinese humor may sound like a paradox. I have asked numerous recognized scholars about the existence of Chinese humor literature, and their instinctive reply is that not much exists. This reality is a question lurking in scholars' minds, remaining unresolved. A widespread impression is that the Chinese nation is one peripherally involved in humor, unlike the West that celebrates humor. The prevailing argument is that with the implementation of Confucian conservatism and formality across dynasties, humor has been de-emphasized (Feinberg, 1971). A different and more positive argument, however, maintains that the Chinese are "a people undeniably possessing a deep-seated humor" (Wells, 1971). For decades, both these two polarized concepts point to something mystical, attractive and tension-building. In this paper, I present my observations about this dangling paradox in the Chinese literary world and how unfolding it could display a valuable lens to view the reality of Chinese identity.

The word "humor" cruised through the worlds of medical, literary, philosophical and psychological interest. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, this word for centuries had a medical denotation to mean a secretion of the human body later elaborated into four basic temperaments reflecting salient humor types. The idea was transformed in Elizabethan and Renaissance literature to mean a personality aberration or eccentricity, or a literary character having a passion that conveys comic effects and humor. The contemporary senses of humor are often delineated in psychological and philosophical terms:

1. Humor is defined as a joyful character of a complex situation "in the main quiet, laughter, either directly, through sympathy, or through empathy" (Drever, 1953). This definition implies a good-tempered laughter that induces sympathy and compassion for the laughable.

2. A sense of humor may "engender amusement without any behavioral manifestation or with only the lesser one of smiling" (Crag, 1998).

3. Humor is a mental disposition that is "a quirk, a kick, a mental oddity that throws a man off balance and twists his view of life" (Edwards, 1967).

Humor, in general, is more sympathetic, compassionate and less cruel than satire, and more penetrating and subtler than farce and comedy. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, a comedy is a genre of dramatic literature that depicts the light and ridiculous, giving its social implication through intentional objects of amusement. A farce is a mere comic play with exaggerated characters and events to convey humorous effects. An irony is a dramatic device that states something different from what is meant, demanding that the reader interpret the concealed contextual meaning. A satire identifies direct impartial criticism that conveys the author's viewpoint about the objective world. It differs from humor in that it has the objective to ridicule and not only the aim to expose vanity, hypocrisy, idolatry, bigotry or sentimentality, but also the ultimate goal to achieve reform. Authors have their discretion to add humor to a satire or irony. Humor often induces the reader to contemplate and eventually be amusingly liberated after receiving the signified message, often with smiles instead of laughter. All these terms denote varying degrees of comical intensity but all present the art of laughter.

Chinese humor should be understood with the semantic origin of two phrases huaji and youmo:

1. The equivalent of "comic" is huaji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a term that denotes a wine vessel; hua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] signifies water swelling from a vessel and ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] signifies a continuous movement. The phrase huaji, therefore, symbolizes wine coming out from a vessel, relentlessly flowing outward towards a certain direction. This phrase symbolizes the smooth-flowing nature of laughter.

2. Youmo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is the Chinese equivalent of the English word "humor," a phrase that Lin Yutang introduced into China in 1923. You [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] denotes something dim, dark, quiet, weak that leads to a hidden deeper level, and mo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] denotes silence and mute according to the Zhongquo Gu Dai Wenxue Ci Dian. This phrase means a laughter that does not end by itself but invites thinking to penetrate the realities of humanistic or philosophical issues.

I consider first whether huaji or youmo dominates in China; second, judging youmo as a borrowed phrase, whether the Western sense of humor is a literal transfer or a partial transfer into the Chinese culture; and third, how the Chinese view this concept in reference to their national identity. To trace the development of comic tradition amid Chinese philosophical diversity, I examine works in leading genres and periods, mainly poetry during the Zhou, comic historical records in the Han, Daoist lyrical poetry, and novels in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and after the 1911 Revolution.

Strikingly, The Book of Songs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Pre-245 B.C.) throws light on ancient literature to illustrate that humor and satire are integral traditions. Although Sehmidt comments that Chinese satirical verses lack humor, one ingredient deemed essential to Western satire (1994), hilarity is indeed present amid the depiction of agrarian activities like field-labor, raising silkworms, looming, hunting, winemaking and celebrating of festivals within this earliest Chinese poetic anthology. A jocular attitude exists amid the folk poems, chronicling people's vicissitudes, courtship, ecstasy of newlyweds, harmonious marital life and social satirical outlooks. The ideal of a gentleman is vitally sketched in "Little Bay at the Qi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" to embrace a genuine humorous position: "How cleverly he chaffed and joked, and yet was never rude!" He should be talented, witty, hilarious and mirthful, skillful in jesting with great amusement, while not possessing a hurting spirit. In the subject of love relationships, light-hearted amusement is often expressed across the spectrum of love poems, like the blithe air in "The Cock Has Crowed [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]"
East-West Connection

 The lady: The cock has crowed
 The sun has risen.
 The Lover: It is not yet cockcrow--
 Only the buzzing of the bluebottles.

 The Lady: The east is alight.
 The sun is aflame.

 The Lover: it is not the dawn--
 Only the moon rising.

 The Lady: The bluebottles must be drowsy.
 It is sweet to lie by your side.

 The Lover: Quick! Let me go from you.
 Do not let me hate you. (1)

The lady employs good-tempered humor to wake up her lover. The inflations of a crowing cock from the buzzing bluebottles and the sunrise from the moonrise create the effects of blurring images to indicate the mix-up of time. In "Plop Fall the Plums," a maid desperately compares herself to the remaining plums plopping in shallow baskets to urge gentlemen to approach. In "A Quince," the lovers exchange incongruous love-tokens of a quince, tree-peaches and tree-plum with girdle-gem, greenstone and jet-stones. Many poems form farcical pictures to express rustic emotions captured in the agrarian lifestyle.

The use of humor was employed in early Chinese civilization not just by the common people but also by the nobility, indicating that humor was well taken as a prevailing cultural value with literary impact. Many songs with humorous effects were systematically compiled as Feng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (airs of the common people) and Ya [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (odes of the Zhou officials), which indicate that humor was approved by a broad spectrum of the contemporary society right from the top of the feudal hierarchy. Good-natured humor was very much the beginning of Chinese identity, which reflected the heart, soul and mind of the earliest people.

From Qin (B.C. 221-206) to Han (B.C. 206-A.D. 220), comic literature flourished as writers portrayed a comical personality doing laughable, foolish and absurd tasks while passing on profundity, such as "Pull the shoot to increase its growth," "Saying a deer as a horse," "A man of Chi worrying over the collapsing sky" and "Covering ears to hide the act of stealing a huge bronze bell." These still-current idiomatic expressions were derived from the casual observations of incongruities that turned out to be explicit truth. During the era of the Three Kingdoms, Han Danchun's Laughable Grove ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) appeared, the first anthology of Chinese jokes.

The Confucian and Daoist Contention

Just like Greece in the age of Plato and Aristotle, China too went through a critical phase in which laughter was viewed as a distorting and degrading form in morals, art, religion and culture, departing from the tradition of the Book of Songs. Though one might doubt whether laughter was viewed in this totally negative position, Confucianism, to a large extent, does cause austerity among the Chinese that sometimes influences first impressions of them that people of other cultures have upon initially meeting them. For most of its history, the core of Chinese identity was shaped by the Confucian code of ethics, which became institutionalized to form the fundamental trait of philosophy, from the ascendancy of the Han Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty, even after the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution and surviving in twenty-first century China. Little did Confucius know that personal success would hinge powerfully on his intellectual ideology. This national identity was engineered by the civil service examinations, rigorously administered from villages, counties, provinces, and the imperial court, to entail the bureaucratic Confucian criteria for official selections. The literati thus held on to rushi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) "into-the-world ideology" to immerse in lifelong philology: the mastery of classics and history, literary compositions, and moral edifications became their goals for political, artistic, cultural and literary pursuits, and ultimately moral precepts. Scholars doctrinally repudiated humanistic expressions and zealously channeled their efforts to adhere to the complicated codes of behaviors for personal virtue development and interpersonal relationships, shaping a system of intricate orientation in life. In the words of C.T. Hsia (1978), "Humor no longer rules where there is tension of any kind existing between a group of people." As he says, there has been a humor-eclipsing phenomenon with this kind of tension, and people are too involved and not detached enough to engage in humorous remarks. Since Confucius, humor literature was systemically evaluated as a form of improper and crafty device, not worth the literati's engagement in the classical creation.

By contrast, Lin Yutang interprets Confucius far differently as he identifies Chinese humor in the nation's practicality. "Chinese philosophy, or Confucianism, is a philosophy of common sense and this common sense is the basis of Chinese humor" (Kao, 1946). Confucius' matter-of-fact tone sounds humorous as in "Did heaven ever talk? The four seasons go their rounds and things are produced. When did Heaven talk?" This pragmatic stance frequently renders grave concepts farcical in the Western eye. However, the Confucian formality mushrooms into an irresistible force sweeping across China, forming the predominant austere national mentality.

On the other hand, "the popular concept of Chinese as hardheaded realists ignores the powerful strand of Daoism in the nation's culture" (Feinberg, 1971). George Kao attributes the comic spirit in the second national force that exercises a hidden platform and salutes Daoism. The literati needed such a safety zone to escape from the vicissitudes of civil authority and Confucian Puritanism, and this chushr [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (out-of-the-world philosophy) became the valve to uphold the psychological equilibrium of society. Scholars sought alternate aspirations when their preoccupation with the civil service examinations rose to inconceivable and unbearable pressure and, to millions, disappointments and hopelessness. Their liberated identity, through Daoism, shifts to the naturalistic appreciation of nature or the cosmos. "For the purpose of humor," Kao writes, "the Daoists have taken care of the Chinese gentleman in his off moments. Being resigned to nature, the Daoist can see man in his limitations; being the perennial outsider, he can afford to relax and laugh" (1946). Also, Kao suggests, " Chinese humor, to a greater degree than that of any other peoples, see the ludicrous in the pathos of life. It is the result of a philosophical reaction to adversity coupled with innate optimism about the future." Daoism allows Chinese to regenerate from the defeatist's spirit, preserving a cool mind, aesthetic attitude in life, and a carefree and radiating self to identify with eternity.

For the literati, the Daoist tradition opens the world for free-expression rather than exclusively moralistic metaphysical elaboration. Zhuang Zi has a rich, creative and complex humorous tradition. He is acclaimed as a Chinese philosopher in a certain existential dimension, but the realm that many neglect is expressed in Lin Yutang's words that Zhuang Zi is a humorist with a wild and rather luxuriant fantasy. Readers should read him as a humorous writer, knowing that he is frivolous when he is profound and profound when he is frivolous. He farcically detours from engaging in "moralistic enterprise" to advocate repudiating human temperaments and intellect, nullifying the gains of life, and reuniting with nature. Extremely advanced in the notion of relativism, he plays around the enormous magnitude of time, ludicrously equating the eight hundred years of an old man, the five hundred years of a turtle, a cicada born and withered in two seasons with the one-day-life-span of a worm. In a farcical parody against Confucius, he teases this moralistic giant, who in his contemptuous reception of a deformed amoralistic man without toes, instantaneously changes his disposition after knowing how the deformed man aspired to Confucius' pompous precious ethics.

Zhuang Zi's notion to dance in and out of time and to roam freely in the infinite universe gives him complete freedom to employ his imaginative exploration. Through Zhuang Zi's playful notions, "[he] foreshadowed a fresh outlook in art and a new esthetic interest in later generations" (Shih, 1983). His eclectic outlook in relativism gives rise to abundant stories, parables, and teachings that operate on incongruities, the incompatible, hyperboles, and unexpected truths. I view him as "the grandfather of humor" in China, an ancient comedian structuring his stage directly even from his life crisis, offering a stunning dimension for the Chinese to balance their mental and emotional obsession with spiritual detachment. The most farfetched reality Zhuang Zi attempted to idealize and actualize is his wife's death, with his stolid beating time on a bowl. "[She] is dead, passing from one phase to another like the sequence of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. And while she is thus asleep in Eternity, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of these natural laws. Therefore I refrain" (Feingberg, 1971). This farcical act fully encapsulates his detached and humorous view of life. Zhuang Zi also stretches this notion of detachment to become advanced in time to celebrate the dual nature of human identity through his ludicrous butterfly theory, making fun of the multiple realities of human existence. A mystical question is whether Zhuang Zi changes into the butterfly or the butterfly changes into him. In his nonexistence theory, the butterfly can be him or he can be the butterfly. He wittily jumps about between reality and illusion, and we wonder whether we belong to or oscillate between the two actualities (Wu, 1990).

Comic Literature before Ming

The demand for comic relief had to occur amid the intense classics pursuit and it took place virtually under the palatial roof that instituted Confucianism. Sima Qian (BC 145 to 86 BC) coined the term huaji (comical) during the Han Dynasty and devoted a section of Huaji Liechuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the earliest anthology of comic prose in China) in his larger-than-life masterpiece The Records of the Grand Historians [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The section depicts the narratives of the earliest humorists paiyou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (court jesters) using farfetched anecdotes to admonish emperors through their subtle advice. These palace jesters excelled in eloquent speeches and witty arguments derived from daily candid experiences, converting ordinary phenomena to profound remarks yet offering counsel on critical issues. Chunyu Kun used a comic account of superb wine to reprove King Wei of Qi against drunkenness. Jester Meng used sarcastic remonstrance to discourage the Emperor from giving a lavish funeral service for his dead horse. Dongfang Su is considered as the most celebrated court jester, "the father of farce" who gives loquacious speeches:
 One day during a national religious worship, Emperor
 Han sent a meat-granting decree to his officials. Without
 waiting for the announcement of the emperor's
 declaration, Dong pulled his sword and carved some
 meat to take home. When hearing of his audacious act,
 the emperor interrogated him waiting for his confession
 of his erroneous act. To his amazement, Dong exclaimed,
 " Dong, come. How rude! You carved meat without
 waiting for the royal decree. But how honest were you
 for not taking too much meat! How benevolent were you
 to give it all to my wife!" Emperor Han chuckled and
 claimed, "I was waiting for you to tell your own flaw,
 but you applauded yourself brilliantly." Han ordered
 him to take additional wine and meat as gifts for his
 wife. (2)

Most anecdotes set the tradition that the earliest comic records echoed didactic principles.

Liu Xie (A.D. 465-522), as the first literary giant to establish a formal position for comic literature in the Chinese literary world, did not regard it highly. In The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (Wenxin Diaolong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a penetrating and comprehensive literary criticism, Liu devotes a chapter entitled "Humor and Enigma" (Hsieh Yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to define, categorize and evaluate comic literature. He claims, "Hsieh, or humor or jest, means chieh, or all, that is something expressed in crude language to the taste of the common people, which is enjoyed by all." He states that this genre falls mostly in the hands of commoners with their style of crudeness but jollity and gives a didactic tone in his concluding comments.
 If the ideas are appropriate and fitting to the situation,
 They may help give admonition and warning;
 Should they be mere farce and jokes?
 They would have a very damaging effect upon moral living. (2)

Liu defines the existence of comic literature solely on the basis of moralistic ideology. He critiques Dongfang Su because he failed, "to correct the tendency and instead, indulged in raillery and took indecent personal liberties," although scholars acknowledge Dong's quick wit.

Running counter to Confucian didacticism is a school of prose and poems that excel in Daoist ideology, conveying satirical as well as comical tendencies particularly with the theme of wine drinking. Here, poets or prose writers divorced from the ethical literary tradition guffaw at themselves using disguise and deception, allusion and disparaging comparison or contrast. Writers or poets frequently presented themselves as farcical characters to reflect their inner mindsets and emotions. In Lin's words, "They talked and joked after tea and wine"; some bared their teeth in wit and satire. Some who were eccentric poets and artists became "fools of this world," were regarded as "odd" by others, and often chose the epithets of "folly" or even "the idiot," "the crazy ones for themselves ..." (Lin, 1960). Tao Yuanming (A.D. 372-427) was one such poet, whose poetry entails departing from worldly turmoil and social advancement but simply fusing with natural aestheticism. Drinking was his favorite entertainment that frees his spontaneous self, rather teasingly, to poke fun at his conventional self in an amusing manner.
 A guest resides in me, Our interests are not altogether the same.
 One of us is drunk;
 The other is always awake.
 Awake and drunk--
 We laugh at one another,
 And we do not understand each other's world.
 Proprieties and conventions--
 Such folly to follow them in earnest.
 Be proud, be unconcerned:
 Then you will approach wisdom.
 Listen, you drunken old man,
 When day dies,
 Light a candle. (3)

The two selves expose their identities belonging to the different worlds of wakefulness and drunkenness, proprieties and folly, and sternness and muse. Su Dongpo (Su Shi, A.D. 1036-1101) was another such poet who devoted himself to literary aestheticism, drinking, and gaiety after his adverse conflicts and exile from his civil service for the Sung emperor.
 On the clear moon's speckles, silvery night!
 When filling thy cup, be sure to fill it quite]
 Strive not for frothy fame or bubble wealth:
 A passing dream--
 A Flashing flint--
 A shadow's flight!
 O what is knowledge, fine and superfine?
 To innocent and simple joys resign!
 When I go home, I'll carry on my back
 A load of clouds--
 A sweet-toned chin--
 A pot of wine! (4)

Dongpo was famous for his drollness, and his personal life, together with his literary achievements, was full of anecdotes of drama and fun.

Comic Literature from Ming to the Early Twentieth Century

"The Chinese are an essentially humorous people in their daily life, and yet in their classical literature the silent chuckle and ticklish laughter seem to be rare" (Lin, 1940). Comic literature existed in a sporadic manner before the Ming Dynasty, but is still rich in its aesthetic presentations written across dynasties as in the Zhou folk poetry, Zhuang Zi's parables, palace jesters' anecdotes, and Daoist lyrical poetry. These works reflect the spirit of unconventional minds in asserting their own identities amidst the world of conventional ethical norms. However, not until the Ming dynasty did the literati engage in emerging literary genres such as drama, jokes, novels, and travel literature given their humorous tendency.

To capture the breadth of Chinese novels after the sixteenth century that convey varying degrees of humor and satire, I recommend the extensive research of the Tings' Chinese Folk Narratives: a Bibliographical Guide. The political emancipation of the Mings from "the barbaric Mongol sovereignty," together with economic expansion and upward social mobility, propelled the literati into a surge of literary recreations. Still, humor and satire were considered substandard forms of art, and many respectable authors used pseudonyms so as not to tarnish their literary reputations. Most humorous works, as a result, rested in the hands of common people who excelled in various literary styles. All the major classical novels like "Dream of the Red Chamber," "The Three Kingdoms," "The Brotherhood " and "Journey to the West" have their unique comic elements. "But humorous literature and jokes flourished in a joke-loving people in spite of Confucian Puritanism and outside the sanctimonious territory of orthodox literature. All of the forms of Western satire appear in China, in some instances long before the West produced that kind of literature" (Hsia, 1996).

Journey to the West [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Wu Chengan, 1500-1582) has been acclaimed as "the champion of ridicule," adopted within the farcical tradition of Dongfang Su, the satirical ancient classical essays, the military drama ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and Yuan opera to create pure "comic exuberance" yet with strong realism. Wu centers on the humanistic individualities of his characters built upon traditional comic techniques with further complexity. The Buddhist monk Xuan Zang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (his honorific title is Tripitaka) is an eccentric, often ridiculed monk, but his two disciples, Monkey and Pigsy definitely arrest the readers' attention with their farcical animalistic appearances, eccentric personalities, odd mentalities, bizarre behaviors, and mischievous spirits. Comic parallels exist between the Monkey's wit, righteousness, dedication and heroism and Pigsy's sensuality, jealousy, impulsiveness and mediocrity. The origins of the two are preposterous. The Monkey is born from the merger of the sun and moon upon a half-broken tooth of Avalokitesvara, thus possessing seventy-two awe-inspiring physical transformations and a cloning mechanism through his hair into infinite genetic copies. Pigsy, after his sexual harassment of Change (a heavenly maid), suffers heavenly expulsion, is distorted into a beastly facade, and can only transform into clumsy appearances such as a camel, an elephant, and a mud pile. While the Monkey confesses his loyalty to Tripitaka by engaging in fantastic combats during his master's eighty-one tribulations, Pigsy easily disclaims his holy partnership to resume his sensual obsession with materialism. The road to sanctification is equalized as the Monkey is appointed "The Buddha Victorious in Strife," whereas Pigsy, because of Tathagata's (Rulaifa's) understanding of his never- extinguished greed and immense intestinal desire, is honored as "The Altars-Consecration Janitor."

The thematic message of this novel has been debated for centuries along multiple theoretical liness, namely strong religious intent, art-for-art humor, political and philosophical motives. It is a mixture of Buddhist allusions, folk narratives and legends, political satire, and mythological imagination, all portrayed in flesh and bones. The audacious personality of Monkey is so well impersonated and acknowledged that he is elevated to folk temple worship. Journey to the West is a comic adventure that conveys a facet of humanistic perspectives, breaking away from historical literary role-specific stereotypes to penetrate into the multifaceted psychological realities of comic personae defying all mortal laws of probability and yet congruent with moral ideals. Hsia claims that this novel is comparable to Don Quixote as both works have their developmental magnitude in Chinese and Western fiction (1996).

Again, comic elements play an extremely powerful role in the dramatic development of The Mirror of Flowers [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Li Ruzhen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; 1763-1830). One major story within presents the juxtaposition of sex roles, where men assume domestic tasks and put on makeup and women dominate in the political establishment, armed with swords and warrior clothes, and even wear rugged beards. In one episode where the abducted Lin Zhiyang is grandiloquently presented as the Lady Emperor's concubine after his abuse of foot binding, Li allows the suppressed voice of women to fight for their long-forgotten identity in the patriarchal institutions. Li also satirizes how women strive to succeed in civil examinations, and in the words of Roddy (1998). "The literary examinations become the vehicle for fulfillment among women thus seems to suggest at least a grain of irony." Mirror of the Flowers magnifies the institutional and social ills of examination learning, its corruption of intellectual life, and the biases against gender.

Until now, I have presented a line of literature that induces more laughter than humor, exactly described as huaji in its spontaneity and artlessness, basic crudity, lack of aestheticism, but candid portrayal of Chinese folks' liveliness across centuries. Chinese comic literature differs from the Western tradition of comedy in its origin and emphasis. Comedy is rooted in the Latin Comoedia, meaning songs of stirring celebration, associated with Dionysiac celebrations in the Greek country. The Western comedies, therefore, are light-hearted, less judgmental and more engrossed in the penetrating thinking behind the laughter. Chinese comic writing (Tang, 1992), however, has a much stronger didactic component that originated from palace jesters who exercised gifted verbose tales to suggest understated advice.

In 1923 Lin Yutang distinguished his coined phrase youmo (humor) from huaji in three aspects:

1. The person or character ridiculed is treated with sympathy.

2. Humor does not exaggerate for its own sake, but rather, the author has a point to make through a humorous remark.

3. The style of humor usually conveys an air of leisure.

Lin's criteria of humor are totally western concepts that echo sympathy toward the ridiculed, the thoughtful outcome as the author's intent, and the air of the leisurely as crucial for the development of humor writing. His novels are not particularly outstanding, but he is a superb essayist whose sense of humor both the East and West applaud:
 Confucius understood mass psychology better than
 anybody else. Rituals were symbols, and the masses
 needed symbols. For a baron to wear a cap with nine
 strings of beads or to worship at Mount Tai, exclusive
 privileges of the Emperor, would be indicative of a
 rebellious spirit and of social chaos. When a baron used
 at his feasts dancers in eight formations, to which only
 the Emperor was entitled, instead of in four, which was
 proper to a baron, Confucius exclaimed, "If one is to
 stand for this, what will one not stand for?" (5)

He compliments Confucius with an unexpected twist of the psychological perspective and dresses him up in western terms like the "psychology of habit," "psychology of imitation," "acquired childhood reflexes," and "mass conditioning by symbols." Again, he laughs at the psychology of peace politics, playing around with the hypocritical notion of "rough people fight; courteous people don't," but courteous men fight with the excuse of the other party as barbaric without good manners. Lin advocated his humorous philosophy in his own humor magazine and other literary publications on diverse subjects, integrating humor with literature, science, politics, history, psychology, folklore, religion, nature, travel and other topics. Although certain of his humorous literature is described as severely stabbing, by and large, he is able to adapt the western sense of humor in most of his works.

The majority of writers during the late nineteenth to the early twentiethc century, however, did not live in Lin's leisurely space but were all hard-pressed to find remedies for China under the Western volatile bombardment in political, social, philosophical and literary matters. Lin Yutang's sense of humor was totally Western and represented only a few privileged intelligentsias' stylish voices. Lu Xun (1881-1936) responded to Lin's advocacy of humor literature by claiming it was not a Chinese product amidst its nationwide chaos. The early twentieth century of China experienced the endless horrors of foreign invasions, multiple humiliations in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and two Sino-Japanese Wars (1895 and 1937), the breakdown of the Qing dynasty, the collapse of the Kuomingtang nationalists, rampant inflation, and the rise of communism. China was a nation that was shedding blood, under the imminent threat of disintegration, and nowhere was there fertile soil for humor. Only a minority of writers echoed Lin's humor-for-living notion in literature. Literature, according to Lu, should urgently aim for spiritual transformation in the restoration of China, to re-establish the national identity with dignity and pride. Lu maintained changing the nature of humor and geared towards social satire. Chinese should no longer ask for sympathy or empathy but urgently need self-awakening and engage in reforms for self-strengthening.

Lu understood Western humor, but instead of promoting it like Lin Yutang, employed it to serve his country-saving mission. As the leading razor-sharp satirist of the time, he presented "The True Story of Ah Q [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," an internationally acclaimed work compiled within The Outcry [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Ah Q, a tragic hero repeatedly humiliated in life and cocooned himself in a state of psychological triumph, is a persona that sardonically exposes the national mentality of the contemporary Chinese. The novela develops through the contention of his dual voices--humor versus satire, and ultimately, the satirized voice triumphs. I distinguish four types of satirical humor that he employs to achieve his dramatic impact:

First: circular humor

[For] the immortal pen has always been required to record the deeds of an immortal man, the man becoming known to posterity through the writing and the writing known to posterity through the man--until finally it is not clear who is making whom known.

Lu Xun describes the circling effect of writing in a rather humorous tone for the opening of the novela. He ridicules himself as a writer not skillful enough to identify the appropriate type of biography for his character Ah Q as he takes deliberate but fruitless pain to fit Ah Q into the genres of official biography, unauthorized biography, supplementary biography, sketch, or family history. He gives Ah Q an aura of importance with strong historical existence, even pointing to his immortality.

Second: specificity to nullification to universality humor

The only thing that consoles me is the fact that the character "Ah" is absolutely correct. This is definitely not the result of false analogy, and is well to stand the test of scholarly criticism. As for the other problems, it is not for such unlearned people as myself to solve them, and I can only hope that disciples of Dr. Hu Shih, who has such "a passion for history antiques" may be able in future to throw light on them....

Lu's research on Ah Q's last name is a culturally specific task that turns out to be nothing. Ah Q faces a contemptuous interrogation about his possible last name of Zhao: "He should have known better than to boast like that when there was a Mr. Zhao living in the village." His psychological dependency on wealth and power to boost his identity of unworthiness only leads to his peers' social judgment. With Lu's decision to simplify Ah Quei to Ah Q, it allows Lu to laugh at his own expense. "This approximates to blindly following the New Youth magazine, and I am thoroughly ashamed of myself, but since even such a learned man as Mr. Zhao's son could not solve my problem, what else can I do?" The only specificity that consoles Lu is ironic as Ah can be tagged onto all Chinese names. With this identification, he represents a true story giving a hilarious touch as this legendary figure can represent anyone in China.

Third: intensification due to grotesque twisting of truth

Lu's initial light sense of humor quickly subsides to a prevailing satirical atmosphere as the story develops in an escalating tempo to dramatize Ah Q's psychological imbalance. His self-deceptive psychological strategies to deal with social oppressions are totally divorced from reality and induce laughter over his feeblest acts. His use of "furious-look-ism" to resist people's teasing remarks such as ringworm scars makes him a laughingstock. His twisted logic is pathetic in his mental delusion derived from subtracting "self-belittler" (from people's nasty remarks about him) from "foremost self-belittler" leaving behind "foremost" and then equating himself as the "foremost" just like the "foremost" highest successful candidate in the official examination. With further defeat, he physically abuses himself through split-selves syndrome, identifying the victorious self over his abused self. At the peak of intensification, his strategy of "forgetfulness" is a means to handle the worst type of humiliation, and Lu employs his heavy-handed irony depicting it as "the precious 'ability to forget' handed down by his ancestors," that sarcastically accuses the nation of inheriting this weakness. Lu dramatizes Ah Q's exultant spirit as utmost folly, paradoxically pointing out the nation's psychological delusion of still living in "a proof of the moral supremacy of China over the rest of the world."

Fourth: non-evidential humor

"Tell the truth and you will receive a lighter sentence!" said the old man with the shaven head, in a low but clear voice, fixing his eyes on Ah Q. "I know everything already. When you have confessed, I will let you go."

"Confess!" repeated the long-coated men loudly....

"Have you anything else to say?" asked the old man gently.

"Ah Q thought, and decided there was nothing to say, so he answered, "Nothing."

The section about the revolution is hilarious, as Ah Q is too ignorant to understand the spirit of revolution but his aspirations to the movement are all because of personal privileges and vengeance. No evidence of his loyal pledge to the revolutionaries exists, for it only occurs within his imagination in his drunken state. Questioned at the yamen (local court) about his antirevolutionary commitment, Ah Q is convicted without any evidential basis, and is sentenced to capital punishment based on a ludicrous question "Do you have anything else to say?" Those paradoxical incidents reveal Lu's outcry against the 1911 Revolution for its failure to save China: the dichotomy between common peoples' ignorance and the revolutionaries' self-interest. "In this regard the hero represents not only a national vice but the crude awakening to the need for better justice with which modem Chinese literature has been vitally concerned" (Hsia, 1999). Lu could not remain in his world of leisure and contemplation, but rather, he approached literature as a means to call for arms. Humor was a luxury far from the suffering people, but satire is the weapon to wake up, mobilize, and fight. The use of satirical humor with intensified cynicism, twisting of truths, unexpected logic without basis, and harsh verbal irony was like a sharp knife piercing into the Achilles' heel of the nation in order to give the needed remedies.

As a dominant contemporary humorist in China, Lao She did not strictly adhere to the criteria for humor in most of his novels or plays. His essays theorized about humor, but his novels presented tragedies of individuals in their environment. Rickshaw Boy [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], written on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, depicts an innocent and self-driven servant punished for the political activities of his respectable boss, leading to his inevitable fall. Cha Guan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] unfolds the fatalistic history of a teahouse that experiences the constant upheaval of political power in China. Another of his satirical novels, City of Cats [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (written in 1932 amidst the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and Shanghai), depicts a fantasyland of the humorous Cat nation that faces its eventual extermination, again a parody of the weakness and malaise of modern China (Liu, 1967). Humor certainly had no place in China during the turbulence of external wars and the civil war against the communists. It was ironic that Lao, the potential Nobel Prize winning folk writer, committed suicide during the reign of Mao. His humor, his talent, and his love for China, and ultimately, his own life all drowned in the Taiping Lake, which renders City of Cats prophetic for the novelist's personal life.


The lack of Chinese humor literature up to the mid-twentieth century reveals the nation's unpreparedness to absorb humor into its literary culture. Humorous literature has been far from the makeup of the Chinese national identity. The Chinese identity presents a constant shift from a realist to a naturalist but the social sense of mission has always been the mainstream among the literati. The ultimate paradox is that Confucianism represents the realist in the Chinese identity with the highest concern to fulfill the literati's sense of mission serving the state, whereas Daoism represents the free spirit, frivolously trying to be true to heart and to become the ultimate naturalist. Lin attempts to bring in Western humor through his free spirit, taking a leisurely pace to mock and comfort, radiating his humanistic viewpoints with charm and elegance. A humorist, according to him, takes a gentle approach like a man charged with the duty of breaking sad news lightly to a dying patient, hoping that the mild warning can save the patient's life (Lin, 1940). This interpretation is only partially true, because it is only true for a small privileged sector of China. This Western sense of philosophy was a mismatch with the national crises that predominated in China, due to the loss of power from imperialism and recurring humiliations. Most people were at the verge of suffering, and many in danger of starvation and death. The literati were desperately searching for a new workable national identity. Lu and Lao, who represented this movement, employed humor only as a partial transfer from the West, and used satire to achieve their political, social and cultural goals for reforms. To them, a satirist uses stabbing literary devices to dissect the nationwide sores and mercilessly expose the malady for the critical country-saving mission. This urgency and realism arose because of the long-standing Confucian idealism for the literati's identity and love for one's nation, one's society and one's beloved folks, manifested in the May Fourth Movement, the June Fourth Massacre, and others that may come in the future. On the other hand, deep-seated humor does exist, running from the source of Daoism. With continual political stability, deepening of westernization, implementation of democracy, and expansion of economic investment, it may blossom and extend the Chinese identity to another dimension.
 My father-in-law immigrated to the United States from
 China in 1947. One day at a meeting at work, he was
 giving a presentation to his associates and managers.
 During this presentation, he referred to his travels to the
 Massachusetts town of Worcester, pronouncing it
 correctly as "WOOSTER."

 My father-in-law's manager spoke up, however, saying
 to him, "I'm sorry, that's pronounced WOOCHESTER."

 My father-in-law realized of course that his manager had
 erred. But rather than correcting his manager, he
 thought quickly and replied, "Sorry, please forgive me.
 But English is only my seventh language." (Another true


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(1) From Waley's The Book of Songs

(2) Translation by the author

(2) From The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons.

(3) From Feinberg's Asian Laughter.

(4) From Lin's The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo.

(5) From Lin's Between Tears and Laughter
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Author:Sun, Michelle C.
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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