The humour revolution

A dad asks his son: ‘Son, when you grow up who do you think you want to marry?’ The boy goes, ‘I want to marry Granny, she loves me the most!’ The dad says, ‘you can’t marry Granny, don’t you know she’s my mother?’ And the boy replies, ‘Well, you married my mother, why can’t I marry yours?’” Christopher Rea says through laughter.

Rea is an associate professor of the Chinese Faculty of Arts Department of Asian Studies at UBC. Specializing in late 19th and early 20th century Chinese literary and cultural history, Rea will be giving a talk about modern China’s humour revolution at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch on October 13.

“A lot of my work has been showing the diversity of the Chinese sense of humour,” he says.

During his talk, which will be conducted in both English and Mandarin, Rea says he will be sharing a lot of original material from that period that translates and works well with his discussion.

“If people go to this event, they won’t just hear academic discourse. They will also hear some jokes,” says Rea.

A sense of humour

Christopher Rea, associate professor of the Chinese Faculty of Arts Department of Asian Studies at UBC. | Photo courtesy of Christopher Rea

China does have some humorous traditions that date back to philosophers. They were funny people,” says Rea.

Chinese humourists were very open-minded and drew their sense of humour from everywhere – whether it was Canadian or British humour, the source wouldn’t have mattered. They would just translate and adapt whatever worked for them, for their own purposes, says Rea.

This sense of humour connected with Rea as he grew up loving the comedy style of Monty Python.

“I was a huge fan of Monty Python. These were Oxford and Cambridge educated guys that had this very zany silly style that emerged out of formal British culture,” says Rea. “I was curious to see if there was anything comparable to that in China.”

Through his research, Rea discovered there were hundreds of joke books being published. People were writing stage farce, and they were also buying second hand movie cameras and making slapstick films and distributing them during that period, he says.

“There was a lot of borrowing going on,” he explains, using The New Yorker as an example. “People would translate from The New Yorker and reprint the cartoons with Chinese captions.”

A new type of writing

One of the major historical changes is that in the 1920–30s someone coined a new term for humour in China: youmo,” says Rea.

Youmo, Rea explains, was a new type of writing centred around this new philosophy of living. It meant that one should be humorous, cosmopolitan, knowing and worldly and express that through humour, instead of being silly, satirical or mean-spirited to cut people down, he says.

“There was this effort to overthrow a lot of existing traditions and replace it with something that was thought of as being much more tolerant and worldly: yes, we’re suffering right now, but we can enjoy ourselves with a certain degree of detachment,” says Rea.

During the warlord era, there were massive floods and civil strife going on.

“Some people experienced the war differently than others did. There is a spectrum of opinion and experience. I don’t try to say everyone was jolly back in those days, but I do point out a lot of people did cope with trauma through humour and some people just genuinely enjoyed themselves,” says Rea.

Vancouver is a great place to have this discussion because many people are intensely interested in the past and present of Chinese culture, says Rea.

In his talk, Rea not only discusses how humour evolved in the late 19th and early 20th century in China, but also why it matters today.

“As a cultural historian I try to capture the whole spectrum: what was there and why it is significant,” he says.

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