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Comment: China’s online satirists bringing an old tradition to a new medium

Posted: 11/21/2013 11:00 am

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The New York Times published an article October 30 titled “Jokes, Lies and Pollution in China“, which explained that humour was one of the ways in which the Chinese public was dealing with the country’s seemingly intractable environmental problems.

Two days later, Tea Leaf Nation wrote of online satirists evoking the spirit of Lu Xun, one of modern China’s most influential literary figures, to mock the growing number of “public confessions” on state media.

The online satire that has flourished in the age of social media is part of a literary tradition that goes back to the early twentieth century, which itself was a reaction to Neo-Confucianism, an ideology that became prominent during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Neo-Confucianism was blamed by intellectuals such as Lin Yutang for the “stagnation of Chinese culture.”

The most commonly used Chinese translation of the English word “satire” is 讽刺, a word which appears in three significant texts that were published before 900 A.D. These were “The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons” by Liu Xie (465-520), “The Book of Sui,” which was completed in 636, and a poem by Tang Dynasty general Gao Pian (821-887).

However, it wasn’t until 1924 that there was a Chinese word that captured the Western concept of “humour” when the Western-educated Lin Yutang transliterated it into the Chinese word 幽默.

Neo-Confucianism was a rationalist philosophy with what Lin Yutang described as a “didactic and dogmatic” tradition under which “the serious became too serious, and the non-serious too vulgar.” The word previously used to mean “funny” 滑稽 had too many low-brow connotations to be effective, according to the essay “Translating Humour into Chinese Culture” by Qian Suoqiao.

While the neo-Confucianists painted Confucius as a conservative and austere figure, Lin pointed to Confucius’ geniality and tendency to laugh at his own expense in various sayings and historical anecdotes.

Although not all shared his philosophy on humour and satire, Lin would go on to influence such major literary figures of the twentieth century as Lao She and Lu Xun. Lao She had this to say about satire:

“Satire must be said in a very sharp tongue, giving out a very strong, freezing irony…The satirist deliberately does not want us to be sympathetic to the people and things he describes… The mentality of the satirist is as if he has seen through this world, so as to very cleverly attack the shortcomings of mankind.”

However, a culture of biting political and social satire that may have blossomed would not become well-established in the People’s Republic of China. This change was most pronounced in the comic form of “crosstalk,” according to Evan Osnos.

While in the 1940s, crosstalk had become an anti-authoritarian and subversive form, the communist government would introduce the Committee for Crosstalk Reform would which censored some scripts and discarded others. This turned crosstalk into a bland mouthpiece for party policy.

As for Lao She, he committed suicide in 1966 after being publicly abused for his writing.

But the culture of satire, as described by Lao She, has had a second wind in the social media age. The microblog “Satirical and critical quotations” this week ran with the post: “When a six year-old American child jokes about wiping out Chinese people, ABC is expected to apologise. Yet when five people are buried alive in Wuhan, nothing happens.” Although it is interesting that a microblog that criticises China in such ways is allowed to exist, the best online satire tends to be more oblique.

Nowadays, most satire is necessarily done by stealth, and online satirists have a Road Runner-ish relationship with the vast army of internet censors.

Resembling the way in which the Hay’s Code of censorship often made for more powerful filmmaking during Hollywood’s silver screen era, Hu Yong, an internet expert and associate professor at Peking University has described censorship as “the mother of creativity.” Hu said: “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humour works as a natural form of encryption.”

Chinese humour has always been largely pun-based due to the huge amount of homonyms in the language. The coded language used by online humorists such as Pi San has entered mainstream culture.

This innocent-looking video made by Pi San is actually a tribute to the artist Ai Weiwei made after he was arrested in April 2011.

The animation only refers to Ai Weiwei through exclamations that sound similar to his name and through a reference to his most famous solo exhibition: the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds he laid out across the floor of the Tate Modern in 2010.

It was described by the New York Times as a “masterpiece of comic subterfuge” and “an indictment of the corrosive effect of censorship on society.”

The style of tackling serious issues in a comical way is back in vogue. The government may grudgingly permit a certain amount of satire to allow the public to let off steam, but authoritarian regimes are not known for their ability to laugh at themselves. The government will be anxious to keep the culture of online satire in check before the laughter becomes loud enough to be dangerous.

  • Ray

    Although I am certainly against censorship, I agree that there is a comparison to be made on Silver Age of Hollywood and Chinese netizen creativity. As a comic nerd, I also would compare the Comics Code Authority of decades-past to this sort of phenomena. Perhaps that’s why for so long American comics lagged behind Japanese in adult literary themes, for example, but I still enjoy dissecting how X-Men is an analogy to racism et al.~

    China at least deserves its own Jon Stewart, like Egypt, who can then be arrested and the world can see. Pushing the envelope is a delicate art in every culture, one-party states especially so, but its very good to know the Chinese online have it in them!

  • Ray

    Slightly off-topic, but has anyone seen the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated? Even in free speech -land, censorship is often not just about an excuse for subtle creativity but outright corruption, with the MPAA system is often a mechanism for Hollywood executives to squeeze out smaller independent studios with NC-17 ratings etc.

    How that relates to what Chinese sites can get away with, I don’t know but perhaps there are backroom dealings that decide certain standards…


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