Book review: Humour in Chinese Life and Culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 5:44pm

Humour in Chinese Life and Culture
edited by Jessica Milner Davis and Jocelyn Chey
HK University Press
3 stars

Kerrie MacPherson

The contributors to this volume of 10 essays set themselves a daunting task: to analyse the vagaries of humour in all its configurations as an expression of culture. As editors Jessica Milner Davis - who wrote the overview - and Jocelyn Chey note, "the modern use of the term 'humour' in China is connected with the concept of the individual".

A common thread from the editors' perspective is that humour in the Chinese context is a modernising cultural construct. Humour - satirical or slapstick or any variations in between - may be amusing or hurtful, but expresses a need to address conformity or orthodoxy.

A particular delight is an essay on Canto-pop songs and rusheng rhymes (comic rhymed speech) in Cantonese opera. The phenomenon reflected the transitional nature of the 1960s generation, many of whom had fled the mainland to seek a better life in the colony and helped to forge a Hong Kong identity through song and music.

Several of the essays take a discerning look at visual humour, the biting but subtle illustrations and cartoons that make observations on contemporary culture.

One essay explores the impact of Japanese political cartoons on China and Chinese political cartoons on the Japanese during the late to early 20th century. This is a complex subject reflecting the uneasy nature of Sino-Japanese relations during this troubled period.

Visual humour in other modes of modern communication and entertainment such as movies and the internet are also examined. The new year comedy movies made after the reforms in China in the late 1990s are a case in point. Those feel-good comic adventures had a three-fold purpose; staving off competition from abroad, specifically Hollywood films that were allowed in China; revitalising the film industry; and celebrating the new year with non-confrontational appeal to the concerns of a broad section of the population.

Humour on the internet is analysed in relation to the new youth and their consumption via the new media. This is a fast-changing and fluid world, spelled out in nano-bytes and lightning challenges to cultural restraints.

The chapter on freedom and political humour brings the book to its logical conclusion. That is, the "theme of humour as modernising in both concept and practice". Ultimately, for these authors, politics and dissent are agents for humour. Sophisticated or crude, politics determine the action or reaction of individuals versus the state. This book will not make you laugh but it may enlighten.