CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Canberra launch | China Heritage Quarterly

The Canberra Launch of Humour in Chinese Life and Letters

Geremie R. Barmé
Asia Book Room, Canberra
2 February 2012

Voices from the Bamboo Grove:
The Humanity of Chinese Humour

I suppose for me it all started with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qi xian 竹林七賢).

The Bamboo Grove was said to be located in Shanyin 山陰 county, Henan province. In the third century of our era, or the Wei-Jin 魏晉 period in China, it is said to have attracted a group of what we would now call bon vivants and wits. The most famous, or at least the most notorious of the seven were: Ji Kang, Ruan Ji and Liu Ling. They were nonconformists who chaffed at the restraints of court Confucianism and the expectations of a society defined by rigid hierarchy, empty ritual and slavish compliance. Many of their bons mots as well as those of their motley fellows are collected in New Sayings of the World (Shishuo xinyu 世說新語), a work that is some 1400 years old. Lily Lee devotes a chapter to that collection in Humour in Chinese Life and Letters, the book we are here to celebrate today.

Ji Kang嵇康 famously rejected the blandishments of office because, among other things, he said that were he to accept work at court when wrapped in official robes and paying respects to his superiors it would be impossible for him to scratch at the lice that bit him. Moreover, he declared, banquets were onerous and the prattle of bureaucrats intolerable.

Ruan Ji阮籍 made himself known by speaking with contempt of the hypocritically upright gentlemen in service to the power-holders. He said that such puffed-up individuals were as insignificant as the fleas to be found in the seams of one's clothes; and,

Then there was Liu Ling 劉伶. He was forever in his cups. His poem in praise of the virtues of wine has resonated, clamorously, through the ages. One of the anecdotes recorded in New Sayings of the World that relates to the man known as 'The Lord of Spirits' tells us that:

Liu Ling was often uninhibited when drunk and sometimes sat at home naked. When someone visited him and upbraided him for it, he replied: 'The universe is my home, this room my pants and robes. What, sir, are you doing in my pants?'

It must have been 1973 when Pierre Ryckmans (better known to the reading public by his penname Simon Leys) first led our class of ANU Chinese Studies students into the world of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. In the People's Republic of China of that time, however, the Sages had long since been dismissed as 'feudal remnants'. Even their straight-laced rivals, the Confucians, were being denounced by Mao Zedong for being in league with that notorious revisionist and plotter Marshal Lin Biao. When I went to China as an exchange student in 1974, the only trace of the Bamboo Grove was to be found in the acerbic, but officially tolerated writings of Lu Xun 魯迅.

Lu Xun was himself one of the great black humourists of China's twentieth century. He recorded and ridiculed the follies of his fellow countrymen and women in an essay form, the zawen 雜文, that still causes the Chinese authorities discomfort. It is the vehicle of choice for the wit of practitioners like the Shanghai-based Han Han 韓寒 (whose hobbies also include car racing). Lu Xun had famously commented on the Sages of the Bamboo Grove and the unleashing of literary energy during the Wei and Jin dynasties. For him Wei-Jin writing promised something more uninhibited and lively than the hidebound literary forms of earlier centuries.

Lu Xun had spoken about the Wei-Jin authors and their 'breezy chatter' (qingtan 清談) in a lecture he gave in Guangzhou in the summer of 1927, one of the most momentous years of twentieth century China—one in which the violent split between the Communists and Nationalists led to a political and cultural struggle that continues to this day. Political uncertainty and social anomie in the Wei-Jin eventually saw the lights of the age dimmed. What remained was the irreverence of the Seven Sages and the astringent escapism of Tao Yuanming 陶淵明.

Lu Xun's 1927 lecture is touched on by Qian Suoqiao in his chapter, 'Discovering Humour in Modern China', where he also discusses 1933, a year celebrated through new publications and a casual essay style as the 'Year of Humour'. Sadly, given the riven political atmosphere of the time, Lu Xun would for his part be no fan of 'humour' or youmou 幽默. That Chinese term, youmou, was the creation of the champion of the humorous essay form, Lin Yutang 林語堂. His disquisition on the subject translated by Joseph Sample is another valuable contribution that this meaty volume makes to our understanding of a subject that all to easily defies and defeats friend and foe alike.

A participant in the 1933 Year of Humour was another famous essayist, Zhou Zuoren. The brother of Lu Xun, Zhou too addressed an audience of students though in his case it was in the renamed city of Beiping 北平, the former imperial capital. In his talk, Zhou Zuoren also touched on the Wei-Jin period. He remarked that over the millennia Chinese life and letters had enjoyed a particular rhythm, one which saw free-wheeling and expressive writing flourish at times of political chaos and social uncertainty. This alternated with periods during which the suffocating strictures of dynastic rule and po-faced Confucian propriety held sway.

In his talk, which addressed the origins of China's modern literature, Zhou Zuoren spoke of periods when an unfettered spirit had been let lose, resulting in some of China's most creative writing and art. Apart from the Wei-Jin, and periods in the Tang and Song dynasties, he mentioned too the efflorescence of late-Ming letters (late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries). He also spoke of the promise of cultural ebullience in his own age, one ushered in by the rise of vernacular writing and the flood of new ideas and technologies during the New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 20s.

While Lu Xun is celebrated as a cultural pugilist, Zhou Zuoren is today still thought of as a man who, in the face of social and political upheaval, favoured retreat and wry observation. His was more the temper of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.

In the 1970s, Jocelyn Chey herself a scholar with a background in Chinese thought and culture was a diplomat who, among other things, had responsibility for another motley crowd: the first Australian exchange students to study in the People's Republic. The astounding figure Steven FitzGerald was our ambassadorial 'Il Capo', but it was Jocelyn with her own unflappable wit, worldly guile and profound humanity who had carriage of our fate. She dealt with the late-Maoist cadre-ocracy with aplomb. She employed her own sardonic understanding of the Chinese world to protect us from the depredations of a bureaucracy of a kind that even Ruan Ji and Ji Kang would have found beyond tolerance. For, you see: the fleas no longer merely infested the seams of official robes, they were the ones wearing the Mao suits!

It was at the home of Jocelyn and her husband, the extraordinary Hans Chey that I first encountered an environment where an Australian sensibility and a Chinese world-weariness combined to provide an empathetic and sardonic outlook on the even-then smoggy world of China.

As my student days in the People's Republic came to an end I had the great good fortune to meet China's preeminent literary translators, Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, and I was able to introduce them to Jocelyn and, over the years, to a slew of other Australians.

Gladys and Xianyi's translations introduced many classics of Chinese humour to an international audience, including The Scholars 儒林外史 and Travels of Lao Can 老殘遊記. Although written long ago both novels still offer incisive commentary on human foibles, and in particular Chinese bureaucratic folly.

When I was introduced to Xianyi and Gladys in late 1976 it was on the occasion that a group known as The Layabouts Lodge was meeting for the first time in over a decade.

Erliu Tang 二流堂, The Layabouts Lodge, was the name given to a building owned by a wealthy Burmese Chinese known among his friends as A Lang 阿郎, the pet-name of Tang Yu 唐瑜 (1912-2010). Tang enjoyed a successful career in publishing and film, as well as being able to rely upon the generous support of wealthy relatives outside China. He in turn was unstinting in providing the struggling artistic talents of the wartime Nationalist capital Chongqing with food and lodging. His house became, avant la lettre, the Chelsea Hotel of the city.

On one occasion the unfailingly pro-Communist Party writer Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and Xu Bing 徐冰, the Chongqing-based Party United Front Department representative, visited Tang's artist-packed house; both men were shocked and bemused to find that many of its near one dozen denizens were still in bed. These 'cultural youth' were for the most part men and women involved in theatre and journalism; they slept late and rose even later. Guo used the slang term erliuzi 二流子 ('slouch', 'scoundrel', 'wastrel', 'ne'er-do-well', or 'slacker')—an expression from the Northern Shaanxi 陝北 Communist-base area that had recently become popular—to describe the unruly mob and the name stuck. Thereafter, Tang's house became known as Erliu Tang, The Layabouts Lodge.

After 1949, this collection of latter-day Bamboo Grove gadabouts fell foul of the authorities and they went through years of persecution. When they gathered following the death of Mao in 1976 it was the revival of a private group whose sensibility, and light-hearted approach to some heavy-handed issues had nearly been the death of the all.

As I've remarked elsewhere, from the dying days of the Cultural Revolution, Xianyi and Gladys' sitting room became the scene of a unique and unforgettable salon, for Chinese and non-Chinese friends and visitors alike. It was also something of an alien realm, a post-colonial 'extra-territorial zone', for although the Yangs were still under constant surveillance, even their past minders, keepers and in some cases oppressors would out of curiosity and wonderment come calling, sometimes sincerely to pay their respects. As time went on and as the shrill nonsense of Maoist revolution faded both from reality and from memory many who had shunned the Yangs in the past, or those who had been given the cheerless task of making their lives a misery, began to sense that what had been of such moment was merely transitory folly, while the world of letters and conversation, humour and badinage, understanding and engagement represented by Gladys and Xianyi would outlast them all.

It was in those years then—from the late 1970s until the end of the 80s, that China experienced another period of loosened fetters, not unlike the kind identified by Zhou Zuoren 周作人 in 1932. This time it was the straightjacket of Mao Thought that had been unbuttoned. For a time the fleas receded once more into the dark fold and seams of official garb. The currents and eddies of old ideas revived and new thinking born washed over the society, engaging people from universities to the countryside.

It was a time of discovery, revival, inventiveness. But it was also a time when latent sensibilities and long repressed habits and practices found public expression once more. It would still be over a decade before the writings of Lin Yutang and Zhou Zuoren would become freely available but, for a time in the late 1970s there was a flourishing of politically pointed comic dialogues; in the 1980s satire and irony too made an appearance and flourished. And throughout the period old texts were reprinted, old plays performed and even ribald comedy was permitted. Cartoonists like Ding Cong 丁聪, Hua Junwu 華君武 and Fang Cheng 方成 as well as artistic humourists like Huang Yongyu 黄永玉 were celebrated. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong the satirists Yau Ma Tei 尤馬蒂 and the Duke of Laughter (Ha Gong 哈公) jibed and chided from the sidelines. (I would note that the first issue of Ha Gong's 1987 magazine Emancipation Monthly 解放月刊 featured the same Eastern Han pottery storyteller that graces the cover of this book.)

The revival of the old chimed with the inventiveness of the new. And while today the 1980s is often thought of as a period of dramatic change and opening up, there was throughout a dark and malevolent side to life. And the dark forces were not all sclerotic party hacks.

One of the most active young critics—later a leading voice of pro-Party conservatism was the commentator He Xin 何新 (literally 'What's New'). He railed against the dangers of unfettered 'breezy chatter' and cultural experimentation. He named his enemies—singers, novelists and an obstreperous literary critic and friend of mine by the name of Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波.

In 1985, He Xin decried what he called 'superfluous people' and 'Chinese hippies'. But he did so by looking back into the same tradition of which Lu Xun had spoken, and which Zhou Zuoren had addressed half a century earlier. But He Xin's take was that of an angry young party man. He wrote, and I quote:

When approaching deconstruction, collapse, or transformation, virtually every culture throws up different types of anticultural elements. Chinese history is no exception: For example, there are the wandering scholars and knights-errant of the Warring States Period who used their writings to confound authority or broke taboos with their fighting. And the wanton literati of the Wei-Jin Period, represented by the totally uninhibited Sages of the Bamboo Grove… . It is in just such antisocial attitudes that we can see common elements between the superfluous man and the outsider (or hippie).

This book edited by Jocelyn and Jessica, an expert in the study of humour, is like something of a guide to the dangerous culture that writers such as He Xin have warned about—in the past as well as in the present: a culture of wry humanity, of both gentle and not so restrained laughter, of wit and incision, of derision and defiance.

Today, much is made of the parodiac possibilities of online essays, Weibo posts as well as vblogs and spoofs. But I believe it was in a period when the official canon still held sway but was tottering under the weight of its own absurdity and what even Mao would have recognized as its internal contradictions that the comic, at least as expressed in literature, reached a particular, even if not, dizzying height.

I will end my remarks with a quote from just such a work, one by the rambunctious late 1980s novelist and satirist Wang Shuo 王朔.

Wang's No Man's Land 千萬別把我當人 is a novel that was published shortly after the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989. In the final episode we return to the Beijing alleyway where much of the action of the book has taken place. Following an absurd account of China's attempts to prove itself a great athletic nation, the inhabitants of the hutong present a formal 'letter of gratitude' (ganxie xin 感謝信) to the Party leader who had saved them from humiliation.

Wang Shuo's comic masterpiece appeared at a time of crisis and momentous change in China, a time when a different kind of humour—despairing yet engaged, sardonic but hopeful, resonated widely with readers. In this year, 2012, a year of the dragon, two twelve-year cycles after Wang Shuo finished No Man's Land, China is entering another period of major political change. Through what many people regard as the comic opera of national congresses, new state and party leaders will be 'elected'; and the Chinese media will be filled with hosannas to a era of tremulous transition.

There seems to be no better way for me to celebrate this book, Humour in Chinese Life and Letters that to quote from that letter of gratitude in No Man's Land. It is an epistle clogged with the logorrhea of Chinese political and commercial language. It is a mini-comic masterpiece that contains many of the elements present in the book: Chinese medicine and classical references, dramatic flourishes as well as novelistic effects.

The letter is read out to the party leader by the hero's mother as if it were a tearful incantation:

You have righted the wrong and crushed the bad in one fel swoop. Respected wise dear teacher leader helmsman pathfinder vanguard pioneer designer bright light torch devil-deflecting mirror dog-beating stick dad mum grandad grandma old ancestor primal ape Supreme Deity Jade Emperor Guanyin Bodhisattva commander-in-chief:

You who are busy with: ten thousand weighty matters each day, long-suffering one bad habits die hard and overworked to the point of illness done too often can be habit-forming shouldering heavy responsibilities speeding through the skies powerful and unconstrained staving off disaster and helping the poor dispelling the evil and ousting the heterodox, you who eliminate rheumatism cold sweats strengthen the yang and invigorate the spleen the brain who are good for the liver stomach pain relieving and cough repressing, and able to cure constipation.

You personally yourself in propria persona have come deigned lowered yourself honoured us with your presence to investigate look over police search patrol pay a visit to ask about express solicitude and come to our alley. For our alley this is the most magnanimous expression of concern a massive encouragement a great impetus a considerable relief formidable expression of trust and care a great honour and really a nice thing to do. We are little people knaves the black haired scum your children grandchildren tufts of grass little dogs and cats a gang of liumang 流氓 the cretinous crowds the great masses the hundred surnames and we feel ohsolucky extremely moved exceedingly uneasy terribly embarrassed so very pleased boundingly enthusiastic very very overwhelmed by our good fortune grateful as all get out tears o'fill our eyes our hearts swell like the seas and we're utterly and thoroughly lost for words. Ten thousand words a million songs endless mountains and seas ceaseless groans and grumbles mumbles and whispers expressions and phrases all combine into one sentiment which splits the very heavens an hysterical sound cracking through the universe circling the rafters for three days deafening reverberating through heaven and earth moving all who hear it mysterious and beautiful beyond compare making people drunk pissed completely out of it so they don't know the taste of meat for three days for it is the overriding chord of the age: longlife longlife longlonglife longlife longlife longlonglife!


I hereby launch this book in our nation's capital.