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


Melbourne launch | China Heritage Quarterly

The Melbourne Launch of Humour in Chinese Life and Letters

Carrillo Gantner
Asialink, Melbourne
19 March 2012

Carrillo Gantner was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy to the People's Republic of China during the years 1985-87. He is a prominent figure in the Australian arts world. Formerly head of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Carrillo has also been an important theatre director and a performer. In 1976, he founded the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne and, in the late 1980s, he played a crucial role in building the Malthouse Theatre complex, which opened in 1990. He remains a noted patron of the arts.—The Editor

I was in Beijing in January. Like Canberra, there is always lots of talk about local politics there, and lots of political jokes. One I heard concerned the recent visit to China of U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. During her meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Hilary told Wen that Americans love democracy because it allowed them to criticize their government. Not to be outdone, Wen replied that the Chinese love democracy because it also allowed them to criticize the American government.

We are here this evening for the Melbourne launch of the book Humour in Chinese Life and Letters, edited by Drs Jocelyn Chey and Jessica Milner Davis. Both of these ladies, once known as the Milner Sisters, are distinguished academics, Jocelyn in aspects of Chinese history, politics, philosophy and society and Jessica in humour studies.

Jessica I met once in Beijing. She is now an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Letters, Arts and Media at the University of Sydney. More to the point on this occasion, she convenes the Australasian Humour Studies Network and was formerly President of the International Society for Humor Studies. Who knew such bodies even existed or that humour was a serious subject for academic study? I didn't and I used to be Chairman of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I thought you just told jokes! Indeed when Jocelyn contacted me to ask if I would launch the book here tonight, I assumed from the title that it was going to be a Chinese version of those collections of good Irish or New Zealand jokes. How wrong I was.

Jocelyn I do know well. After an academic life she was appointed as the first Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 1975 after Gough Whitlam reopened diplomatic relations with the now Chinese Communist government. I say 'now' because people forget we had had an embassy with the Nationalist government before 1949. Professor Stephen FitzGerald was the first Ambassador after 1972 and he launched this book in Sydney some weeks ago in a blaze of erudite and witty commentary. Jocelyn and Stephen were notorious, or maybe I should say legendary, in China, and by reputation back in Australia, for changing the nature of dreary and formulaic late-Cultural Revolution official dinners by bursting into song. Jocelyn in particular was known for her rendition of an English song 'There was a lady loved a swine' which had little to do with sweet and sour pork and even less with class struggle.

I think I first met Jocelyn in person when she was back in Canberra after 1979 as the first Executive Director of the Australia China Council. Under her wise stewardship, the Council awarded me $5,000 as the very first contribution to my proposal—deemed crazy at the time by most on both sides of the relationship—to bring acrobatic teachers from China to work with young Australians in the incipient Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Circus Oz and other independent community artists. We subsequently parlayed that small but critical show of faith into several hundred thousand dollars worth of activity in the original 1983 Nanjing Project from which you can trace the explosion of Australian acrobatic, circus and physical skills companies across the country, and not least the establishment of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) here in Melbourne. NICA now turns out graduates who go on to Cirque du Soleil and other companies around the globe. On all their behalves, let me take this opportunity to say a big 'Thank You' to Jocelyn for watering the small seed of an idea.

My friendship with Jocelyn and her late husband Hans, with whom I sometimes haunted the unofficial antiques markets, continued when she was Senior Trade Commissioner at our Beijing Embassy in the mid 1980s and I was the fourth Cultural Counsellor there. I recall that our only area of professional overlap was in matters of Australian wine. We resolved this by determining that if it was about selling wine, that was 'Trade', but if we were drinking it, that was clearly 'Culture'. Jocelyn subsequently returned to Hong Kong as Consul General there from 1992-95 and later as the CEO in Hong Kong of the International Wool Secretariat.

These two talented sisters have produced a wonderful cross-disciplinary collection of scholarly essays written by a wide variety of China specialists who are expert in literature, linguistics and history. Most of them are Chinese born or of Chinese descent and their work benefits from its deliberate attempt to expose important Chinese voices to an international audience. An overarching theme throughout the essays is the 'Chineseness' of the understandings of humour. While Chinese humour has not been an academic or theoretical study for very long, forms of humour and comedy have been deeply ingrained in the culture over many, many centuries and have both instilled formal works of literature and drama for the court and the elite with particular qualities, and fed the more informal and plebeian styles of street humour that I suspect take root in every country.

Many chapters of this book reference the work and ideas of Lin Yutang, a scholar who lived from 1895-1976 and who felt that China lacked the concept of humour he had found in the West. It was actually Lin Yu Tang who popularized the Chinese word youmo as a transliteration of the English word humour. The book includes a translation of his seminal work 'On Humour' and a fascinating account of his life and struggles as a liberal intellectual and social critic who challenged the Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek with the barbs of irony and satire.

I should have known about Lin Yutang—I learnt from my wife's eighteen-year-old Chinese cousin that most Chinese school children know quite a bit about him, as we might know about Benjamin Franklin. He was the man George Bernard Shaw most wanted to meet when he stepped off the ship in Shanghai in 1932. But here in Australia we didn't teach anything about Chinese history, let alone intellectual history, when I was at school and sadly, for most kids today, nothing has changed.

Another important theme of the book concerns the differences between Confucian and Daoist traditions of humour. The Confucian philosophy is based on the importance of social morality, order, propriety and harmony. Unbridled passions are thus dangerous and proper humour should be moderate, private, tasteful, useful and benign. An examination of the humour in the Daoist text Liezi which favours exaggeration, hyperbole, metaphor and gross absurdity as well as using humour to critique social and political failings clearly indicates to me that the Melbourne Comedy Festival springs more from the Daoist than from the Confucian tradition.

There are so many things in this book that I found of great interest. Let me illustrate some of the major threads:

  • The obvious importance of social and political context in comprehending the sense of humour prevalent at any given time and in any given setting. As a result of this, many classical sayings and historical allusions are becoming less familiar to modern Chinese people;
  • Chinese history, like other national histories, is characterized by contrasts between the street and the elite humours—between youmo of the lanes and markets, of storytelling and song, and huaji, of the imperial court jesters, the scholars and literati;
  • The dialect and cultural differences which we see today across contemporary China have existed in even more powerful forms for centuries. These influence differences in content and styles of local humour;
  • The peculiarities of the Chinese language make it particularly amendable to punning, indeed concurrent multiple punning on monosyllabic words, rhythmic variation and multiple tones. In this the Chinese language is so much richer than English but for most Westerners, myself included, these linguistic treasures can only be hinted at through convoluted translation;
  • The Chinese have their own particular forms of humorous expression like cross-talk (xiangsheng); doggerel in which meanings from a previous speaker are twisted (dayou shi); and well known proverbs with the last part unspoken (xiehou yu);
  • The role of the four humours in traditional Chinese medicine—sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic—and the importance of keeping them in balance. Then how this concept came to relate to humour in the sense of that which provokes laughter. The Chinese would say that good humour promotes the circulation of qi. We would say that 'laughter is the best medicine';
  • Humour has been adapted to and has been transformed by educational and technological advances in China. Today China leads the world in the use of internet and mobile phone technologies and this digital universe of texts and microblogs like Weibo, the Chinese 'Twitter', is inhabited by a veritable nuclear fission radiating zillions of political, personal, scatological and other jokes;
  • Finally, political change impacts directly on the forms and content of humour. Just about everything that was not in Mao's 'Little Red Book' was subversive and repressed during the Cultural Revolution. Little of this was funny for those caught up in this decade of lethal tumult, but as in other repressed societies, humour can usually find ways to reveal unspoken truths.

There is much more in this erudite book, including the examination of ancient Chinese texts such as the fifth-century CE Shishuo xinyu with its literati in-jokes, country bumpkin jokes, man versus woman jokes, or jokes about human foibles to illustrate social attitudes and the political environments of the day. And an essay on the use of humour by a central character in Honglou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber) the classic Chinese novel from the eighteenth century.

Here in twenty-first-century Australia, we are failing dismally to equip our students with the language skills that might allow them to appreciate the nimble subtleties and beauty of Chinese humour, not just in famous classical texts but even more in the day-to-day patois of daily life in the contemporary economic powerhouse of modern China. We are increasingly dependent for our economic well being and our national security on China yet we cannot understand what they are talking about, let alone get their jokes. Governments at federal and state levels have failed us. Even if the 'White Paper on Australian Engagement with Asia' recommends in the strongest possible terms that we lift our game in providing proper language and cultural training for young Australians from an early age, it will take another two or three generations for the benefits to flow.

Jocelyn Chey and Jessica Milner Davis have not waited. They are pioneers and we are the beneficiaries of this prowess. I said at the start that this was not a book of Chinese jokes, but its pages do contain many from across the centuries in the context of its very scholarly and yet very accessible essays. I commend it to you. Buy a copy before you leave tonight.