In Other Words

Irony Is Good!

How Mao killed Chinese humor ... and how the Internet is slowly bringing it back again.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Socialism is great!" Was there ever a statement riper for ironic mockery than this erstwhile catchphrase of the infant Chinese republic? How could a thinking people accept this and a host of other bald statements at face value, without so much as a raised eyebrow or a silently murmured really? And why, 60 years later, when the Chinese government calls the Dalai Lama a "devil with a human face," do none of its citizens seem to feel the urge to giggle?

Irony, put simply, is a gap between words and their meaning, a space across which speaker and listener exchange a knowing wink. For this knowingness to be mutual, a web of common experiences and beliefs must exist, within which language adopts deeper echoes and associations. In China, however, the Communist Party has made quite clear that there is no commonality but that of the party and its people, and certainly no shared language beyond that handed down by national leaders. The Chinese government has spent decades ensuring that public discourse has remained "public" only in the sense of "government owned."

As early as 1942, seven years before the founding of the People’s Republic, Chairman Mao was explaining to government leaders and intellectuals that the purpose of art and culture was to serve political ends. But the real damage to the Chinese language was done during the Cultural Revolution, when all music and theater were outlawed except for eight politically correct "Model Operas" and public discourse was reduced to what could be shouted through a PA system. Words were hammered flat into instruments of power and violence. Songs, in particular, were seen as effective tools. One of the most popular, "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," began with this catchy intro:

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is good,
It is good,
It is good,
It is good.

In the decades following, China’s educational policy and official pronouncements did not stray far from this pattern of value statements mindlessly repeated and the discouragement of independent thought — hardly fertile ground for humor or subtlety. The end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976 occasioned a sort of national sigh of relief: While official language evolved only slowly, civil society was once again given space to develop on its own, leading to the culturally fertile 1980s. Writers, not surprisingly, were at the forefront of a slow resuscitation of nuance and irony in the Chinese language during this time. The author Ah Cheng, for example, in his three King novels, dismantled the political language of the Mao era and reintroduced the older voices of traditional Chinese literature and philosophy.

Wang Shuo, on the other hand, struck out in anger. His 1989 novel Please Don’t Call Me Human is a bitter satire on the worthlessness of the individual in the eyes of the totalitarian state. In one scene, a local functionary receives a higher-up with a litany of ritual praise that begins with absurdity and ends in collapse: "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…." By the end of the multiple-page passage, the ripest Chinese clichés of obsequiousness have been piled so high that even the most hard-calloused sensibility would begin to suspect that there was something fishy going on.

But it was really the Internet that salvaged Chinese humor, and especially irony of the embittered sort that Wang Shuo had pioneered. In the late 1990s, the Internet was still entirely uncensored (it would remain that way as late as 2004 or 2005), and it became, at last, a public space for writers and thinkers, who had been stifled by the government-controlled mainstream media, to explore new kinds of voices. Wang Xiaoshan was the founder of the "Black Humor Wire Service," a parodic news service reminiscent of the Onion. The wire service, founded in 1999 and still in operation today, in gentler form, gave journalists and writers a desperately needed outlet. "Xinhua was fake," shrugs Wang, referring to the official Chinese wire service. "We were fake, too."

The moment of freedom was short-lived. By the time blogger Wang Xiaofeng started posting his humorous entries in 2004, the government was waking to the dangers of online discussion. Wang’s blog was originally titled "Wears Three Watches," a play on the Chinese title of former president Jiang Zemin’s intellectually bankrupt theory of "The Three Represents." The blog was periodically pruned and shuttered by authorities, and in 2006 they told him that the name had to go. His response was to change it from an ironic statement to a statement about irony itself: "Don’t Take the Hint."

These days, more sophisticated and ubiquitous Internet controls have meant less humor and criticism aimed at central government and top leaders, but a proliferation of mockery of lower-profile targets: the figures of authority and power that exist at all levels of society, from the classroom to the office. Reports of official corruption or abuses of power are regularly seized upon, creating memes that echo around the web. When a drunk driver killed a student in Baoding city last October, the driver’s only defense was to proclaim, "My father is Li Gang" — the deputy director of the local Public Security Bureau. The web erupted in rage and derision, creating poems, music videos, and innumerable mocking variations on the phrase, which now, in its Chinese form, gets 32,400,000 hits on Google.

In a 2006 article on political humor, recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo drew a direct line from the bitter self-mockery of Wang Shuo’s writing to the more recent online enthusiasm for "spoofs": mocking parodies of everything from self-important film stars to incompetent local officials. After the government crackdown on the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Liu wrote, "the central government’s fight against Westernization and a peaceful transition meant that serious topics could no longer be discussed within civil society, and people could only relieve their oppression by turning to entertainment." He noted that many intellectuals today fear that the spread of political humor might defuse the sense of anger that could lead to real reforms.

But this worry is demonstrably unfounded, as Liu himself argued in his piece. Han Han, a writer who may be one of the widest-read Internet personalities in the world, is one proof. His commentary runs the gamut from sarcastic to subtle (his reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel win was a blog post consisting only of opening and closing quotation marks), without skipping past righteous fury. In 2009, a group of river boatmen, with the backing of local cadres, retrieved the bodies of students who had accidentally drowned in the river and then refused to hand the bodies over to the students’ parents without an exorbitant fee. Han Han’s recommendation was that all Chinese citizens carry the body-recovery fee on their persons at all times: "If you or a friend should fall in the water, you can hold the cash up above your head — that’s the only way these half-official body-recovery teams will bother fishing you out."

Irony is beginning to make some incursions into the straight-faced bastion of mainstream print media. Last year the Sanlian Life Weekly, one of China’s more forward-thinking general-interest magazines, ran an article concurrently with the premiere of the film The Founding of a Republic, the Chinese government’s painfully un-ironic love song to itself on the occasion of its 60th birthday. The article, a fake travelogue, explored "micro-nations" around the world, praising imaginary countries like Sealand and Molossia in over-the-top terms and obliquely poking fun at China’s ambitions of becoming a "great nation." "We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry," the conclusion reads. "All these other great nations have been around for ages: 20 years, 40 years, some for 60 years."

But most traditional media continue to move in earnest lockstep with the government line. Irony still seems to fall flat in a culture where one-dimensional discourse is promoted from the earliest days of school on up into the professional world. Starting in middle school, all Chinese students are still required to take "political thought" classes, later developing into versions of Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory that are re-taught every year until the end of higher education. The same formulations are repeated year in and year out, unleavened by reflection or analysis, and the result is a kind of mental numbness: the ability to set two potentially related thoughts side by side, without ever connecting the two. Japan’s World War II invasion and occupation of northern China is continually rehashed in the media, yet the blindingly obvious correlations to the Chinese presence in Xinjiang and Tibet are never drawn.

Truly nuanced, self-aware social discussion may still be in the future — "It could take two or three generations," Wang Xiaofeng told me — but among educated Chinese the government’s baldest self-contradictions no longer pass unremarked. When Wen Jiabao spoke about free speech and constitutionality in a September interview with CNN, his comments were subsequently censored in the Chinese media. China’s online cognoscenti crowed over the absurdity.

The government is lumbering around to face this new challenge. The first rule of censorship is still "Don’t talk about censorship"; and it would be fatal for the government to address popular sarcasm and irony directly, because so much of its own identity is written in language that would not sustain scrutiny. But its awareness is apparent through what is forbidden: "My father is Li Gang" has made the list of "sensitive" phrases.

No matter how swiftly authorities stamp out new criticism, however, it’s too late. The brute removal of undesirable language from public discourse only works when ideas do not exist independent of language, but it is precisely irony that allows silence to speak as loudly as words. Wang Xiaofeng may be right in saying it will take another generation before any voices will be raised in direct challenge, but the government should be worried. Even now, each online report of disaster, failure, corruption, or injustice is met with a newly repurposed old Maoist catchphrase, perhaps angry or resigned, but above all, ironically knowing: "Our thanks to the nation."

Eric Abrahamsen is a freelance translator in Beijing and a contributor to Paper Republic.