Academic journal article East-West Connections

Humor Literature as a Lens to Chinese Identity

Academic journal article East-West Connections

Humor Literature as a Lens to Chinese Identity

Article excerpt

Lin, a scholar from China, was visiting her friends Mr. and Mrs. Lee. The telephone rang, and Mrs. Lee answered it. Mr. Lee asked who had called, and Mrs. Lee answered casually, "It was your girlfriend."

A few days later, Lin returned to visit again. Talking to Mrs. Lee about the telephone call, Lin said to her, "Don't make that kind of joke. It might have been a real girlfriend." (A true story)

Chinese humor to some may seem an oxymoron, like legal ethics, artificial intelligence or exact estimate, and literature in Chinese humor may sound like a paradox. I have asked numerous recognized scholars about the existence of Chinese humor literature, and their instinctive reply is that not much exists. This reality is a question lurking in scholars' minds, remaining unresolved. A widespread impression is that the Chinese nation is one peripherally involved in humor, unlike the West that celebrates humor. The prevailing argument is that with the implementation of Confucian conservatism and formality across dynasties, humor has been de-emphasized (Feinberg, 1971). A different and more positive argument, however, maintains that the Chinese are "a people undeniably possessing a deep-seated humor" (Wells, 1971). For decades, both these two polarized concepts point to something mystical, attractive and tension-building. In this paper, I present my observations about this dangling paradox in the Chinese literary world and how unfolding it could display a valuable lens to view the reality of Chinese identity.

The word "humor" cruised through the worlds of medical, literary, philosophical and psychological interest. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, this word for centuries had a medical denotation to mean a secretion of the human body later elaborated into four basic temperaments reflecting salient humor types. The idea was transformed in Elizabethan and Renaissance literature to mean a personality aberration or eccentricity, or a literary character having a passion that conveys comic effects and humor. The contemporary senses of humor are often delineated in psychological and philosophical terms:

1. Humor is defined as a joyful character of a complex situation "in the main quiet, laughter, either directly, through sympathy, or through empathy" (Drever, 1953). This definition implies a good-tempered laughter that induces sympathy and compassion for the laughable.

2. A sense of humor may "engender amusement without any behavioral manifestation or with only the lesser one of smiling" (Crag, 1998).

3. Humor is a mental disposition that is "a quirk, a kick, a mental oddity that throws a man off balance and twists his view of life" (Edwards, 1967).

Humor, in general, is more sympathetic, compassionate and less cruel than satire, and more penetrating and subtler than farce and comedy. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, a comedy is a genre of dramatic literature that depicts the light and ridiculous, giving its social implication through intentional objects of amusement. A farce is a mere comic play with exaggerated characters and events to convey humorous effects. An irony is a dramatic device that states something different from what is meant, demanding that the reader interpret the concealed contextual meaning. A satire identifies direct impartial criticism that conveys the author's viewpoint about the objective world. It differs from humor in that it has the objective to ridicule and not only the aim to expose vanity, hypocrisy, idolatry, bigotry or sentimentality, but also the ultimate goal to achieve reform. Authors have their discretion to add humor to a satire or irony. Humor often induces the reader to contemplate and eventually be amusingly liberated after receiving the signified message, often with smiles instead of laughter. All these terms denote varying degrees of comical intensity but all present the art of laughter.

Chinese humor should be understood with the semantic origin of two phrases huaji and youmo:

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