A Space for Laughter in Contemporary China

This piece is part of an SEAA series on “An Anthropology of Ethics in East Asia.The articles highlight different aspects of moral values and ethical practices in a range of Asian regions. They examine how individuals cope with societal changes such as environmental crises, nationalism, economic development, and mobility through lens of everyday ethics. 

Last year in Shanghai, I was taken by my friend Mei to an affluent corner of Songjiang District, an hour away from the city center. To our surprise, we encountered a poster of Lei Feng, a deceased People’s Liberation Army soldier known for his thrift and selflessness, hanging on the front gate of a housing community. I had been rambling about jobs and other frustrations when she seized the opportunity to stage a witty comeback by pointing and reading the text on the poster: “Xuexi Lei Feng, kuaile zhiyuan” (Learn from Lei Feng, a happy volunteer). She laughed a bit, and in that moment revealed to me the complex relationship between an ethical claim—one that is issued by the state, on full public display—and the less straightforward way that it came to be interpreted. Laughter, more precisely, bore the trace of Mei’s perception and interpretation, but it was also an opaque utterance that lacked the grounding of a defined conclusion.

Lei Feng poster in gated community.
Lei Feng propaganda campaign in Shanghai, China, 2018. Aaron Su.

I wanted her to explain to me the elements behind that humor, since comedy can tell so much about the perceived order of things, especially through implicit judgments about what the real or the serious actually is (Berlant and Ngai 2017). She started with a brief history: Lei Feng was a soldier in the early days of the socialist state, prized for his altruism and revolutionary allegiance. After losing his life from a truck accident at age 22, he became a mythic figure and the subject of a large-scale propaganda campaign. His life stories were substantiated by a diary, published in 1963, replete with praise for Chairman Mao. “I’m not sure why, but he’s still here today, and there’s so much of him around here,” she concluded. As the day progressed, this mismatch she was insinuating between history and the present grew more and more pronounced. Lei Feng’s face graced the front of murals, billboards, and banners everywhere in the wealthy suburbs. There seemed to be an underlying logic that persisted beneath the surface, but in practice it was dismissed by a brief chuckle and cast aside.

Humor has traction in post-socialist China, as literary and journalistic sources corroborate. It slows politics down, pauses the drive toward conclusive judgments, and serves as a medium for critique in moments where ethical claims made by the state need to be contested or negotiated.
I continued to wonder why Mei met the situation with an ambivalent affect such as humor, rather than the possible range of more direct, more conclusive judgments—approval, disdain, disengagement—so I continued to probe about the posters and about experiencing street propaganda more generally. A haziness loomed over her response, again accompanied by a laugh: “I usually don’t have the time to look, but it feels like the historical campaigns are much stronger recently.” Her observation was reminiscent of my friend Allen’s comments a week earlier, who noted too that recent campaigns “are so blatantly of the past” to the point that their incongruence with the present comes off as “funny.” Allen’s and Mei’s statements share much in common: they both sidestep the quest for comprehension, making a diversion to comedy to fill in the gaps where a conclusive understanding of a political phenomenon doesn’t yet appear to be possible. Humor has traction in post-socialist China, as literary and journalistic sources corroborate. It slows politics down, pauses the drive toward conclusive judgments, and serves as a medium for critique in moments where ethical claims made by the state need to be contested or negotiated.

Recourse to history is a growing trend in China, with Lei Feng representing just one instance in an emergent pattern of the state invoking history in order to stage ethical claims. As Angela Zito (2016) has observed, themes of Confucian filiality that were once not part of PRC dogma have made their way back into political campaigns, perhaps as a way to encourage forms of familial and elderly care that had been neglected in years past. On a similar note, Confucius has returned as a cultural theme and a mechanism of soft power, both in the expansion of mainland campaigns (Xi 2015) and in initiatives to establish educational institutions outside of China, although not without its discontents, some of whom are from the discipline of anthropology (Sahlins 2015).

But for many of those who experience these historically-inflected campaigns on a daily basis, attention is seldom devoted to contemplating their  magnitude or political origin. On the contrary, my interlocutors spend more time considering how they should interpret and respond to these ethical pleas, producing indirect responses such as laughter and humor, which play with narrative space afforded by ambiguity. As Mei pulled out a trove of experiences with past political campaigns, she could not summon up strong feelings for or against their injunctions; she didn’t experience responses that matched up to the ethical charge of what she was being faced with. The campaigns were quite straightforward in content, but there was a level of confusion about how she or other individuals would interpret them and incorporate them into their own daily practices. This fundamental ambiguity took the shape of a Chinese idiom she muttered to me at the end of our conversation—sidongfeidong (denoting something along the lines of “seeming to understand something at face value is to really not understand it at all”).

Propaganda poster on the streets of Shanghai
A banner with four Core Socialist Values and a promotion for the Chinese Dream campaign, Shanghai, China, 2018. Aaron Su.

Consider the Core Socialist Values and Chinese Dream campaigns of recent years, which permeate Chinese streets to a greater extent than any other government initiatives. As Christopher Connery’s (2019: 9) analysis demonstrates, the message is clear-cut: these billboards feature both dynastic and socialist graphics, and they link the ideal Chinese life to ethical values “whose historical scope is civilizational.” At the same time, public responses to these displays of ideal ethical virtue (responses that are formed out of brief, real-time encounters, rather than detached analysis) are not as easily reducible to the straightforward messages they convey. Mei talked to me about these posters, with roundabout statements interspersed with chuckles or shifts in her tone. She alternated between earnest, knowledgeable analyses—“it wants to keep a memory going of national history”—with other more fleeting and rhetorical comments—“it feels like an advertisement.” Despite these vicissitudes, there remained a deeper uncertainty about what to do with the broad ethical imperatives placed in front of her eyes. As my informants’ responses to these campaigns reveal, laughter and moments of comedic relief shift the register of conversation to one less tied to reality, where a direct political judgment need not be made and where closure need not be immediately attained. It therefore seems appropriate that  an op-ed in response to recent protests written by a mother to her child in the People’s Daily begins with, “In these tumultuous times in Hong Kong, only your innocent laughter can give me a brief moment of calm and peace.” Laughter, like its varied uses in twentieth-century China (Rea 2015; Zhu, Wang, and McGrath 2019), serves as an expressive device that opens up and sustains a space of indecision, inside of which ambivalences and frustrations can dwell during moments of transformative political change. 

Such a space exists now perhaps because of the dramatic shifts in lifestyle and subjectivity borne out of postsocialist transformation in China (Rofel 2007, Zhang and Ong 2008). These changes have widened the gap between the past and the present—unlike these posters, which seem to reconcile it so effortlessly—and scholars have often been left wondering how to bridge the so-called gap in ethics during this time of transition and volatility (Ci 2014, Lee 2014). In practice, as my interlocutors have demonstrated, the gap is often deliberately held open, without a need for resolution, through humor and rhetoric that refuses any concrete determination of the status of ethical claims made by the state. Holding this interregnum open through alternative forms of emotional engagement may even serve as a wellspring of agency.

Ethical values are at once too easy to identify and too difficult to decisively settle in contemporary China. Because of government campaigns that plaster every corner of the street, ethical claims often take the form of spectacles, readily accessible at the glance of an eye. But such visual noise might also conceal how they are interpreted and negotiated by the people who encounter them, in ways that may be ambivalent to political imperatives. Humor and other rhetorical tools are means by which the demand for political and ethical certainties can be suspended temporarily, without defaulting to conclusions too hastily. Because affects, emotions, and expressions are useful ways to understand how ethical engagements play out on the ground, they serve as important sites for anthropology to continue expanding its analytical work.

Aaron Su is a doctoral student at Princeton University whose research focuses on post-socialist China, with an attention to the afterlives of the twentieth century. His interests include social theory, visual culture, modern intellectual history, and gender studies.

“An Anthropology of Ethics in East Asia” series is currently accepting submissions. Please contact Shuang Frost ([email protected]), Hanna Pickwell ([email protected]) with your essay ideas and comments.

Cite as: Su, Aaron. 2019. “A Space for Laughter in Contemporary China.” Anthropology News website, October 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1277

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