Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Being Human Festival: Anna Chen talks about Chinese comedy in culture debate

Being Human Festival: Ha ha ha? Laughter and Humour Across Languages and Time.

Had a lovely time last night talking at another event in the Being Human Festival.

Laughter is generally regarded as something quintessentially human: being human means being able to laugh (or so Aristotle claimed). However, the things that make people laugh can vary quite considerably, and these differences may be magnified across time, languages and cultures.

In this session of Café Culture, UCL academics Geraldine Horan and Seb Coxon and comedian Anna Chen aim to take a closer look at this issue. Join them to find out whether humour can ever really be a serious subject, and to debate such questions as: How do jokes work? Can jokes be translated from one language to another? What is the history of joking? To what extent are we able to understand jokes from another historical period or culture?

I talked about the history of Chinese comedy and my attempts to challenge stereotypes in my own writing and stand-up. The Chinese are said to have invented the political joke — 4,000 years of repression and hierarchy will do that to you. Under Confucianism (2,500 years ago), comics were looked down on and mocking the sovereign earned you the death penalty. This soon applied to all authority until what was required for survival was "gravity in speech and manner."

Despite this, texts in mediaeval times are full of Chaucerean mockery of authority and the big-heads who like their power over other human beings a bit too much — and also of the idiots who fell in line (nuthin' changes). Corrupt officials and country bumpkins bore the brunt of contemporary cynical wit.

This venting used the Crosstalk form which has been popular since the middle-ages: the two-hander: a straight man and a funny man.

It lost its momentum during the early communist era, especially in cultural revolution China, after 1966. The authorities demanded that practitioners cut out the satire and use their skills to praise, instead. This repression gave rise to an explosion of cynical humour under communist rule, but in private.

Although there's a strong tradition of clowning, the Chinese don’t do silly. So Monty Python, which requires a ditching of personal dignity, does not go down well. Humour that demonstrates smartness and quickness of wit, such as Monkey, is what's favoured.

Chinese tend not to use set-up and punch structure. In popular comedy, it's more scatalogical — which is understandable in a nation where death has been harshing your mellow for centuries in civil wars, wars against imperialist aggression, extreme poverty and famine. For the masses — and especially for Cantonese like my father — a farting, pooing human being is at least a live human being.

Today, authority is very much in the comics' crosshairs, especially the despised internet censors. The Grass Mud Horse phenomemon is a crude jibe at the Chinese Government's attempts to limit access to the world wide web, and plays with some very offensive double-entendres, mostly concerning yo mama's birth canal.

Comedy is now a massively popular branch of the Chinese entertainment industry. Performers like Zhou Libo are huge stars, entertaining the snotty Shanghainese, making gun of the rural "garlic-munchers". Not much comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in evidence there.

Here's a modern joke I found that features Chinese and isn't fuelled by hatred:
There are four blokes on a plane; an American, a Brit, a Chinese and a Japanese. The plane cuts out and starts to plummet but there’s only on parachute. The American is brave so he jumps out yelling, “God Bless America”. The Brit jumps out, shouting, “God save the Queen.” The Chinese yells, “May China live ten thousand years,” and kicks out the Japanese.

I interwove my own stand-up throughout my talk, giving examples of how I unercut and subvert stereotyped expectations. Where I attempt a high-wire act, treading the fine line between subversion and reinforcing the stereotypes, do I succeed? If not, why not? Do I need to refer to my ethnicity at all? Or will it always be the elephant in the room until I acknowledge it and then move on? The tension between the expectations of an audience fed a limited and distorting set of representations of east Asians (when they are not being rendered utterly invisible) and my efforts to set them straight do make for a rich seam of comedy to mine.

In the end, a writer has to write about what he or she wants to write about, and go where the energy is.

The ability to create comedy demonstrates an understanding and a facility with the cultural codes. Once a minority (ethnic, gendered, sexuality and disabled) can do comedy, you are firmly embedded at a deeper level in society and it's harder to keep you marginalised. That's why ethnic minorities always produce smart-arses who want to express a view of the world refracted through the prism of their own experience, rather than what's being projected onto them from outside.

Crossing the divide between being "other" and embedded in the culture  means you belong to society as a participant, observer, commentator, consumer and a producer of meaning. We don't want to be dismissed as "Other". It's our world, too, and we can laugh at it — and at ourselves within it if we choose to do so — but strictly on our own terms.

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