"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."