In Other Words

Irony Is Good!

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

"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."

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In Other Words

Three Decades of a Joke That Just Won't Die

Egyptian humor goes where its politics cannot.

What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?

Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.

A friend of mine has a favorite one-liner he likes to tell: "What is the perfect day for Mubarak? A day when nothing happens." Egypt's status-quo-oriented president doesn't like change, but his Groundhog Day fantasy weighs heavily on Egyptians. Mubarak has survived assassination attempts and complicated surgery. After he spent most of the spring of 2010 convalescing, everyone in Cairo from taxi drivers to politicians to foreign spies was convinced it was a matter of weeks. And yet he recovered, apparently with every intention of running for a sixth term in September. Egypt's prolific jesters, with their long tradition of poking fun at the powerful, might be running out of material.

Making fun of oppressive authorities has been an essential part of Egyptian life since the pharaohs. One 4,600-year-old barb recorded on papyrus joked that the only way you could convince the king to fish would be to wrap naked girls in fishing nets. Under Roman rule, Egyptian advocates were banned from practicing law because of their habit of making wisecracks, which the dour Romans thought would undermine the seriousness of the courts. Even Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th-century Arab philosopher from Tunis, noted that Egyptians were an unusually mirthful and irreverent people. Egyptian actor Kamal al-Shinnawi, himself a master of comedy, once said, "The joke is the devastating weapon which the Egyptians used against the invaders and occupiers. It was the valiant guerrilla that penetrated the palaces of the rulers and the bastions of the tyrants, disrupting their repose and filling their heart with panic."

And there has been plenty of material over Egypt's last half-century, marked as it has been by a succession of military leaders with little care for democracy or human rights. While Egyptians may be virtually powerless to change their rulers, they do have extensive freedom to mock, unlike in nearby Syria, where a wisecrack can land you in prison. In Egypt's highly dense, hypersocial cities and villages, jokes are nearly universal icebreakers and conversation-starters, and the basic meta-joke, transcending rulers, ideology, and class barriers, almost always remains the same: Our leaders are idiots, our country's a mess, but at least we're in on the joke together.

Egypt's rulers before Mubarak, Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nobel Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat, were flamboyant characters, and the jokes told about them reflected their larger-than-life personas. The paranoid Nasser was said to have deployed his secret police to collect the jokes made up about him and his iron-fisted leadership, just as the KGB anxiously monitored the fabled kitchen-table anekdoty about its gerontocratic leadership to really understand what was happening in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Sadat, though best known in the West for making peace with neighboring Israel, was the butt of joke after joke about his corrupt government and attractive wife, Jehan.

When Mubarak came to power after Sadat's assassination, he was received with a mixture of relief and skepticism -- relief because he appeared to be a steadier hand than Sadat, who grew increasingly paranoid in the year before his death, and skepticism because Mubarak was the opposite of anything like the charismatic leadership that Sadat and Nasser embodied. Mubarak was also, at least early on, something of a joker himself. Not long into his reign, he quipped that he had never expected to be appointed vice president. "When I got the call from Sadat," he told an interviewer, "I thought he was going to make me the head of EgyptAir."

For decades many derided Mubarak as "La Vache Qui Rit" -- after the French processed cheese that appeared in Egypt in the 1970s along with the opening up of Egypt's markets -- because of his rural background and his bonhomie. The image that dominated Mubarak jokes during that period was that of an Egyptian archetype, the greedy and buffoonish peasant. One joke I remember well from the 1980s played off Mubarak's decision not to appoint a vice president after he ascended to the presidency: "When Nasser became president, he wanted a vice president stupider than himself to avoid a challenger, so he chose Sadat. When Sadat became president, he chose Mubarak for the same reason. But Mubarak has no vice president because there is no one in Egypt stupider than he is."

THE JOKES TURNED BITTER in the 1990s as Mubarak consolidated his power, started winning elections with more than 90 percent of the vote, and purged rivals in the military. One oft-retold story had Mubarak dispatching his political advisors to Washington to help with Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign after the U.S. president admires Mubarak's popularity. When the results come in, it is Mubarak who is elected president of the United States.

But Mubarak jokes really settled into their current groove in the early 2000s, when Mubarak entered his mid-70s and a nationwide deathwatch began. One joke imagines a deathbed scene, the ailing Mubarak lamenting, "What will the Egyptian people do without me?" His advisor tries to comfort him: "Mr. President, don't worry about the Egyptians. They are a resilient people who could survive by eating stones!" Mubarak pauses to consider this and then tells the advisor to grant his son Alaa a monopoly on the trade in stones.

In another deathbed scene, Azrael, the archangel of death, comes down to Mubarak and tells him he must say goodbye to the Egyptian people. "Why, where are they going?" he asks. Azrael is a common figure in such jokes, the most famous of which is a commentary on the increasingly brutal turn the Mubarak regime took in the 1990s:

God summons Azrael and tells him, "It's time to get Hosni Mubarak."

"Are you sure?" Azrael asks timidly.

God insists: "Yes, his time has come; go and bring me his soul."

So Azrael descends from heaven and heads straight for the presidential palace. Once there, he tries to walk in, but he is captured by State Security. They throw him in a cell, beat him up, and torture him. After several months, he is finally set free.

Back in heaven, God sees him all bruised and broken and asks, "What happened?"

"State Security beat me and tortured me," Azrael tells God. "They only just sent me back."

God goes pale and in a frightened voice says, "Did you tell them I sent you?'

It's not only God who is scared of Mubarak -- so is the devil. Other jokes have Mubarak shocking the devil with his ideas for tormenting the Egyptian people, or dying and being refused entry to both heaven and hell because he's viewed as an abomination by both God and Satan.

The Internet has opened new avenues for humor. One-line zingers that used to be circulated by text message are now exchanged on Twitter, while on Facebook fake identities and satirical fan pages have been established for the country's leading politicians. Widely circulated video mash-ups depict Mubarak and his entourage as the characters of a mafia movie or unlikely action heroes, including one spoofing a Star Wars poster with Mubarak standing in for the evil Emperor Palpatine.

But the bulk of today's jokes simply stress the tenacity with which Mubarak has held onto life and power. Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and liberal opposition figure, told me this recent joke:

Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama, and Vladimir Putin are at a meeting together when suddenly God appears before them.

"I have come to tell you that the end of the world will be in two days," God says. "Tell your people."

So each leader goes back to his capital and prepares a television address.

In Washington, Obama says, "My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can confirm that God exists. The bad news is that he told me the world would end in two days."

In Moscow, Putin says, "People of Russia, I regret that I have to inform you of two pieces of bad news. First, God exists, which means everything our country has believed in for most of the last century was false. Second, the world is ending in two days."

In Cairo, Mubarak says, "O Egyptians, I come to you today with two pieces of excellent news! First, God and I have just held an important summit. Second, he told me I would be your president until the end of time."

Kassem quips that the Mubarak regime's main legacy may be an unparalleled abundance of derision about its leader. "Under Nasser, it was the elite whose property he had nationalized that told jokes about the president," he told me. "Under Sadat, it was the poor people left behind by economic liberalization who told the jokes. But under Mubarak, everyone is telling jokes."

Yet an increasing number of Egyptians no longer think their country's situation is all that funny, and they are turning the national talent for wit into a more aggressive weapon of political dissidence. The anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement has used humor most poignantly to protest the indignity of an entire country becoming a hand-me-down for the Mubarak family, as the leader presses on with plans to anoint his son Gamal as his heir. Other protesters complaining about the rising cost of living and stagnating salaries use cartoons to depict fat-cat politicians and tycoons pillaging the country. And since the beginning of 2010, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a potential presidential challenger, has become a symbol of the kind of dignified leadership the Egyptian opposition has sought for decades. Notably, he recently scolded Mubarak for an inappropriate joke about a ferry crash that killed more than 1,000 Egyptians in 2006.

But even if Egypt's democrats fail to prevent the inheritance of the presidency, they will certainly keep making fun of Mubarak's son Gamal. One epic satire comes in the form of a popular blog called Ezba Abu Gamal ("The Village of Gamal's Father"). The blog is a collection of entries, usually from the perspective of Abu Gamal, mayor of a small village. He is constantly being nagged by his wife to promote his son, about whom he has misgivings; he doesn't understand all this talk about reform and laptops and so on. It is a biting portrait for those initiated into the details of Egyptian politics. Mubarak's "cunning peasant" persona re-emerges and Gamal is depicted as a wet-behind-the-ears incompetent manipulated by his friends, while countless ministers and security chiefs make appearances as craven village officials. Were it publishable in Egypt, it would make a hilarious book.

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