China’s cultural and political future was contested through not just rational debate but also mud-slinging battles and arguments shrill with sarcasm and derision. Cursing was an ancient form of rhetoric, but modern print culture broadcast private arguments to a broad audience. The prominent political figure Wu Zhihui and the writer Lu Xun became famous for their use of invective, inspiring imitators. Then, in 1926, during China’s Warlord Period, a professor of linguistics named Liu Fu, who was associated with the literary avant garde, sparked controversy about the tone of public debate by republishing Which Classic? (Hedian), a mid-Qing novel whose protagonists are all curse words, many using the character gui (ghost/devil). The story of this bizarre novel and its reception illustrates how the use of the humorous curse changed from the eve of the Opium Wars to the 1930s, and it shows, in particular, the importance of personality politics and celebrity endorsement in the modern era.
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