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Age of IrreverenceA New History of Laughter in China$

Christopher Rea

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780520283848

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520283848.001.0001

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Farce 滑稽魂‎

Farce 滑稽魂‎

Chapter:
(p.106) 5 Farce 滑稽魂‎
Source:
Age of Irreverence
Author(s):

Christopher Rea

Publisher:
University of California Press
DOI:10.1525/california/9780520283848.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords

While many of China’s leading cultural critics were cutting each other down to size in the late 1920s and early 1930s, popular writers of a more entrepreneurial bent, particularly in Shanghai, were focusing on just being funny (huaji). They were preoccupied with the absurdities of urban life, especially hoaxes, scams, and practical jokes, perpetrated in print media, such as plagiarism and bogus advertisements. Farce was particularly popular among writers like Xu Zhuodai who also worked as editors, actors, playwrights, filmmakers, radio broadcasters, and consumer product vendors. In their stories, they celebrated swindles for fun and profit and often cast entrepreneurs like themselves as dynamic figures uniquely suited to navigating the pitfalls of modernity. Xu’s style of huaji farce proved popular, his innocuous form of comic entertainment offering stimulating fantasies of the everyday in which frauds, con women, and pranksters were not just welcome companions but even models of emulation.

Keywords:   farce, hoaxes, swindles, scams, practical jokes, plagiarism, slapstick cinema, Shanghai, Xu Zhuodai, urban culture

China is being ruined by our farcical view of life, by our ruthless realism and humour, by our tendency to turn everything and anything into a joke, by our inability to take anything seriously, not even when it concerns the salvation of our country.

LIN YUTANG, 19301

Jili geluo, jili gulu, bili buluo.

XU ZHUODAI, 19232

In early 1928, Shanghai became entranced by a mysterious woman named Qiu Suwen. Her poems and essays were a sensation in the popular press, as were her paintings at art exhibitions. But she had never been seen, and the public was burning with curiosity about what she looked like. Then one day, a notice appeared in the newspaper announcing that Miss Qiu was seeking a husband. One thousand two hundred thirty-four men responded to the ad, and she replied to each with a letter on which was imprinted a small photograph of a beautiful young woman. In the letter, she asked the man to meet her in a public park wearing a red flower, saying that she would wear green. The appointed time found 1,234 beflowered men milling about the park, but no lady in green.

The next day, each man received an angry letter from Qiu accusing him of orchestrating a hoax and requesting that he “sever relations.” He could only mail back a bewildered apology. Miss Qiu relented and set another rendezvous at a cinema. That evening, the movie played to a full house, but few of the men in the audience actually saw it because they were too busy looking around for their absent date. The next day, a notice appeared in the newspaper saying that Miss Qiu had been in a car accident the previous evening and was now in hospital with minor injuries. In fact, Qiu Suwen had rented out the theater and made four hundred dollars off her suitors, which she used to take her girlfriends to Hangzhou. When (p.107) she returned to Shanghai she found her post office box stuffed with letters inquiring about her condition and asking for her home address. She responded by giving the 1,234 men each other’s addresses. Only then was her true identity revealed: Qiu Suwen was a fifty-six-year-old widow with a grandson in university, and the young woman in the photo was her recently deceased granddaughter.

Miss Qiu is the heroine of “Woman’s Playthings,” a short story by Xu Zhuodai, one of Republican Shanghai’s most prolific writers, and an influential promoter of a comedic style known as huaji.3 Huaji in the early twentieth century was a generic term for humor and comedy, including the types of parody, allegory, and other comic amusements discussed in chapter 3. When Lu Xun remarked in 1926 that he had added some gratuitous huaji content to the first chapter of “The True Story of Ah Q” to satisfy his editor,4 he was chiding himself for having participated in this culture of commercialized humor, which had flourished since the last decades of the Qing dynasty.

In the 1920s, youxi (play) largely shed its comedic associations, leaving huaji as the most common general term for humor. Other common words for humor circulating at the time included huixie (jocular, humorous), fengshi (later fengci, satirical), and xiaohua (joke, humorous anecdote).5 The title of one 1919 humor anthology suggests the capaciousness of the term huaji: poems, stories, anecdotes, facetious advice, and amusing news items were all expressions of The Comic Spirit (Huaji hun) (see figure 5.1).6 Nowadays, huaji is more often used to denote the silly, ridiculous, or farcical. This narrowing of meaning is attributable in part to the popularization in the 1930s of a new term for humor, youmo, as we will see in chapter 6, but likely also to the rise in the 1920s of a farcical sensibility rooted in the urban milieu of Shanghai.

Shanghai’s swelling urban population, its hunger for variety entertainment, and the proliferation of mass media outlets gave rise to all manner of comedic sensibilities. Farce was one of them. The publishing boom of the 1910s, as we saw in chapters 2 and 3, helped to expand the urban readership of periodicals beyond classically trained literati. Newspapers and magazines increasingly catered to the tastes of “petty urbanites” with modest levels of literacy and disposable income.7 By the 1920s the Chinese market for mass entertainment was diverse, sometimes bewilderingly so. In literature, pictorial art, stage performances, radio broadcasts, gramophone records, and films alike Chinese audiences could find humorous commentary about the pitfalls of modern life, not least the misunderstandings, delusions and outright deceptions enabled by an increasingly chaotic media environment.

Funny Shanghai, as this culture might be called, had the communal aspect of “play” culture but was more upbeat. It offered an alternative to the abusive tone that pervaded both tabloids and highbrow literary journals. Its air of buffoonery nevertheless drew criticism for being cynical and defeatist. Lin Yutang, quoted above, saw China as being a nation of farceurs and expressed exasperation at their (p.108)

Farce 滑稽魂‎

Figure 5.1. The Comic Spirit (1919), an early Republican era humor anthology edited by Li Dingyi. The grinning man in a Western suit holds a copy of Forest of Laughs, China’s first-known joke book, upside down. Its inversion (dao 到‎) means that humor has arrived (dao 到‎).

inclination to treat everything as a grand joke. Lin also saw China as being a farcical place in the sense that it provided nonstop displays of unconscious humor—his countrymen, he said, had a knack for unwittingly making fools of themselves.8 Funny Shanghai, however, was a world that many could relate to: one in which one had to stay on guard against being tricked, and in which it was common to see other city-dwellers fall prey to hoaxes.

(p.109) Funny Business

Huaji (archaic: guji), translated here loosely as “funny,” for most of Chinese history meant comical or humorous. Its connotations have varied over time to include slippery, greasy, unreliable, opportunistic, smooth talking, witty, and devious. It can also refer to funny people. The Han dynasty Records of the Grand Historian contains a chapter on “Biographies of Court Wits” (“Guji liezhuan”) who remonstrated with wayward sovereigns cleverly and indirectly. When the King of Qi sent a paltry gift to the State of Zhao along with his request for aid to forestall an invasion, his jester Baldy Chunyu told him about a peasant he had just seen squatting by the roadside offering a pig’s trotter and a cup of wine to the gods in return for an abundant harvest. The king promptly increased his gift ten-fold and saved his kingdom.9 Dongfang Shuo, an eccentric known for being boastful and slovenly, nevertheless could best any courtier in verbal sparring and won the favor of Emperor Wu for his outspokenness on critical matters of state. Witty speech flowed from their lips like wine from a jug—guji also referring to an ancient type of pouring vessel.10 Later critics saw moral hazard in their facetiousness: in confusing right and wrong they violated the Confucian tenet of the Rectification of Names, which held that the names of things should match their inherent properties.11 Such linguistic transgressions could be excused only if they helped the kingdom.

In the early twentieth century, huaji retained associations with performance, artifice, and (sometimes) moral purpose. Preface writers endorsed collections of comic literature by favorably comparing the wit of their writers to that of the virtuous Baldy Chunyu and his peers.12 Punch lines in Wu Jianren’s 1910 joke series Funny Chats are often delivered by a wag known as “the one who is huaji” (huaji zhe). The term also accrued additional meanings in relation to new genres, modern technologies, and foreign languages. Wang Guowei in his 1907 retranslation of a Danish scholar’s Outlines of Psychology, rendered “the sense of the ridiculous” as “the huaji sensibility.”13 Xu Zhuodai and Zhou Zuoren, among others who studied in Japan in the 1900s, compared Chinese huaji with literary and dramatic forms of kōkkei (written with the same characters), and would have been familiar with the popular Osaka satirical pictorial Kokkei shimbun (Comical News, est. 1901).14 When Charlie Chaplin’s films took China by storm in the 1920s, he was acknowledged as the King of Huaji.15

The literary market paved the way for Chaplin’s reception. Around the turn of the twentieth century, magazine editors began subdividing fiction according to subject matter (such as politics, society, family), didactic purpose (satire, allegory, and so on), and affective mode (such as tragedy or comedy). This marketing strategy gave readers a convenient guide for shopping and reading based on their own individual tastes, or auwei.16 Wu Jianren coined the term huaji xiaoshuo (comic (p.110) fiction) in 1906 to advertise his serialized novel New Investiture of the Gods. In 1907, translators Lin Shu and Wei Yi rendered Nicholas Nickleby as Huaji waishi (loosely, The Unofficial Biography of a Slippery Character) and embellished Dickens’s droll prose with their own comedic flourishes.17 Numerous compendia of jokes and humorous writings used the term huaji in their titles.18 There were also huaji cartoons (hua), essays (wen), poems (shihua), anecdotes (yishi), and words (zi). Major newspapers and magazines of the 1910s and 1920s featured huaji columns and issued special huaji supplements to entice readers.19 Civil Rights, the early Republican newspaper discussed in chapters 2 and 3, carried a regular Funny Chronicle (huaji pu) of jokes and anecdotes. A note on the cover of A Crate of Fresh Jokes (1911) specified that the book contained funny/huaji jokes.20

Writers specializing in the huaji style include Cheng Zhanlu (mentioned in chapter 1, and the author of such works as “The Female Poet’s Toilet”), Zheng Yimei, Gong Shaoqin, Wu Shuangre (a former editor at Civil Rights), and Geng Xiaodi. At the same time, according to literary historian Fan Boqun, “virtually every single author of modern popular literature wrote huaji works, the only question being of volume.”21 Huaji was so prevalent in the late-Qing entertainment press that some literary historians have viewed the term as a virtual stand-in for “fiction.”22 Would-be Huaji Masters (huaji dashi) nevertheless competed for that title on the single criterion of funniness.

The Artisan of Laughter

Xu Zhuodai (1880–1958)23 was known as a Huaji Master. A native of Suzhou, in 1902 he traveled to Japan, one of the first Chinese students there to major in physical education. He also translated Japanese short stories and plays, read Western fiction in Japanese translation, and learned ballroom dancing. In 1905 he returned to Shanghai, where he authored textbooks on gymnastics and sport physiology and, along with his wife, Tang Jianwo, founded the city’s first sports academies.24 In the late 1900s he was drawn to modern theater, later becoming a playwright, actor, troupe leader, and drama historian. He gained wide popularity in the 1920s for his humorous stories, which were reprinted in numerous collections. He also recorded comic skits for radio, cofounded and produced slapstick films for two film companies, and authored several how-to books on filmmaking, radio broadcasting, and judo.25

As part of a literary career lasting half a century, Xu Zhuodai edited newspapers like the China Times and the Shanghai Morning Post and magazines such as Illustrated Laughter and New Shanghai.26 His stories, plays, essays, memoirs, advice columns, editorials, jokes, and photographs appeared in no fewer than three dozen periodicals, from major newspapers to special interest monthlies and tabloids.27 Thousands of his jokes were anthologized in collections, and other writings (p.111) appeared under such titles as An Absurd Diary (1923), The Unintelligible Collection (1923), and Drunk and Sniffing Apple Blossoms (1929). In Three Thousand Jokes (1935), Xu parodies authorial puffery with a preface composed entirely of grammatical particles.28

Hu Jichen, a fellow author and joke anthologist, noted in 1923 that although Xu wrote in many genres, he was famous only for comedy. Reading his comic stories was like watching a Chaplin film. Zhao Tiaokuang, another editor-colleague, said that Xu’s comic fiction stood out from the run of the mill for its philosophical insight. Yet another collaborator praised him for being, like Molière, a conscientious satirist of his times.29

Xu was reputed to be as funny as his writing. His contemporaries liked to say that “at age 43, he actually looked only 33, wrote stories which seemed written by a 23-year-old, joked with the lightheartedness of someone 13, and, if he really tried, could make himself up and effectively imitate the speech and laughter of a 3-year-old.”30 Much of Xu’s farce embraced an ethos of childishness, symbolized by the figure of the juvenile mischief maker.

Like the American entertainment impresario P. T. Barnum or Li Yu, one of the great personalities and comic writers of the early Qing dynasty, Xu Zhuodai was a tireless and inventive self-promoter. His reputation as an Artisan of Laughter (xiaojiang) fits both his industriousness and his devotion to craftsmanship. Xu created alter egos for his various occupations, most based on linguistic puns or double meanings. His given name, Fulin, sounds like “slow-witted” (fuling勿靈‎) in Wu dialect, which inspired him to adopt the pen name Zhuodai. Zhúo 卓‎,meaning outstanding or exceptional, is a homophone of clumsy (zhúo 拙‎), while dai 呆‎ means stupid. Taken together, the name Zhuodai was at once self-deprecating and self-inflating, intimating that this blockhead was “above the common herd” (zhuo er buqun).31 In his theatrical work he went by Banmei 半梅‎(“half plum”), a visual pun based on a classical variant of the character for “plum” (mei 梅‎), which was originally written as two dai characters (mei 呆呆‎).He also gave himself the name Zhuo Fuling, “Clumsy and Slow-witted,” which punned on Charlie Chaplin’s Chinese name, Zhuo Bielin. Other self-administered titles included Master of the Broken Chamber Pot Studio and Half-Old Grandpa Xu, a male version of a common expression for an aging beauty who still retains her charm (banlao Xuniang). In the 1940s he and his second wife, Hua Duancen, set up a factory that produced artificial soy sauce, and he adopted the pen names Soy Sauce Seller and Old Man Soy Sauce.32

Literary historians often group Xu Zhuodai with the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school of commercial fiction writers, but the breadth of his cultural activities and social circle defies such reductive classification. His work in education, drama, literature, publishing, radio, cinema, and other fields brought him into contact with a broad cross section of the Shanghai cultural field. While promoting (p.112) physical education in the 1900s, for example, he collaborated in establishing a gymnastics society with Huo Yuanjia, a now-legendary figure in the history of Chinese martial arts (played by Jet Li in the 2006 film Fearless).33 In the 1910s, Xu was also employed by Huang Chujiu, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur and proprietor of The Great World amusement hall, who hired Xu to write advertising copy for his medicines.34

From Knockabout New Drama to Slapstick Cinema

Xu was a central figure in early twentieth-century China’s drama reform movement, joining and founding several theater troupes, and forging a longtime collaboration with modern theater and cinema pioneer Zheng Zhengqiu. In 1911 he started a regular column in the newspaper Eastern Times advocating a style of New Drama (xinju) inspired by Japanese shimpa-geki. Magazine publicity photos of Xu in costume from the 1910s indicate his versatility as a stage performer (see figure 5.2); as mentioned above, he was just as versatile socially.35 It was during this decade that the Shanghai stage saw a new genre of farce, known as huaji xi.36 Like the Beijing and Tianjin comic performing art known as xiangsheng, Shanghainese farce often features a dialogue between a storyteller and a listener-interlocutor. But it combined repartee (often in dialect) with slapstick elements. The form drew inspiration from, among other sources, the calls and ditties of street vendors, one-man plays (dujiao xi), and the Civilized Play (wenming xi), a type of Westernized spoken drama that the Spring Willow Society theatrical troupe introduced to China from Japan in 1907. Performers like Laughing Jiang, Boisterous Bao, Wimpy Wang, and Liu Chunshan supplemented the money they earned from stage, radio, and film appearances with the sale of phonographs and booklets of their routines, which were part of the daily offerings of amusement halls like the New World.37 Though the dramatic form is closely tied to Shanghai and the neighboring provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, huaji xi also came to be used as a general derisive term for a farcical situation or travesty.38

Xu Zhuodai, who made his stage debut in Shanghai in 1910, wrote some thirty short comic plays, reportedly more than any other playwright of the period.39 One of the happiest periods in his professional life was his involvement in the 1920s with the Laughter Stage, a nonhierarchical troupe of seven members that specialized in new drama and advertised its stage productions with idiosyncratic tag lines. For Hamlet, it was: “A woman is wont to marry as the rain is wont to fall,” referring to the remarriage of Queen Gertrude.40 The troupe’s tastes extended from Shakespeare to Japanese shimpa, adaptations of Beijing opera, experimentalist works like Hong Shen’s Yama Zhao (1922), and Xu Zhuodai’s own farces.41

(p.113)

Farce 滑稽魂‎

Figure 5.2. Xu, identified by his stage name, Banmei, in costume as an old man, a laborer, a western lady, and a Chinese lady. This photo feature appeared in the second issue of Amusements (September 1914), an entertainment magazine affiliated with the Shanghai major newspaper Eastern Times, for which Xu wrote articles on drama. The girl in the middle is identified as “the little New Drama actress Jade.”

Image courtesy of the Menzies Library of the Australian National University.

(p.114) Xu’s plays featured characters from the lower social classes, reflecting his antielitist attitude toward literature and entertainment. Decades later, he would write:

There was a segment of society that dubbed new drama “civilized drama.” They believed that since weddings without pipes and drums were called “civilized weddings,” naturally plays without pipes and drums should be called “civilized drama.” Around the time of the 1911 Revolution, every new social phenomenon was invariably labeled “civilized” or “reform.” Walking sticks, for example, were called “civilized canes,” and women’s coiled bangs were called “civilized hairdos.” … At the time, the word “civilized” was extremely trendy—everyone used it. … Nevertheless, I’ve always found the term inappropriate. After all, wouldn’t it mean that plays with pipes and drums were “uncivilized drama”?42

One of Xu’s stage successes was “The Devil Messenger” (1923). A poor man named Ah Ba welcomes the God of Fortune each New Year only to find himself even poorer at year’s end, so he changes tactics and prays to the God of Misfortune. A friend who overhears him, Wang Jinhu, dresses up as a devil sent by the Lord of the Underworld and tells Ah Ba that he will die at midnight. Terrified but resigned to his fate, Ah Ba decides to make the most of his remaining hours. He borrows money from his landlord and orders on credit a banquet, a set of funereal clothes, and a coffin. He gets drunk, dons the funeral garb, climbs into the coffin and falls asleep, snoring loudly. The next morning when his creditors come calling, Ah Ba, surprised to discover that he is not dead yet, jumps out of the coffin pretending to be a ghost and addresses them:

Old Mr. Qiu [his landlord], you still owe me a condolence gift: five silver dollars and a set of new clothes will do it. Noodle-shop owner, whip me up two plates of chicken chow mein and one foreign dollar. You, from the Wan Jia Xiang Restaurant, bring me a plate of curry chicken over rice and one foreign dollar. Wineshopkeeper—three and a half gallons of Shaoxing wine and one foreign dollar. You, from the Zhengyuan restaurant—a bowl of braised meatballs and one foreign dollar. You, from the Canton snack shop—a plate of stir-fried beef with onions and one foreign dollar. You, from the Longevity Funereal Shop—a pair of new shoes and two foreign dollars. I only need all this stuff for tonight; tomorrow you can take it all back. If you refuse me, don’t be surprised if your entire family dies, young and old.43

The hoarding calls to mind the ghost meals in Which Classic? Here, though, Xu piles up not slang terms but evidence of Ah Ba’s greed. The shopkeepers comply, and, sure enough, Ah Ba begins to enjoy prosperity thanks to the God of Misfortune. As he is getting sloshed, the “devil” returns and demands a bribe not to take Ah Ba to the underworld. Ah Ba gives him half the money and invites him to share the meal. As they drink together, the devil betrays his true identity as Wang Jinhu. Ah Ba wants to thump Wang, but the latter points out that it is he (p.115) who is to be thanked for the windfall. So reconciled, they carouse until the creditors return again, discover the hoax, and trick the panicked pair into hiding together in the coffin, which they nail shut and trundle off.

“The Devil Messenger” is a typical reversal farce, in which “the tables are turned on the original rebel or joker, allowing the victim retaliation in return.”44 All is noise, fast-paced movement, and surprises, with constant exits and entrances. Ah Ba himself is repeatedly climbing in and out of the coffin—putting in a mattress and food, peeking out to count the dishes arriving for him, smoking and drinking, then hiding again. Characters think aloud in a stagey, expository fashion for the audience’s benefit. We have inversions, such as Ah Ba’s disappointment that he has not died by morning. We have excesses, with all the imbibing, gorging, lying, evasion, and deception. The atmosphere of continual surprise may be one reason why the play was performed at least five times by two troupes between 1923 and 1927.45

Other works incorporate burlesque, as with “Two Couples” (1923), a travesty of modern, upper-class free courtship.46 A young man, Bu Xiaolian (Shameless), and a young woman, Ma Yingwu (Parrot) meet on a park bench, hold hands, declare their mutual affection, and, having assured the other that father will consent to the match, agree to marry, and go off to lunch. This exchange is witnessed by the driver Lucky (Ah Fu) and the maid Happy (Xiao Xi), who spy on them from behind trees. When their masters leave, the servants come out from their hiding places determined to secure a mate in the same fashion. They return bizarrely dressed and reenact the earlier courtship scene. Both courtships, presented here side by side, begin with the man showing off his worldliness by reading aloud from a foreign book:

Upper-Class Courtship

Working-Class Courtship

Shameless:

  • A man and a fan.”47 That’s the ticket. So, it says that the price of rice in China is high now. This foreign magazine’s reporting is really detailed! There’s more: “A pen and a fan. It says that 13,293 people died in an earthquake in Italy.
  • Lucky:

  • Jili geluo, jili gulu, bili buluo.” This foreign book says that rice in China is too expensive, so drivers have to eat flatbread. “Jiela ban jisi, huotui jia tusi, yao er san si.”48 So, seventy-four and a half people died in an earthquake in Italy.
  • Whereas Shameless’s mistranslation of meaningless English marks him as a charlatan, his servant’s mimicry combines a line of baby babble (jili geluo) with a second line of seeming gobbledygook that is actually a rhyming list of foods (“Mustard pepper mixed with chicken strips, toasted ham sandwich, one two three four”).49 Each man then asks his lady love’s age and makes a vow:

    (p.116)

    Upper-Class Courtship

    Working-Class Courtship

    Shameless:

  • So, you’re nineteen and I’m twenty-four. Subtract the two and we’re only five years apart. What a jade-like pair …
  • Shameless:

  • … So happy! Now we can swear a solemn lover’s pledge: the sea may go dry and the mountains collapse, but our love will never change.
  • Parrot:

  • With all my heart.
  • Lucky:

  • You’re nineteen, and I’m twenty-four. Together we are forty-three—what a perfect couple we are!
  • Happy:

  • Like a pair of mandarin ducks.
  • Lucky:

  • Our intertwined heart is deeper than a cesspool …
  • Shameless tells Parrot that young love is like “being in heat” (fa qing), a violent desire that society should not repress. Lucky tells Happy: “When I held hands with you, I felt for a moment that each and every one of the 36,000 pores on my body had opened.” Lucky also speaks of courtship in terms of a trinity of defecation (their “cesspool-deep” love), sex (his local temple god, he explains, permits whoring), and eating. Modern love is mere physical reaction.

    Lucky and Happy go to a Chinese restaurant, where Lucky insists on ordering German food “the way they do it in Germany”—by having the waiter read them the menu. The couple learn to use knife and fork by imitating another diner, who misleads them by drawing circles in the air with the knife, bopping himself on the head with the fork, and so on—a country-bumpkin-in-the-city routine. The pair flees when Shameless and Parrot arrive at the restaurant. In the third and final scene, at Shameless and Parrot’s wedding, the proceedings are interrupted by Lucky, who rushes in and, mistaking Parrot for Happy, berates her for marrying another man. He is followed shortly by Happy, who misrecognizes Shameless as Lucky and accuses him of betraying her. Upon spotting each other, Happy and Lucky express relief at having found the “real” Shameless and Parrot. They hold hands, and the wedding party welcomes “another conjugal pair.”

    The servants enact an imagined social ascent, assuming the trappings of master and mistress to play the love game. Like in “The Devil Messenger,” members of the lower class enjoy a temporary respite, here via romantic escapade. Lucky gets to “fool around for a while with a co-ed” (his word for an available female); that is, to flirt, court, and otherwise experiment with newfangled social behaviors. And the carnival does not end: their superiors tolerate the escapade and approve the love match. Instead of putting Happy and Lucky back in their place, the ensemble allows them to remain in their deluded world.

    (p.117) Scholars of popular literature have criticized Xu’s plays for being “long on huaji, short on thought,” “bland and uninteresting,” and offering merely “petty domestic humor.”50 These dismissals measure farce by standards typically applied to ethical dramas or comedies of manners, which emphasize verbal wit. Xu’s plays, in contrast, are driven by schemes, hoaxes, deceptions, reversals, impersonation, and other devices that pair ingenuity with delusion—farcical elements that also appear in Xu’s stories and films.

    Xu was one of a number of Chinese theater veterans who became film pioneers. (In early American cinema, too, many actors came from the vaudeville stage.)51 In 1924, the year that Lin Yutang coined the term youmo (humor), Xu and fellow dramatist Wang Zhongxian cofounded the Happy Film Company (see figure 5.3), which specialized in comic shorts. That same year, Xu wrote China’s first book on film studies, The Science of Shadowplay (1924); he later wrote two other books on film production and film projection. The Happy Film Company was a budget operation—Xu dubbed its frugal business practices “cigarette butt-pickup-ism”—that drew acting talent from the Laughter Stage.52 It also had competition from major corporations, such as the Commercial Press, which were getting into the film business in the mid-1920s, producing slapstick shorts like Big Dummy Catches a Thief (1923).53 Wang and Xu acted in such films as Cupid’s Fertilizer (1925) and Strange Doctor (1925), in which Xu’s wife also appeared.

    These films made heavy use of trick cinematography. Though none of the films survive, discussions of some techniques appear in company-issued fanzines, reviews, and Xu’s books on filmmaking. Film historian Zhang Zhen notes that in The Science of Shadowplay Xu’s “fascination with tuolike [trick] technique … resonates with a peculiar cultural perception of the body and objective reality, beyond simple toying with the camera.”54 It is also consistent with the operational aesthetic of early global cinema (discussed in chapter 3), which was obsessed with gadgets, machines, and the modern comedy of figuring out the way things work.55

    The timing of Xu’s filmmaking enterprise would seem propitious, as a market for film comedy was well established. Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin had even spawned local imitators, such as Zhang Shichuan’s The King of Comedy’s Shanghai Sojourn (Huaji dawang you Hu ji, 1922), which featured a British resident of Shanghai as the Little Tramp. Xu and Wang, popularly known at the time as the Laughter Artisan of the Page (wentan xiaojiang) and the Laughter Artisan of the Stage (wutai xiaojiang), respectively, acted in all of their two-dozen-plus films. But their foray into slapstick film coincided with a general shift in audience tastes away from the gag-driven cinema of attractions and toward longer dramas. In Xu’s own account, the company folded because of poor reviews and the low market price of huaji shorts relative to feature films. A second joint effort, the Candle Film Company, met a similar demise.56 Though his own filmmaking enterprises were (p.118)

    Farce 滑稽魂‎

    Figure 5.3. Xu Zhuodai (left) and Wang Youyou (right) performing in Temporary Mansion (1925), produced by their Happy Film Co. “Your wife tricked me! She left her sewing on the bench and told me to sit anywhere—ouch, my bum!” The still appeared in The Half-Moon Journal 4, no. 24 (30 November 1925).

    Image courtesy of the East Asia Library of the University of Washington, Seattle.

    short-lived, Xu remained in demand as a screenwriter as late as 1940, when he was contracted to write a series of screenplays based on one of his hit fictional characters, the ingenious problem solver Li Ah Mao.

    Trickster Triumphs

    Xu continued writing and translating plays well into his sixties, but his hopes that New Drama could “broaden the minds of the people” diminished in the 1920s, and he turned his attention to fiction. In a 1922 essay he claimed that the traditional linked-chapter novel was ill suited to modern reading habits, and that the (p.119) goal of fiction was to represent realistic slices of life. The short story, he believed, was best suited to this purpose. He pointedly condemned the general tendency of traditional Chinese novelists to bend over backward to please their readers by contriving happy “grand finales.”57 To remedy these perceived inadequacies, Xu experimented with a wide variety of modes and forms. Yet his own literary fame came not from realism but from a style that conveyed truths through practical jokes, confidence tricks, and hoaxes.

    In his stories, the targets of these ruses are often fictional readers. “Opening Day Advertisement” (1924), for example, begins by introducing Zhang Yuehen, a talented but down-on-his-luck New Drama actor who tends to choke onstage at the crucial moment.58 Now a friend has found him a good gig and he is determined to prove himself.

    The night before his new play opens at the Weiguang Theater Zhang checks into the neighboring Pacific Hotel. There he is assisted by the bellhop Jiang Jinbao, who is an avid reader of detective novels and hopes someday to become a detective himself. Having helped Zhang to his room, Jiang goes back to reading a novel, but he is soon interrupted by a summons to the front desk. A young woman, Yu Dezhu, is looking for Zhang. She claims to be Zhang’s recently divorced wife and says that she has come to see her ex-husband one last time at his request. She then makes a request of her own: Zhang, she tells Jiang and the front-desk cashier, has a terrible temper. Could one of them wait outside of Zhang’s room while she’s meeting with him? If she yells, or if she fails to emerge within half an hour, she’ll need to be rescued.

    Jiang and the cashier take up their posts, but thirty minutes pass with no word from Yu, so they summon the concierge and the manager. Upon entering the room they find Zhang, but no Miss Yu. Believing the cashier’s eyewitness testimony that Yu did enter the room, the manager notifies the police, and word spreads that there’s been a murder at the Pacific Hotel. The police and a reporter arrive, and they burst into the room only to discover sitting inside a smiling Miss Yu. After a few minutes of their flustered questioning, she removes her wig and reveals herself to be Zhang Yuehen in drag. The manager and policeman are unamused, but the reporter exclaims, “Marvelous! Wonderful! What talent!” Zhang explains that he put on the show to get the public to acknowledge his skill at impersonation, and then fields their questions about how he pulled off the scheme. The story concludes:

    As he finished speaking, Zhang Yuehen wore an expression of uncontainable delight. The young journalist who had been focusing on writing everything down stopped and remarked cheerfully, “This is no crime. In fact, this news item is even more remarkable than a crime. I’ve finally gotten some great material; the title will be ‘The Bizarre Incident at the Pacific Hotel.’ ” Outside the door of the Pacific Hotel, Zhang Yuehen’s friend Qian Yinghan distributed a handbill, on which was written: (p.120) This is no crime. It’s Zhang Yuehen’s signature performance. Please go to Weiguang Theater tomorrow night to see the second act.

    The story reminds Shanghai readers not to believe what they see, read, or hear, and certainly not to be as gullible as Jiang, who imagined he was living in a detective novel. But the dramatist in Xu also wants us to appreciate the publicity stunt—just enjoy the show!

    The deceptive advertisement was a common artistic trope in a city awash in ads.59 Xu’s innovation in stories like “Woman’s Playthings,” summarized at the beginning of this chapter, was to highlight the agency of a newly conspicuous figure in cities like Shanghai: the cultural entrepreneur.60 Xu’s heroine Qiu Suwen, for example, earns money by crafting her image via a variety of media. She fuels the public’s desire by creating an abstract image of a modern woman of culture through her writings, paintings, and letters.61 She also employs a different type of trick photography: the bait-and-switch. Having fashioned herself into an abstract ideal, she then uses an advertisement to lure readers into a written exchange and finally into a real place in which they make a spectacle of themselves.62 In this cycle of interaction, the trickster-writer controls the relationship, duping readers, who become the main show for Xu’s readers.

    “Woman’s Playthings” also offered a twist on familiar stories about the “modern woman” and the “new woman,” a fashionable genre in the 1920s and 1930s, in which (mostly) male writers often depicted women in roles then thought of as male.63 The story points to male anxieties about women’s new visibility and social power, the theme of innumerable contemporary stories and cartoons (see figure 5.4).64 Yet Xu celebrates rather than condemns the manipulation that allows her to score a symbolic victory in the battle of the sexes. Qiu is not a realistic character (how could she write more than a thousand letters a day?) or an object of satire but the stuff of myth: a trickster.

    The one-way practical joking in “Woman’s Playthings” marks it as a humiliation or deception farce, in which the victim “is exposed to [his] fate, without opportunity for retaliation,” and which requires “special justifications for the pleasure taken in the sufferings of others.”65 While the story makes fun of men’s gullibility, the revelation about the deceased granddaughter injects a note of pathos, shifting attention from the dupes to the hoaxster. By circulating the photograph to a group of strangers, Qiu preserves and broadcasts the memory of a loved one.

    In the 1930s, Xu developed his most famous trickster figure, Dr. Li Ah Mao (Li Amao boshi), as an alter ego for a newspaper advice column. Ah Mao is the sort of common, lower-class name that appeared in newspaper reports of court cases involving domestic servants, chauffeurs, rickshaw pullers, and other menial laborers. Xu wrote different Ah Mao columns for a range of Shanghai newspapers, sometimes using the unlikely honorific, well into the 1940s.66

    (p.121)

    Farce 滑稽魂‎

    Figure 5.4. A two-faced woman leads men to their doom on a front cover of the Sunday 48 (28 January 1923), a popular fiction periodical for which Xu Zhuodai wrote. Note foot of drowned man at bottom.

    Image courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University.

    (p.122) The persona proved so popular that in the late 1930s the Guohua Film Company proposed a series of Li Ah Mao movies. At least three films were made: Li Ah Mao and Miss Tang (1939) (which paired Li with a female counterpart of Xu’s invention), Li Ah Mao and the Zombie (1940), and Li Ah Mao and Dongfang Shuo (1940), which paired Li with a classical comic icon. Each film was written by Xu and directed either separately or jointly by Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Xiaoqiu (son of Zheng Zhengqiu). These films did better at the box office than Xu’s own Happy Film Co. productions, perhaps because they were family fare. As one reviewer said: “every little kid knows the three words ‘Li Ah Mao.’ ”67

    In 1941 and 1942, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Xu wrote a series of twelve stories under the title, The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao.68 “April Fool’s Day,” the first in the series, is in the form of a play, with dialogue, parenthetical mood cues, stage directions, and sparse narration.69 Li Ah Mao arrives at the home of a husband and wife feuding over the man’s love affair. Claiming to be the prior occupant, he asks them for a moment alone to pay homage to the wife he drove to suicide in this very house several years ago. The couple returns to the living room to discover that he has robbed them blind, but Ah Mao has distracted the woman from her suicide threats. The wife looks at the calendar and sees that the robber has left a calling card with the name Li Ah Mao next to the date: April 1st.

    In “Please Exit through the Back Door,” Ah Mao is approached by two recently unemployed friends, who ask him to save them from imminent poverty.70 Ah Yang is a florist, but people can barely afford rice, and business is so bad that he has been forced to close up shop. Ah Ping’s barbershop, which shares a back door with Ah Ying’s shop, is in similar difficulty. Ah Mao takes out two advertisements in the newspaper, one saying that Ah Yang shop stocks a “fast-acting miracle hair-growth tonic” and another saying that Ah Ping’s barbershop has the secret to a “new, super-economical head-shaving method.” Customers throng their front doors, above which hangs a sign advertising the respective product.

    Strange to say! Passersby on the street could all see for themselves that the men going in Brother Ah Yang’s door were all bald. Clearly, they were going to buy hair tonic. Before long, each emerged one by one with a thick head of hair and holding in his hand a paper packet—this was, of course, the so-called miracle tonic. Amazingly, among the customers coming out of the shop not a single bald person could be found. The news passed by word of mouth from one person to ten and from ten to a hundred. Soon, everyone was telling their bald friends and family members to go and buy tonic.

    Across the street from Quick Blade Barber Shop at Number 71 Zhenjiang Road there happened to be a teahouse. On that day, patrons on both floors saw above the door to the barbershop a cloth banner that read “Super-economical head-shaving method.” As they watched, groups of men went in, one after another, each with wild and unkempt hair; a moment later, each man emerged clean-shaven. Naturally, (p.123) many people were astounded by this miracle. Word spread, and everyone went to find out about this super-economical head-shaving method themselves.71

    In fact, the narrator tells us, the explanation is “not worth a laugh.” After each customer makes his purchase, a sign on the wall directs him: “Due to the large number of customers, please exit through the back door” … into the other shop. Head-shaving customers return home and find the following instructions when they open the packet containing the secret formula: “Before bed, mix flour and glue together and mix into your hair. As you sleep, rats will come and eat your hair down to the nub during the night.” Hair-growth tonic customers return home to read: “Grass will grow if this powder is applied to soil, but not to stone. If you find it doesn’t work for you, your honorable head must be made of rock. In that case, drill a few small holes in your head and reapply. If that doesn’t work, transplant fine rattan fibers onto your head, and that’ll look pretty too.”

    This situation comedy draws on the Chinese comic aesthetic of raising hell (da nao) in a public space. (The most famous hell-raiser in this tradition would be Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who steals peaches of immortality in Journey to the West.) Xu’s readership would have been well familiar with the advertisements for “miracle cures” (qiyao) that had appeared in newspaper pharmaceutical advertisements since the late Qing.72 Parodists, as we saw in chapter 3, had long lampooned claims of immediate results. In Xu’s story, the advertisement is not an object of parody but a prop in an urban performance, in which storefronts become stages for a public audience of passersby and teahouse patrons.

    Hoaxes feature so frequently in Xu’s works that they beg the question of why he thought they mattered in a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis. Scholars of popular literature have interpreted Li Ah Mao’s hoaxes as symbols of resistance against economic oppression and material scarcity during the Japanese occupation—a strong theme in Xu’s wartime writings.73 Though ambivalent about Li Ah Mao’s methods, they find redemption in Xu’s expression of a popular spirit of stoicism and resourcefulness under foreign occupation. This interpretation chimes with French theorist Michel de Certeau’s explanation of how marginalized individuals respond to a social reality over which they have little control. The method available to them is the “tactic,” a practice for creating space for oneself within a larger structure of power. “Strategies” are the methods by which the powerful build those larger structures and establish their authority. Whereas strategies require significant investments of resources that render them relatively inflexible, tactics, driven by expediency, are fluid and adaptable. The “guileful ruse” of trickster, in Certeau’s words, is “the art of the weak that enables them to exploit their understanding of the rules of the system, and to turn it into an advantage.” Though lacking the power to overthrow the overarching social and political order, these acts of subversion indicate “a refusal to be subjugated.”74

    (p.124) In stories like “Please Exit through the Back Door,” Li Ah Mao does act as something of a Robin Hood in scheming to enrich his downtrodden friends. But the resistance interpretation does not explain the hoaxes in “Opening Day Advertisement” or in “Woman’s Playthings,” whose protagonist is no weak subaltern. It reinforces a refrain common to much mainland Chinese historiography since the Mao era: namely, that the only literary works of value written before the 1949 national “Liberation” are those marked by a spirit of resistance against feudal oppression, the Nationalist government, or the Japanese.

    The stories of Qiu Suwen, Li Ah Mao, and Zhang Yuehen reveal that the economy of the hoax is partly aesthetic. In addition to earning money and filling bellies, they invest mundane experiences with comic potential, and, in doing so, turn daily living into art. As Lewis Hyde observes in a comparative study of tricksters around the world, “The trickster myth derives creative intelligence from appetite.”75 A figure like Li Ah Mao transcends the adverse circumstances that have forced him into his role as Mr. Fix-It.76 His is can-do charisma, mixing the hustle of the petty entrepreneur and the observational genius of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, huaji and zhentan (detective) fiction of the era share close generic affinity, hoaxes and murder investigations alike leading the reader on a journey from puzzlement to revelation and delight. This narrative arc appears in the symmetry of “Please Exit through the Back Door” and in the light comic justice that Qiu Suwen metes out to her correspondents. Through hoaxes, Li Ah Mao and Qiu Suwen reveal a Shanghai not of drudgery, but of possibility.

    Beware the Plagiarist!

    Xu Zhuodai and his peers were not content with writing stories about fictional hoaxes. They also played practical jokes on readers. In Xu’s 1921 story “The Fiction Material Wholesaler,” Lit-Man Deng (Deng Wengong, literally, Literature Worker) is proprietor of a prosperous shop that sells story ideas under the slogan “Advocating Art & Literature, Promoting Domestic Goods.”77

    Tainted Fei (Fei Chunren), the first of Lit-Man’s seven customers, declares that he detests fiction but wants to submit a piece to a certain magazine’s fiction competition, explaining: “I’m hard up for ten dollars, so I want to write a story. Thieving or fiction-writing—it’s one or the other if I’m going to put ten bucks in my pocket.” Handsome Xiao (Xiao Bolian), whose name puns on both “pretty boy” (xiao bailian) and Bernard Shaw (Xiao Bona), is pretending to be a novelist to impress a prostitute. He assures Lit-Man: “I guarantee, once the story is finished, getting three or four lovers will be a piece of cake. What with royalties and allowances from my lovers—being a fiction writer is the best business! A story is more effective than any aphrodisiac.” Floozy Yang, a college student, wants a tale of (p.125) “pure love” but is offended by Lit-Man’s story about a girl who has an affair with a classmate and falls into dire straits, since it mirrors her own situation. The scion of a wealthy family declares that he wants to write to improve society, but since he distains merchants he insists on publishing it himself. Another customer turns out to be looking for material for a phonograph record.

    Lit-Man’s business prospers so much that he considers opening branches in other cities. As each customer tries to haggle with him on price, Lit-Man repeatedly insists that he only sells “first-class goods.” In fact, his plot summaries are derivative and cliché, populated with stock figures, such as talented lads and beautiful young ladies, maids, adulterous butchers, and prostitutes, or pandering to middling tastes for sentimental wartime romance and exposés of student sexual mores.

    As Lit-Man is relating a story to a man named Swallowtail (Yan Weisheng), his seventh customer suddenly interrupts him and completes the story. “Lit-Man paled in amazement. ‘You know it already?’ ‘Of course I do!’ Swallowtail replied. ‘How could you offer me this kind of material? This was published previously in Short Story Monthly’. Lit-Man became flustered. ‘I had no idea. It must be a coincidence.’ ‘A coincidence?’ Swallowtail asked. ‘You’re a fiction writer. How could you not know Wofoshanren’s [Wu Jianren’s] Doctor’s Intuition?’ ”

    This last detail would seem to corroborate, ten years after his death, Wu Jianren’s 1909 claim (see chapter 2) that he was a victim of plagiarism. At this point in the story, Lit-Man’s other customers burst in and rail at him for selling them plagiarized material, recounting the humiliation they experienced when they were exposed as having been ripped off Strange Tales from the Liao Studio or pop u lar fiction magazines. Swallowtail condemns Lit-Man’s “crime” but chides the customers for being ignorant readers. Together, they force Lit-Man to close shop and, in tears, he defends himself:

    Gentlemen … things having come to this pass, there’s not much I can do. But my profession is providing materials wholesale, not manufacturing them myself. Selling other people’s ready-made goods is all wholesalers ever do. It’s entirely up to the buyer to determine whether or not they’re used goods. If you like what you see, you buy it. As for plagiarizing, these days everybody is copying each other’s works and rushing them to press. Why pick on me? And anyway, I promote Chinese goods. I never use foreign goods! Aren’t those people who translate foreign fiction just plagiarizing? Why let them plagiarize and not me? Let’s face it: fiction writers these days are a thick-skinned bunch. Compared to what they do, copying old works is a trifle. Some of them even have the audacity to lift a passage here and a section there and piece them together into a funny [huaji] story to trick readers. Isn’t that even more absurd?

    (p.126) At this point, “Zhuodai comments: Uh oh! This Lit-Man Deng is on a tirade and might get around to cursing me. I dare not write another line, so it’s time I lay down my pen.” The implication, of course, is that Xu himself has been plagiarizing and that the reader has been the target of a literary hoax.

    At one level, the story is a sweeping satire of the rampant plagiarism in Shanghai’s bloated and hypercompetitive publishing industry, the commercialization of literature, contemporary social mores, and the Buy “Made in China” movement.78 Lit-Man is a self-professed promoter of literary quality whose wholesaling further commodifies literature. Yet central to Xu’s farce is the question of what constitutes literary creation: ethical considerations aside, how do translation, plagiarism, or other refashionings of existing writings differ qualitatively from original literary creation? Lit-Man’s story ideas may not be original, but neither are they word-for-word reproductions. And, as he points out, a wholesaler’s job is merely to sell “ready-made goods.”

    “Plagiarist in Western Dress,” a story which appeared in The Scarlet Magazine in 1923, begins with Xu recounting the trouble his editor, Shi Jiqun (1896–1946), has had trying to spot plagiarized manuscripts.79 He is amused by the thought that Shi trusts him and asserts: “I have a special plagiarizing method that can pull the wool over the eyes of editors and readers. … Fortunately, this special plagiarizing method of mine is extremely clever. I’ve just invented it, so no one will be able to detect it. Knowing this makes me so bold and thick-skinned that I might as well come out and announce to my editor and readers that this story of mine was plagiarized. … Having explained this to everyone up front, I’m going to skip the niceties, put pen to paper, and get plagiarizing.”

    The story that follows tells of a young foreigner named George who is enamored of one of his black slave girls, Melina. While George is away, Mrs. John goes to his room and finds that the black slave girls have been playing Ping-Pong and poker, and that the floor is covered with cigarette butts. She reprimands them for their misbehavior and then drinks a glass of brandy she finds out on the table. When the slave girls tell her that the brandy was being saved for Melina, Mrs. John leaves in a huff. George returns to discover that someone has drank Melina’s brandy; Melina tells him that brandy gives her an upset stomach anyway and that she’d rather eat chocolate candy. She then distresses George with the news that her mother and brother have expressed a wish to buy her out of servitude. Following a long discussion of her fate, during which George becomes increasingly despondent, Melina reveals that she has actually already convinced her mom and brother to let her stay. George responds with tearful euphoria.

    The story proper is followed by a note from Shi Jiqun, who exclaims, “So my old buddy is a plagiarist. I never knew!” He admits, however, that he can’t detect any signs of plagiarism and concludes that the story is a translation. He mentions in passing, “Some places in the story are underlined in black. These are foreign (p.127) names, which we specially marked to prevent reader confusion.” Xu, he says, should come clean.

    “Exposing Plagiarism” appeared in the next issue.80 Jichun, Xu admits, has seen through him. The work was indeed plagiarized—not translated—and from a hugely famous novel that every reader knows but none will be able to identify. Xu appends “A Small Dictionary for Exposure of Plagiarists,” which contains a list of key words for unlocking his plagiarizing technique and identifying the source text. These include:

    ping pong

    go

    play poker

    play “racing go” and “dice and dominoes”

    cigarette butts

    melon seed shells

    chocolate candy

    dried chestnuts

    black slave girls

    maids

    brandy

    koumiss [fermented mare’s milk]

    Mrs. John

    Nanny Li

    Melina

    Aroma

    George

    Baoyu

    The story, it turns out, comes from the most famous novel in the history of Chinese literature: Dream of the Red Chamber.81 Having revealed his trick, Xu congratulates himself and continues to taunt the reader: “Dear readers, take this dictionary and see for yourselves just how formidable my plagiarizing method is. … I’ve insured myself with a Western insurance company, hired a Western lawyer on retainer, and hung up a Western shop sign—am I going to be afraid of anyone exposing me? I might as well give it to you straight: this plagiarizing method of dressing up in Western clothing wasn’t even my invention. I plagiarized that too.” His inspiration, he goes on, was all the jokes appearing in magazines nowadays, most of which are ripped off from The Expanded Forest of Laughs. While flattering his own plagiarizing techniques as “extremely clever,” “novel,” and “formidable,” he pins the blame on the unnamed predecessors he learned them from.

    Xu employs a number of stock storyteller conventions, such as posing and answering rhetorical questions, simulating dialogue with the reader, and misleading the reader with the disingenuous testimony of an accomplice. He flatters readers’ smug self-assurance that they’re onto the ruse while stimulating curiosity about how the scheme will play out. The transparent hoax also subordinates the drama of the main text to that of the paratexts—namely, the preface, commentary, and dictionary. Throughout, he keeps the focus squarely on the creative process itself.

    (p.128) The New Literary Order

    Literary critic Mike Lee Davis, discussing Mark Twain’s “esophagus hoax,” characterizes the literary practical joke as a sort of conspiracy targeted at the reader.82 In his 1902 novella A Double Barreled Detective Story, Twain inserted a paragraph of lyrical but meaningless scenic description featuring a flying esophagus. Few readers noticed, he later claimed, and none who did detected a hoax. In that open letter, Twain chided his readers and gloated over the fun he’d had at their expense. Twain’s hoax, Davis asserts, sought to burst the bubble of smug self-regard fostered by America’s “national fetishization of [its own] innocence.”83

    Shanghai had been stereotyped for decades as anything but innocent—popular prejudice held that it was a realm of cheats and scammers. Beginning in 1914, the popular fiction magazine the Saturday regularly included a “Notice to Plagiarists” threatening to publish the real names and addresses of the “thieving vermin” who attempted to “swindle” its editors by submitting stories plagiarized from friends or the ancients.84 In 1920, the year before “The Fiction Material Wholesaler” appeared, Lu Xun accused Li Dingyi, the popular writer and joke anthologizer, of plagiarizing a translation from his and Zhou Zuoren’s collection Stories from Abroad (1909). The allegation was unfounded, if plausible.85 Plagiarism was also part and parcel to a broader discourse of urban deception, one symbolized by the title of Lei Jin’s illustrated book, Shanghai’s World of Swindlers (1914).86

    While building on longstanding stereotypes about double-dealing Shanghainese, the trope of the heroic cultural entrepreneur extended the stereotype into a new media and social context. Xu Zhuodai’s farces emphasize the proximity of the reader; his tricksters are not high officials but people like you and me. His Funny Shanghai affirmed the common person’s ability to survive, thrive, and even have fun in an adverse environment.

    Xu’s colleagues borrowed his ideas readily, in a kind of winking plagiarism. Four issues after the last installment of Xu’s parodic series “Newest Prohibition and Exorcism Methods” appeared in the Scarlet Magazine, a colleague wrote a “supplement.” Hu Jichen’s “The Opposite Side of Mr. Xu’s Stories” riffed on two of Xu’s earlier works. “Exposing Plagiarism” was soon followed by two short pieces by other authors on the plagiarism theme.87 Xu also inspired journalists, who in one case reported that Dr. Li Ah Mao, aka Xu Zhuodai, had made a fool of himself by canceling a date with his wife in order to go out with a dancer only to have the dancer stand him up for another man—but just in his role in his latest movie!88

    The spirit of the prankster is emblematic of a modern literary culture that appreciated practical jokes for fun and profit.89 Early issues of the Scarlet Magazine regularly featured cover illustrations of naughty children playing practical jokes on each other and on grown-ups (see figure 5.5). The forty-three-year-old Xu’s imitation of a three-year-old further indicates the appeal of figures who embodied (p.129)

    Farce 滑稽魂‎

    Figure 5.5. Childish pranks on the cover of the second issue of the Scarlet Magazine (August 1922).

    Image courtesy of the Library of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica.

    childlike mischief. At the end of his 1918 short story “Diary of a Madman,” Lu Xun had famously called upon readers to “save the children.” Xu Zhuodai encouraged his to be the children.

    Nor was this ethos restricted to a single segment of the literary market. Inside joking and tomfoolery in the popular press had long “helped fuel interest [in contemporary fiction] by giving readers a sense of participation.” One male writer (p.130) posed as a female so convincingly that he attracted a male reader’s marriage proposal.90 Literary hoaxing was also practiced by bourgeois modernists and members of the avant-garde. In the late 1920s, Sinmay Zau, a poet and cosmopolitan playboy, pulled a literary seduction trick on Zeng Pu, a famous novelist and editor of the Francophile Shanghai journal Truth, Goodness, Beauty (Zhenshanmei, 1927–31), by posing as a Catholic schoolgirl. Zau later remembered that “such hijinks were considered a creative exercise in the Shanghai salon of the late 1920s” and involved both Chinese and foreigners.91 Beijing-based writers of the 1910s and 1920s like Liu Fu, as we saw in chapter 4, also used hoaxes to garner publicity for their own literary ventures. As it happens, Liu had been a protégé of Xu Zhuodai’s in the 1910s, shortly before he and Qian Xuantong pulled their Wang Jingxuan stunt. Xu, then, may be said to have contributed to a “Shanghai modern” whose influence extended beyond Shanghai itself.92

    Whereas writers from Liu E to Zheng Zhenduo had held up tears as expressions of genuine emotion, hoaxsters envisioned a modern world of guile. They played the fool and invited others to play along with them. In its playfulness, inclusiveness, and reversals, huaji farce evokes Bakhtin’s notion of carnival laughter as “the social consciousness of all the people,” with the trickster-writer as a Lord of Misrule.93 As an inventor of fictional tricksters and as a trickster himself, Xu Zhuodai approximates what literary scholar Edith Kern calls the “quintessence of the absolute comic” who “by turning the world playfully upside down” “transports us into worlds where imagination and make-believe triumph.”94 For some New Literature writers, literature had to represent social reality faithfully through mimesis. Satire was acceptable only because its exaggerations and distortions measured the distance between what reality was and what it should be. But for others, practical jokes were a way to change reality, beginning with a reprieve from the drudgery of churning out copy and sifting manuscripts.95

    Xu Zhuodai’s protagonists are unusual in the context of modern Chinese fiction, and even in trickster lore, in that they triumph more than they suffer. Like Xu himself, they are prime movers in a Shanghai of their own making, orchestrating ethically ambivalent spectacles and inviting readers to join in the fun. Tricksters like Qiu Suwen are rarely punished with comic justice; more often, the reader becomes the scapegoat. On both levels, then, Funny Shanghai was a comic cosmos, a new reality. Its touchstone was the figure of the trickster who reorders the world and the relationships of people within it, employing tools of the cultural entrepreneur.

    Like the late Qing literati discussed in chapter 3, Xu and his peers treated Shanghai like a playground. The self-aggrandizing deceptions perpetrated by corrupt officials in Li Boyuan’s Officialdom Unmasked (which was later adapted into a Shanghai-style farce)96 and Wu Jianren’s Strange Events Eyewitnessed over the Past Twenty Years share with the shenanigans of Li Ah Mao and his friends a common (p.131) theme of trickery for profit. Yet Xu’s farce differs from the cynical jokes of his predecessors. His works feature neither abject pessimism about China nor the sense of forced gaiety found in many fin de siècle works. Like many May Fourth writers, Xu was a foreign-educated intellectual; unlike them, he made little pretense of castigating the ethically dubious behavior he portrayed. Everyday deceptions were a reliable source of amusement, something to look forward to.

    Indeed, the fantasy triumphs that Xu allows his readers to vicariously experience through his protagonists seem to condone the sort of “psychological victory” that Lu Xun mocked and lamented in “The True Story of Ah Q.” For Lu Xun, self-indulgent laughter was a pernicious and debilitating social habit that exacerbated national problems. China needed laughter that would attack social, political, and spiritual problems head-on. Xu Zhuodai and his fellow farceurs asked: What’s the harm in enjoying the occasional psychological victory? Why not play jokes on each other if no one gets hurt? And why not part fools from their money when friends’ welfare is at stake? Ah Q suffered horribly for his fantasies and his opportunistic behavior; Ah Mao’s scheming marked him as a successful man of his times.

    The sustained popularity of Xu’s brand of humor, from his plays and stories of the 1920s up to the Li Ah Mao phenomenon of the 1930s and 1940s, indicates that hoax-driven farce was no fad.97 Burlesque, too, had friends in high places—including the supposedly straight-faced “father” of modern Chinese literature himself. Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold feature an aloof literatus named Butt of Laughter (Xiaobing jun) and scholars who utter the same mix of pidgin (hao tu you tu=how do you do?) and gibberish (gu lu ji li) as does Ah Fu in Xu Zhuodai’s “Two Couples.”98 Since at least the 1910s, farce, cursing, and buffoonery had provoked objections ranging from distaste to contempt, anxiety, and fear. In the 1930s, this opposition coalesced into a concerted campaign to change the tone of public discourse. The result might be called the invention of humor.

    Notes:

    (1.) Lin Yutang, “Chinese Realism and Humour,” CC 3, no. 39 (25 September 1930), 924–25. The essay is reprinted in Lin, The Little Critic: Essays, Satires and Sketches on China (First Series: 1930–1932), 86–95, though it did not actually appear in the Little Critic column.

    (2.) [Xu] Zhuodai, “Shangxia liangdui” (“Two Couples”), Xiaoshuo shijie 1, no. 6 (9 February 1923), n.p.

    (3.) Xu Zhuodai, “Nüxing de wanwu,” HM 5, no. 3 (2 March 1928), n.p. The first page of the story includes a small illustration of a young woman sitting on a chair playing with a doll, as a dog looks on expectantly. The same issue carries chapter 2 of Cheng Zhanlu’s novel A New History of Comedy (Huaji xin shi).

    (4.) Lu Xun describes his addition of comedic material as huluan or haphazard. See Lu Xun, “ ‘Ah Q zhengzhuan’ de chengyin,” 548.

    (p.241) (5.) Shirley Chan notes in her study of the classical Daoist text Liezi that, in its premodern usage, “huaji does not differ in essence from what is now generally understood as humour in contemporary China.” See Chey and Davis, Humour in Chinese Life and Letters, 73. Huixie is now sometimes cited as the closest indigenous Chinese approximation of the English word humor before the introduction of the transliteration youmo. Some humor columns of the 1900s and 1910s were entitled “Humorous Writings” (xiezhu, xiewen), and the All-Story Monthly serialized “humorous novels” (huixie xiaoshuo). Few periodicals or literary works of that period, however, contain the term huixie in their title. In the 1920s Anglophile essayist Liang Yuchun (1906–32) used huaji and huixie inter-changeably as translations for humor. In 1927 he translated humorist as huajijia and in 1929 translated humor as huaji and humorist as huixiejia. See Liang, Liang Yuchun sanwenji, 18, 70–72.

    (6.) Several parodies from Huaji hun, written by many hands and edited by Li Dingyi, are discussed in chapter 3. A 1921 retranslation from English of Henri Bergson’s essay Le Rire rendered “the comic” as huaji. See Bergson, Xiao zhi yanjiu.

    (7.) Perry Link estimates that the Shanghai book-publishing industry as a whole grew more than sixfold from 1910 to 1930, from revenue of 4–5 million yuan to 30 million yuan. See Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies, 92–93. Alexander Des Forges notes that the so-called petty urbanites (xiao shimin) were defined by their consumption practices, “depend[ing] not primarily on their occupations, but rather on the kinds of housing they occupied, and, significantly, on the kinds of books and magazines they read.” See Des Forges, Mediasphere Shanghai, 127.

    (8.) Lin Yutang, “Unconscious Chinese Humor,” CC 7, no. 45 (8 November 1934), 1098.

    (9.) The “Guji liezhuan” chapter of Sima Qian’s Shiji (chap. 126) is translated in Baccini, “The Forest of Laughs (Xiaolin),” 193–203. Stories of Baldy Chunyu (Beatrice Otto’s translation) and other jesters also appear in Otto, Fools Are Everywhere, 88, 105–6, 122–23, 177, 232.

    (10.) This meaning is found in literature as recently as the nineteenth century. Guji is used to refer to a wine vessel in the novel Heroic Sons and Daughters (Ernü yingxiong zhuan, nineteenth century). Individually, gu 滑‎ meant “to bubble like a spring” and ji 稽‎ “continuous and unceasing.” See the entries on huaji and guji in Luo, Hanyu da cidian, 1481; compare Tang, Zhongguo xiandai huaji wenxue shilüe, 1. The use of huaji as a noun to mean comic performer continues today, as seen in the title of actor Yang Huasheng’s (1918–2012) autobiography An Old Comic Performer of Shanghai (2005). See Yang and Zhang, Shanghai lao huaji.

    (11.) In an eighth-century commentary, Sima Zhen remarked: “Those adept at speech and argumentation make the false appear true and the true appear false, throwing the similar and the dissimilar into confusion” (yanbian jie de ren yan fei ruo shi, shuo shi ruo fei, yan luan yitong ye). Literary theorist Liu Xie (ca. 465–522 CE) shared this moralistic view of humor, giving pride of place to corrective satire. See Liu, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, 154–65.

    (12.) Mr. Bored’s (or Mr. Boring’s, Wuliaozi) “New Preface” to the 1926 Saoye shanfang edition of Funny Chats, for example, compares Wu Jianren to Baldy Chunyu and Dongfang Shuo. Wu, Xinshi biaodian Huaji tan. (See appendix 1.)

    (p.242) (13.) Wang Guowei (1877–1927), retranslating the philosopher and psychoanalyst Harald Höffding (1843–1931) from English, used the term huaji zhi qing. Haifuding, Xinlixue gailun, 395.

    (14.) Zhitang [Zhou Zuoren], “Zhongguo de huaji wenxue” (see appendix 2). Kōkkei shinbun, founded by author and journalist Miyatake Gaikotsu (1867–1955), was an immediate nationwide success and lasted 173 issues before it was banned in 1908 for printing a “suicide issue.” A new edition took its place shortly thereafter.

    (15.) Huaji dawang. Chaplin’s films screened in China in the late 1910s, but it was likely not until movie house infrastructure became more established in the 1920s that they reached a broader audience. Reviews of and stills from Chaplin’s films, as well as news and gossip about his personal life appeared regularly in magazines such as Stage and Screen (Xiju dianying, est. 1926).

    (16.) The manifold meanings, connotations, and interpretations of quwei are discussed at length in Daruvala, Zhou Zuoren and an Alternative Chinese Response to Modernity, 138–52, and Zhao, Zhongguo xiandai quwei zhuyi wenxue sichao. Daruvala notes that quwei “draws on a host of related words carrying the associations of taste (qu) and flavor (wei). These are words with a large and overlapping semantic range that includes the senses of interest, piquancy, delight, and delectation” (145). I use the imperfect translation “taste” to indicate quwei’s strong association in Shanghai popular fiction magazines with the idea of individual sensibility. This usage differs significantly from idealized conceptions of elite Beijing-based aesthetic theorists. For Zhou Zuoren, “taste” was an innate and inalienable quality that could not be cultivated. Daruvala endorses Jonathan Chaves’s formulation that “qu is the ineffable essence at the heart of things and even partakes of a spiritual quality” (145). For cultural entrepreneurs, however, taste was a function of a market shaped by the relentless pursuit of novelty. In his work on the artist and essayist Feng Zikai, Geremie Barmé translates it as “allure,” among other renderings. See Barmé, An Artistic Exile, 95. A Shanghai tabloid calling itself Qubao (Amusement) appeared in 1898. See Wang, “The Weight of Frivolous Matters,” 65.

    (17.) Wu Jianren’s Xin Fengshen zhuan appeared in Yueyue xiaoshuo (All-Story Monthly). See Tang, Zhongguo xiandai huaji wenxue shilüe, 69–70. Wei Yi (1880–1932) translated Dickens’s prose orally, and Lin Shu, who knew no foreign languages, converted Wei’s vernacular rendering into classical Chinese. On their improvised humor, see Qian Zhongshu’s study of Lin Shu’s translations, “Lin Shu de fanyi” in Qian, Qizhui ji, 77–114; translated in Qian, Patchwork, 139–88.

    (18.) Huaji works include Yanyun jushi’s Huaji wenji (1910), Xing Han mie Man huaji lu (1911), Hu Jichen’s Huaji congshu (1913, repub. 1914), Chen Yan’s Huaji conghua (1919), and (Miben) Huaji wenfu daguan (1921). See appendix 1.

    (19.) In 1915, the daily newspaper Eastern Times (Shibao, 1910–39) released four issues of Funny Eastern Times (Huaji shibao), each well over one hundred pages. The pictorial magazine Shanghai Puck (1918) carried the alternate title Bochen’s Funny Pictorial (Bochen huaji huabao). During its two-year run, the fiction weekly the Sunday (Xingqi, 1922–23) issued an annual subscriber freebie entitled Funny (Huaji), which featured color cartoons, (p.243) stories, and comic play scripts. A 1922 advertisement in the Sunday advertises the supplement as being in the style of “the European Puck, the American Puck, and Life,” and claims that the Sunday has more than three thousand subscribers.

    (20.) The supertitle huaji xiaohua appears on the cover of Zhao, Xinxian xiaohua yi da xiang.

    (21.) Fan and Kong, Tongsu wenxue shiwu jiang, 251. Wei Shaochang’s list of popular authors who wrote huaji works—which he says tended to be short pieces—includes, in addition to Cheng (1879/82–1943), Gong (1879–1939) and Wu (1884–1934), Li Dingyi, Li Hanqiu, Bao Tianxiao, Hu Jichen, Fan Yanqiao (1874–1967), Zhang Chunfan, Bi Yihong (1892–1926) (founder of Shanghai Pictorial [est. 1925]), Liu Tieleng (1881–1961) (editor of an encore to Civil Rights), Xu Jinfu (1891–1953) (editor of Fiction Daily), Yan Duhe (1889–1968), Ping Jinya (1892–1980), Ye Xiaofeng (1887–1946), Wang Zhongxian, You Bankuang, and Huang Zhuantao. At the top of his list is Xu Zhuodai. See Wei, Wo kan yuanyang hudie pai, 176. Geng Xiaodi’s dates are 1907–94.

    (23.) Pronounced Xu Zuo’ai in Wu dialect. The following biographical material is drawn primarily from four sources: Xu, Huaju chuangshiqi huiyi lu; Zheng, Qingmo minchu wentan yishi, 187–94; Tang, Zhongguo xiandai huaji wenxue shilüe, 147–71; Tian, “Xu Zhuodai yu Zhongguo xiandai dazhong wenhua.”

    (24.) Jonathan Kolatch writes that “The [Xus] were truly the first family of Chinese physical education.” The sports academy that Xu founded in 1904 graduated more than fifteen hundred students before it closed in 1928. The girls’ sports academy founded by Tang Jianwo (d. 1932) in 1905 remained in continuous operation until 1937. See Kolatch, Sports, Politics, and Ideology in China, 6–7. According to a Suzhou local gazeteer, Tang, who also studied in Japan, was the first principal of a girls’ sports academy in China. See Deng, “‘Dongfang Zhuobielin’ Xu Zhuodai” (“‘Oriental Charlie Chaplin’ Xu Zhuodai”), online at: http://122.11.55.148/gate/big5/www.dfzb.suzhou.gov.cn/zsbl/1677127.htm. The date that Xu founded his first school is given in most sources as 1905, the year he returned from Japan. In 1907, Xu Zhuodai cofounded another school with Xu Yibing (1881–1922) and others and briefly served as its principal. Xu’s book Gymnastics Physiology appeared in 1909. Andrew D. Morris’s Marrow of the Nation does not mention the Xus’ pioneering work in the field of physical education but discusses the importance of sport in the discourse of nation building. One of Xu’s daughters, Xu Zhongqi, was also an athletic champion; photographs of her with track and field trophies (next to samples of her calligraphy in oracle bone style) and in swimwear appear in the Liengyi’s Tri-Monthly (Lianyi zhi you, 1925–31).

    (25.) Xu wrote Wireless Broadcasting (Wuxiandian boyin) for the Commercial Press’s “social education short book series” (shehui jiaoyu xiao congshu). The copy held in the Shanghai Library lacks a date, but the thread binding and traditional character font mark it as a Republican era publication. The eighth edition (1935) of Xu’s book on judo is held at the Shanghai Library: Xu, Riben roudao.

    (26.) Chinese titles: Shishi xinbao, Shanghai chenbao, Xiao hua, and Xin Shanghai.

    (p.244) (27.) These include Banyue, Chahua, Dazhong, Haifeng, Haiguang, Hong meigui, Hong zazhi, Kuaihuo shijie, Lianyi zhi you, Libailiu, Qiri tan, Shenbao, Shibao, Wanxiang, Xiao hua, Xiaoshuo daguan, Xiaoshuo shijie, Xin Shanghai, and Zazhi.

    (28.) Chinese titles: Qiyoucili zhi riji, Buzhi suoyun ji, Zuihou xiu pingguo, Xiaohua sanqian.

    (29.) See Hu Jichen, “Hu xu” (“Hu Jichen Preface”), in Xu, Qiyou cili zhi riji, n.p. Zhao’s words are mihan zheli. See Zhao Tiaokuang, “Benji zhuzhe Xu Zhuodai jun zhuan” (“A Biography of the Author of this Collection, Mr. Xu Zhuodai”), in Xu, Zhuodai xiaoshuo ji, 1–2 (January 1926 reprint). Zhu Shoutong makes the Molière comment in his preface to a collection he edited: Xu, Qiyou cili zhi riji, n.p.

    (30.) Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies, 163. This anecdote appears as early as 1923. See Yan Fusun, “Xu Zhuodai,” in Quanguo xiaoshuo mingjia zhuanji (Biographies of Famous Chinese Fiction Writers), reprinted in Yuan, Huo zai weixiao zhong, 36–37. A 1924 advertisement for two of his joke books echoes the common view that Xu’s “every move was funny.” The ad for Xu’s Laugh-Getters (Tiaoxiao lu) and New Forest of Laughs (Xin xiaolin), both published by Shanghai’s Dadong shuju, appeared in Banyue 3, no. 16 (4 May 1924), on the fifth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. An identical claim appears a month later in a literary gossip column written by Xu’s editor at Red Rose. See Shi Jiqun, “Wentan quhua: Xu Zhuodai zhi huaji” (“Literary Anecdotes: Funny Man Xu Zhuodai”), HM 94 (6 June 1924), n.p.

    (31.) Xu Fulin (aka Zhuodai) is to be confused with Xu Fulin (1879–1958), an early chairman of the Democratic Socialist Party. Clumsiness, in the sense of simple and uncultivated naiveté, is also a long-prized quality in literati art. See Barmé, An Artistic Exile, 116.

    (32.) Xu’s pen names include po yehushi zhu, banlao Xuye, maiyou lang, and jiangweng. In regional opera and vernacular fiction, maiyou lang is an oil seller (you can refer to oil or sauce). See Xu Zhuodai, “Miao buke jiangyou” (“Marvelous Soy Sauce!”), Chahua 18 (10 November 1947), 40–48. The title of Xu’s essay is a pun on “Too marvelous for words!” since words (yan) sounds like salt (yan), and soy sauce is salty. Another variant on the salty theme, “Marvelous beef soup!” (miao buke niuroutang)—which deliberately sabotages the pun—appeared in the first installment of Xu’s 1946 advice column, “Li Ah Mao’s Mailbox: Special Edition” (“Li Amao Xinxiang haowai”), in the tabloid Haiguang 10 (6 February 1946), 10; reprinted in Meng, Fangxing zhoubao, 2:492.

    (33.) On Xu’s work with Huo Yuanjia (1868–1910), see Deng, “ ‘Dongfang Zhuobielin’ Xu Zhuodai.”

    (34.) On Huang’s employment of Xu, see Cochran, Chinese Medicine Men, 52, 182n51.

    (35.) A photograph of Xu in costume also appears in the first issue of the short-lived magazine The Happy World (Kuaihuo shijie, 1914). In 1917 he and the female impersonator Ouyang Yuqian (1889–1962) traveled together to Japan to study how Japanese actors were trained. Four years later, he joined a short-lived theater research group founded by Wang Zhongxian (1888–1937) called the Masses Drama Society (Minzhong xijushe), whose members included the Anglophile playwright Xiong Foxi (1900–1965) and New Literature advocates such as the realist writer Zheng Zhenduo and the leftist novelist Mao Dun, who later became the People’s Republic of China’s minister of culture.

    (p.245) (36.) The origins of huaji xi are as contested as those of vaudeville in America. A summary and analysis of leading theories of origin appears in Fan and Wei, “Huaji xi qiyuan yu xingcheng chutan.” See also Shanghai wenhua chubanshe, Huaji luncong. Zhang Jian credits the coining of the term huaji xi to Wang Guowei, from Wang’s famous study of Song and Yuan drama. See Zhang, Zhongguo xiju guannian de xiandai shengcheng, 54. Historians have applied the term retroactively to comedic drama dating as early as the Tang dynasty (617–907). See Luo, Hanyu da cidian, 1482.

    (37.) Laughing Jiang (Jiang Xiaoxiao, 1900–1947) and Boisterous Bao (Bao Lele, 1902–63) produced a series of books featuring their routines, Laughs from Jiang and Bao (Jiang Bao xiaoji), the first volume of which was published by Shanghai’s Zilin shuju in 1935. A two-volume 1941 edition, which I have seen only the cover of, appears to have been issued by a paper-cutting company, Zhongguo qiezhi gongsi. Another edition features prominent ads for cigarettes, wireless radios, and other commodities. Liu Chunshan (1902–42), like Xu Zhuodai, founded his own Happy Film Company (Kuaile yingpian gongsi) specializing in comic shorts. Wimpy Wang’s (Wang Wuneng, d. ca. 1939) stage routines are discussed in Shanghai wenhua chubanshe, Huaji luncong. According to one cultural history of Shanghai, huaji stage performance reached its peak of popularity in amusement halls in the late 1920s and waned after the Mukden Incident of 1931. See Shanghaishi wenshi yanjiuguan, Hubin lüeying, 228.

    (38.) For an example of this usage, see chapter 43 of Zhuang Binghai’s (pen name of Tao Juyin, b. 1898) unfinished novel Yuan Shikai yanyi (Shanghai: Jiaotong tushuguan, 1917); cited in Luo, Hanyu da cidian, 1482.

    (39.) Xu reportedly began playwriting in 1909. His plays can be found in more than half a dozen magazines and journals, including the Story World, the Grand Magazine, Funny (a supplement of the Sunday), the Half Moon Journal, Wan hsiang, and the Masses. Play count is from Zheng, Qingmo Minchu wentan yishi, 189; estimate that this was more than any other contemporary playwright is from Tang, Zhongguo xiandai huaji wenxue shilüe, 41.

    (40.) Xu remembered the phrase as “tian yao luoyu, niang yao jiaren.” The Laughter Stage (Xiao wutai) troupe later expanded from seven to nine members, including Ouyang Yuqian. Xu mentions that its newspaper advertisements “read like playful writings” (youxi wenzhang) and succeeded in drawing full houses. See Xu, Huaju chuangshiqi huiyilu, 88.

    (41.) See ibid., 87–93. Laughter Stage’s production of Hong Shen’s Yama Zhao, premiered on 6 February 1923 and starred the playwright himself. See “Guchui caibing zhi xinzi kaiyan zaiji” (“Premiere of Another New Drama Play Advocating Disarmament”), SB 17944 (4 February 1923), 18.

    (43.) [Xu] Zhuodai, “Juhun shizhe,” Xiaoshuo shijie 1, no. 1 (5 January 1923), n.p.

    (44.) Davis, Farce, 7. In another reversal farce pitting father against son, “A Father’s Duty,” Chen Weimei and his father, Chen Jinping (a pun on “neurotic,” shenjing bing), encounter each other at the entrance to a brothel. Each dispatches the other with the excuse that he just happened to be passing by, only to return separately and sneak into the brothel one after another. The prostitute Big Pretty Flower receives son and father in turn. Weimei informs Big Pretty Flower of his plan to trick his greedy father into allowing them to marry by telling him that his unnamed fiancée will bring a large dowry. When his father, (p.246) Jinping, arrives, Weimei hides in the wardrobe and overhears his father tell Big Pretty Flower that his son is engaged, and that as soon as Weimei is out the door he will bring her in as his concubine. She feigns delight and convinces Jinping to give her three thousand dollars to prepare for their wedding and settle her debts. In the final scene, Weimei’s bride is revealed to be none other than Big Pretty Flower herself, and since the father cannot admit that he knows this prostitute in the presence of the wedding party, the couple succeeds in relieving the father of both money and concubine. See [Xu] Zhuodai, “Fuqin de yiwu,” Xiaoshuo shijie 2, no. 4 (1923), n.p.

    (45.) Performance notices and reviews in Shun Pao record that the play was performed a Shanghai girls’ school in 1923 and staged at least four times by the Morning Star Acting Troupe in 1926 and 1927. Morning Star’s second staging was at Shanghai’s Guangdong Baptist Society; in the fourth, in February 1927, featured Xu Tianneng as Ah Ba and Ouyang Yuqian in the ensemble. Notices for these performances appear in Shun Pao: “Wujing nüxue kai shizhou jinian youyihui” (“Wujing Girl’s School Holds Tenth Anniversary Gala”), SB 18049 (27 May 1923), 19; “Chenxing yanjutuan zhi ‘Juhun shizhe’” (“Morning Star Theatrical Troupe’s The Devil Messenger”), SB 19021 (17 February 1926), 19; “‘Juhun shizhe’ jinri fuyan” (“The Devil Messenger Returns to the Stage To night”), SB 19108 (15 May 1926), 22; “Juchang xiaoxi” (“Theater News”), SB 19712 (3 February 1927), 21–22. The script dubs the work a “laughter play” (xiaoju), or farce, while the newspaper notices refer to it as a “delightful play” (quju).

    (46.) [Xu] Zhuodai, “Shangxia liangdui.” The play is advertised as a comedy (xiju) in one act and three scenes.

    (47.) Shameless’s italicized words, here and below, appear as English in the original.

    (48.) Second sentence rendered phonetically to preserve the rhyme and the imitation of foreign sounds.

    (49.) Inflated food prices and their effects on the common people was one of Xu’s recurring concerns. Commodity inflation appears in many of his other works, including the novel Omnipotence (Wanneng shu, 1926), serialized in the Story World, and the series The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao (1940–41), which is discussed below. In the story “The International Currency Reform Conference,” a beat reporter daydreams that the hyperinflation that followed World War I will be solved by inverting the value of currency, making a dime worth one hundred dollars, and vice versa. See Xu Zhuodai, “Wanguo huobi gaizao dahui,” HM 19 (1922), 1–10. The title character of the Ah Mao stories, which were written in occupied Shanghai, dreams up ways to trick people so he can fill his poor friends’ bellies. In the eleventh episode, for example, Ah Mao opens a Japanese-language school, charges his students a bag of rice as tuition, and then (since he does not speak Japanese himself) spends a month teaching them how to pronounce the Japanese word for “rice,” which he learned from a Japanese soldier.

    (51.) On the links between vaudeville and cinema, see Trav S. D., No Applause; Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?

    (52.) Happy Film Company (Kaixin yingpian gongsi) issued its own special handbooksize periodical to accompany each new release, which contained still photographs and articles about the production. The handbook for He-Wife (Xiong xifu, 1926) contains a piece (p.247) by a member of the acting company who mentions that Zheng Zhengqiu introduced him to join Laughter Stage before he joined Happy Film Company. See Wu Jichen, “Wode dianying mi” (“My Cinephilia”), Kaixin tekan 2 (1 May 1926), 21–22. Xu’s own piece, “She xiangyan pigu zhuyi,” appears on pages 4–8. A copy is held at the Shanghai Library. The Chinese names of the films mentioned below are Aishen zhi feiliao and Guai yisheng.

    (53.) A still from Gangda zhuozei appears in the front matter of Banyue 2, no. 21 (14 July 1923).

    (54.) Zhang, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen, 163. Zhang includes an illustration from The Science of Shadowplay (Yingxi xue) and a photograph of Xu in costume for a female role on pages 165–66. Not all tuolike lenses were funny. A 1914 advertisement in the Happy World by “China’s first producer of trick lenses,” for example, referred to multiple-focal eyeglasses. See Kuaihuo shijie 2 (18 October 1914), n.p.

    (56.) Zheng Yimei relates an anecdote indicative of the culture of joking that surrounded Xu. At a party to celebrate the launch of the Candle Film Company (Lazhu yingpian gongsi), his friend presented him with two big candles, an allusion to the phrase “light the big candles” (dian da lazhu), Shanghai slang for a virgin prostitute’s first night with a john, which Xu happily accepted. See Zheng, Qingmo Minchu wentan yishi, 191; for a 1935 gloss of the candle expression, see Wang and Xu, Shanghai suyu tushuo, 10–12.

    (57.) Two of Xu’s later “delightful plays” (quju) appear in the August 1941 and February 1942 issues of Wanxiang during the period that magazine was serializing Xu’s twelve-part story series The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao. Xu’s comments on fiction appear in [Xu] Zhuodai, “Xiaoshuo wuti lu” (“Untitled Notes on Fiction”), Xiaoshuo shijie 1, no. 7 (1923), n.p.

    (58.) Xu Zhuodai, “Kaimu guanggao,” HM 1, no. 1 (2 August 1924), n.p. Intext quotations are from this version. The story is reprinted in Wei and Wu, Yuanyang hudie pai yanjiu ziliao, 2:1149–58.

    (59.) A cartoon of a rickshaw puller with “Your Ad Here” on his back appears, for example, in Yuxing 1 (1914), 52. Zhou Shoujuan’s 1917 novella The Intimate Beauty (Hongyan zhiji) also uses the newspaper advertisement as a device to re unite the lovers. See Mostow, The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature, 355–63.

    (60.) On the rise of the Chinese cultural entrepreneur, see Rea and Volland, The Business of Culture.

    (61.) Guides to letter writing were a new commodity in the Republican period, occasioned by a broad shift from the classical language to a vernacular style of writing. Advertisements appeared regularly in magazines like Red Rose. The Half Moon Journal, for example, in 1923 carried a standing advertisement for a guide to writing Letters for All Social Occasions (Jiaoji chidu daquan) by a certain Letter-Writing King (chidu dawang).

    (62.) Zhang Yingjin notes that male writers often used the trope of an absent woman who must be constructed purely through text to configure Republican Shanghai in gendered terms. Zhang quotes Teresa de Lauretis: “The city is a text which tells the story of male desire by performing the absence of woman and by producing woman as text, as pure representation.” Zhang adds that “woman is repeatedly inscribed as absent, as ultimately (p.248) unattainable in narrative or in the city—‘repeatedly,’ because the more unattainable the goal appears, the stronger the (male) desire burns, and the more urgent the task of constructing the narrative/city becomes.” See Zhang, The City in Modern Chinese Literature and Film, 186. Xu’s narrative encapsulates the patterns of absence and repetition but differs in that Qiu controls the interaction.

    (63.) Recent studies of the figure of the “modern woman” (modeng nüxing), “new woman” (xin nüxing), and “modern girl” (moga), as she is variously called, include Weinbaum, et al., Modern Girl around the World; Hu, Tales of Translation; Des Forges, Mediasphere Shanghai, 131–59.

    (64.) Xu’s story nevertheless differs from mainstream cautionary tales about duplicitous females, like the gold-digging confidence women that appear in Zhu Shouju’s story “The Confidence in the Game” (“Cizhong mimi,” 1922), translated in Wong, Stories for Saturday, 5–27; or Zhang Henshui’s novel Ping-Hu tongche (1935), translated as Zhang, Shanghai Express.

    (66.) According to notices in Shun Pao, Morning Post (Chenbao) carried an Ah Mao column in 1933 and one of its sister publications carried “Li Ah Mao’s Experiments” (“Li Amao ceyan”) in 1935. “Li Ah Mao’s Notebook” (“Li Amao suibi”) appeared in Social News Daily (Shehui ribao) in 1937. The Hai Kwang Weekly, a postwar tabloid, contains a series of more than twenty “Li Ah Mao’s Mailbox: Special Edition” (“Li Amao xinxiang haowai”), credited to Big Brother Ah Mao (Amao ge). A second series, “Biographies of New Theater Aficionados” (“Xin ximi zhuan”), is credited to Li Amao with illustrations by Dong Tianye. Other contributions appear under Xu’s pen name Old Man Soy Sauce (Jiangweng).

    (67.) Chinese film titles: Li Ah Mao yu Tang Xiaojie, Li Ah Mao yu jiangshi, and Li Ah Mao yu Dongfang Shuo. The latter ranked as the sixth-highest-grossing film in the first half of 1940. On the Ah Mao films, see Tian, “Xu Zhuodai yu Zhongguo dazhong wenhua,” 195; Rao, Zhongguo xiju dianying shi, 95. Li Ah Mao’s leap from page to silver screen followed close on the heels of “Mr. Wang,” the titular protagonist of 1930s Shanghai’s most popular comic strip who became the central character in at least a dozen live-action (as opposed to animated) films. Zheng Xiaoqiu’s dates are 1910–89.

    (68.) Xu Zhuodai, Li Amao waizhuan (The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao). Serialized in the first twelve issues of Wanxiang, July 1941 to June 1942.

    (69.) See Xu Zhuodai, Li Amao waizhuan (yi): “Yuren jie” (“The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao [1]: April Fool’s Day”), Wanxiang 1, no. 1 (1 July 1941), 195–97. Xu also wrote other “stories in playscript form” (jubenti xiaoshuo), including “Splash” (“Shuisheng”) and “One Part of the Heart” (“Yi fangmian de xin”). None of the Li Ah Mao films or scripts appear to be extant, so we do not know whether any of the scenarios of The Unofficial Story appeared on-screen.

    (70.) Xu Zhuodai, Li Amao waizhuan (ba): “Qing zou houmen chuqu” (“The Unofficial Story of Li Ah Mao [8]: Please Exit through the Back Door”), Wanxiang 1, no. 8 (February 1942), 208–10. The story is illustrated.

    (71.) Ibid., 209–10.

    (72.) One example of deceptive medicinal advertising from this period is the Western-sounding product Ailuo Brain Tonic (Ailuo bunaozhi) developed by the “King of Advertising” (p.249) (guanggao dawang) Huang Chujiu, founder of the Great World amusement hall. The importance of textual packaging is evident from Huang’s marketing techniques: “He distributed the drug in bottles under a Chinese name … which sounded like a Chinese transliteration of a Western name, and he had China’s biggest publishing house, the Commercial Press, print instructions on the label in English. On the label and the outer paper wrapper he added, also in English, that the product was invented by Dr. T. C. Yale. Thus, on the outside, this medicine gave every indication of being Western.” See Yeh, Becoming Chinese, 63.

    (73.) See Fan Boqun, “Dongfang Zhuobielin, huaji xiaoshuo mingjia—Xu Zhuodai” (“The Oriental Charlie Chaplin and Famous Comic Fiction Writer: Xu Zhuodai”), in Xu, Huaji dashi Xu Zhuodai daibiao zuo, 4–5; Tang, Zhongguo xiandai huaji wenxue shilüe, 147–72. Later in the war period, Xu wrote essays offering readers practical advice on nutrition and how to fill their bellies while saving money. See, for example, “Shengmi chifan fa” (“How to Make Your Rice Last”), Dazhong (December 1944), 115–16; and “Baojian shiliao” (“Healthful Foods”), Dazhong (January 1945), 113.

    (75.) Hyde adds, “Trickster starts out hungry, but before long he is master of the kind of creative deception that [has long been] a prerequisite of art.” See Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, 17.

    (77.) Xu Banmei, “Xiaoshuo cailiao pifasuo,” Banyue 1, no. 3 (15 October 1921), 13–28. In-text quotations are from this version. The story is one of two that Zhou Shoujuan singled out for praise upon the journal’s first anniversary. See Zhou Shoujuan, “Banyue zhi yinian huigu” (“Looking Back at the Half-Moon Journal’s First Year”), Banyue 2, no. 1 (20 November 1923), n.p. Wengong (Lit-Man) carries the dual meanings of “literary worker” (wenxue gongren) and “good at literature” (gong yu wen). The name Yang Lanwu, below, puns on yang lanwu, or “Western moral depravity.” My thanks to Eva Hung for suggesting renderings of some character names in this story, my translation of which appears in Renditions 67.

    (78.) For a history of foreign consumer good boycotts and Buy “Made in China” movements in early twentieth-century China, see Gerth, China Made, especially chaps. 3 and 4.

    (79.) Xu Zhuodai, “Yangzhuang de chaoxijia,” HZ 33 (1923), n.p. In-text quotations are from this edition.

    (80.) Xu Zhuodai, “Gaofa chaoxi,” HZ 34 (1923), n.p. The dictionary is “Gaofa yong xiao zidian.”

    (81.) The episode appears in chapter 19. For a translation, see Cao, The Story of the Stone, 1:375–99, especially 383–92.

    (83.) Twain’s passage ends: “far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.” Davis includes the full text of Twain’s letter to readers in ibid., 179–80.

    (84.) The notice, addressed to maozei who guaipian, first appears in its tenth issue of 8 August 1914. See “Jinggao chaoxijia” in Libailiu 10 (8 August 1914), six pages before copyright (p.250) page. The Liengyi’s Tri-Monthly, a Shanghai entertainment publication that featured both writings by and news items about Xu Zhuodai, carried a regular notice warning against plagiarism or unauthorized reproduction of its contents, as did many of its peers.

    (85.) The alleged plagiarism of the Zhous’s Yuwai xiaoshuo ji occurred in 1914 but is not supported by a comparison of the two translations. The collection is reprinted in Zhou, Zhou Zuoren yiwen quanji, 11, 441–559. As literary scholar Yu Ling points out, the story of Li’s alleged misdeed was even embellished later by other writers. In 1942, Ping Jinya, one of Xu Zhuodai’s associates, and the distributor of Wan Hsiang, wrote a gripping but highly dubious account of Li Dingyi being confronted by the (unnamed) translator. Yu points out that not only is Ping’s account improbable, but that even Lu Xun’s 1920 preface misleads the reader into thinking that he himself did the translation (of a Polish story, retranslated from English), when the translator was in fact Zhou Zuoren. For details, see Yu Ling, “Dengqing Li Dingyi dui Leren yangke de chaoxi gong’an” (“Sorting Out the Case of Li Dingyi’s Alleged Plagiarism of Sielanka”), in Chen and Wang, Jiangou Zhongguo xiandai wenxue duoyuan gongsheng tixi de xin sikao, 264–70.

    (87.) Xu’s “Zuixin jinyanshu” and Chunmeng’s “Zuixin jinyanshu buyi” appear in HZ, issues 39–41, 45, and 47. Hu Jichen’s “Xujun xiaoshuo de fanmian” rewrote Xu’s “It’s a Small World” (“Xizhai de shijie,” issue 3) as “It’s Not a Small World” (“Bu xiazhai de shijie”) and his “A Frantic New Year’s Day” (“Jixing de yuandan,” issue 28) as “A Slow-Paced New Year’s Eve” (“Manxing de chuxi”). Works on the plagiarism theme from this period include Gengkui’s “Ni chaoxijia bianyuan chengwen” (“A Mock Petition in Defense of Plagiarists”), HZ 28 (1923); and Chi Hen’s “Ci chaoxi wen” (“A Jibe at Plagiarism”), HZ 34 (1923).

    (88.) See the anonymous piece: “Huaji boshi qushi: Li Amao qingchang baibeiji” (“A Funny Anecdote about Dr. Funny: Li Ah Mao Unlucky in Love”), SB 22501 (15 December 1935), 21.

    (89.) Xu’s emphasis on the craft and technique of trickery, for example, bears close resemblance to early comic films such as Laborer’s Love (1922), discussed in chapter 3, in which a carpenter turned fruit seller uses the tools of his carpentry trade to bring down his tormentors and attain his desired object. In one fast-forwarded sequence, the carpenter rebuilds a staircase so that it can be converted into a slide with a push, and back to a staircase with a pull. His victims, patrons of a nightclub above his room who have kept him awake all night, slip their way down his contraption to become clients of his would-be father-in-law, a doctor. His enterprise brings the match about.

    (90.) On this culture, and on Gu Mingdao’s (1879–1944) stunt, see Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies, 171.

    (91.) Zau’s (Shao Xunmei, 1906–68) prank on Zeng Pu (1871–1935) is described in Jonathan Hutt’s article, “Monstre Sacré.” Hutt notes that Zau’s “penchant for [literary] pranks was soon at odds with the heated stylistic debates and political confrontations that characterized the increasingly acrimonious literary arena.” The case of Xu Zhuodai shows that such pranks were by no means an expression of an exclusively “bourgeois” humor, as Zau’s critics in the League of Left-Wing Writers might have imagined. It is also worth mentioning that readers tricked staff writers and editors too. Perry Link notes that when Chen Diexian was a columnist for Shun Pao, he was embarrassed to discover that a reader-submitted (p.251) poem that he had given a poor grade turned out to have been written by the famous Tang writer Liu Zongyuan (773–819). See Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies, 171.

    (92.) In 1908 or 1909, Xu was backstage at a Shanghai performance of the Enlightenment Troupe when a teenage Liu Bannong (see chapter 4), was thrust into his hands to have his face painted for a comic role. A month later, Xu, then an editor at the China Times (Shishi xinbao, 1907–49), helped Liu to get several translations published in that major newspaper. When Xu was hired by the publishing house China Books (Zhonghua shuju), he brought Liu along, and the two worked together for several years before Liu moved to Beijing. See Xu, Huaju chuangshiqi huiyilu, 46–48. For a study of “Shanghai modern” focused on cosmopolitan literary modernists of the 1930s and 1940s, see Lee, Shanghai Modern.

    (93.) Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 92. Perry Link notes that Xu’s fiction “drew heavily upon the device of abrupt surprise, every page turning the reader’s expectations upside down.” See Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies, 158. But Xu’s plots tend to be driven by problem solving rather than by coincidence, and the surprises result from the clever machinations of an enterprising character who exploits commercial print media for his or her own ends.

    (94.) Kern, The Absolute Comic, 208. Edith Kern follows Charles Baudelaire in making a distinction between farcical and realistic modes of comedy: “the absolute comic, or farce, [is] highly creative from an artistic point of view, [while] the significative comic [is] mainly imitative and mimetic” (3). The distinction, in my opinion, is not hard and fast.

    (95.) This is a bonus endnote.

    (97.) As mentioned earlier, Xu Zhuodai used the Li Ah Mao pen name from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. He used it, for example, in his contribution to The Foreign Concessions Illustrated and Explained (Yangjingbang tushuo), an illustrated and annotated dictionary of Shanghai slang. The series was an encore and tribute to Wang Zhongxian’s A New Illustrated and Annotated Dictionary of Shanghainese Expressions (Huyu xin cidian tushuo), which was originally serialized in the Social News Daily from 28 November 1932 to 18 June 1935 and published as the book Shanghai Slang Illustrated and Explained (Shanghai suyu tushuo) in 1935. The author’s preface to the Li Ah Mao slang series says that Wang’s work was written “fifteen years earlier,” so Li Ah Mao’s likely dates to between 1947 and 1950. For a modern edition, see Meng, Lao Shanghai suyu tushuo daquan. Big Brother Ah Mao (Ah Mao ge)—the name Li Ah Mao’s friends use to address him in Xu’s stories—also appears as author of short pieces in Tea Talk and several other postwar magazines and newspapers. Some of these are reprinted in Meng, Fangxing zhoubao.

    (98.) Cheng, Literary Remains, 188. See chapter 7 of Eileen Cheng’s study for an extended analysis of mockery, satire, wordplay, and irreverence in Old Tales Retold, whose Butt of Laughter spoke for promoters of “art for art’s sake.”