Literati compiled collections of jokes (xiaohua) throughout the imperial period. In the late Qing, however, jokes aided the livelihood of writers for Shanghai’s booming periodical press. Xiaohua differ from “jokes” in that they can relate true anecdotes as well as fictional scenarios. The ambiguous truth-claim of the xiaohua appealed especially to exposé writers like Wu Jianren and Li Boyuan, who mixed news items, gossip, and apocryphal stories into xiaohua-driven novels about the misbehavior of Qing officials. Formulaic jokes proliferated and became more commoditized during the Republican period, as newspapers and magazines became ever-more hungry for copy that would attract readers. Foreign jokes were widely translated. Chinese jokes from imperial collections were rediscovered and adapted by writers, cartoonists, and performers alike. Chinese jokes circulated abroad in greater volume than ever before. As late as the 1930s, however, critics like Lu Xun still warned of danger in a culture of joking that was more interested in the funny than the true.
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