The Age of Irreverence


Christopher Rea

Publication Year





University of California Press

The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China Hardcover – September 8, 2015  

by Christopher Rea

The Age of Irreverence tells the story of why China’s entry into the modern age was not just traumatic, but uproarious. As the Qing dynasty slumped toward extinction, prominent writers compiled jokes into collections they called “histories of laughter.” In the first years of the Republic, novelists, essayists and illustrators alike used humorous allegories to make veiled critiques of the new government. But, again and again, political and cultural discussion erupted into invective, as critics gleefully jeered and derided rivals in public. Farceurs drew followings in the popular press, promoting a culture of practical joking and buffoonery. Eventually, these various expressions of hilarity proved so offensive to high-brow writers that they launched a concerted campaign to transform the tone of public discourse, hoping to displace the old forms of mirth with a new one they called youmo (humor).

Christopher Rea argues that this period—from the 1890s to the 1930s—transformed how Chinese people thought and talked about what is funny. Focusing on five cultural expressions of laughter—jokes, play, mockery, farce, and humor—he reveals the textures of comedy that were a part of everyday life during modern China’s first “age of irreverence.” This new history of laughter not only offers an unprecedented and up-close look at a neglected facet of Chinese cultural modernity, but also reveals its lasting legacy in the Chinese language of the comic today and its implications for our understanding of humor as a part of human culture.


“Rea provides a map to a diverse comedic terrain between the late Qing dynasty and the Year of Humor (1933) that is richly populated with ‘whimsical poets, vaudevillian entrepreneurs, renowned revilers, twee essayists, winking farceurs, and self-promoting jokesters’.”

(Joe Sample China Quarterly)

“[An] excellent study.”

(Paul Bevan SOAS Bulletin)

“Not only does The Age of Irreverence o?ffer an engaging new take on the cultural history of a momentous period, it also raises a number of leads for future research.”

(Journal of Oriental Studies)

The Age of Irreverence devotes meticulous attention to primary sources, and crafts its findings into a narrative of humor in popular culture from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1930s, with a nod in the epilogue toward the socialist era and beyond. As a scholarly intervention, however, the book’s central argument most directly targets not history, but literary studies… certain to engage an audience.”

(Frontiers of Literary Studies in China)

“Beautifully written… Rea has managed to write a very scholarly but nevertheless interesting and even entertaining book about a subject of considerable importance that has been neglected by literary scholars.”

(Israeli Journal of Humor Research)

Abounds with examples and provides a learned apparatus… informative.

(Monumenta Serica)

From the Inside Flap

“I am confident that it is the finest in its field to include a lyric by me.”—Eric Idle

“Academic books do not always reflect their subject matter. Studies of sex, for example, are notoriously unsexy. But Mr. Rea’s book is funny, beginning with its hilarious “executive preface.””—Ian Johnson, The New York Times

“China’s tumultuous and painful history during the last two hundred years has led many of its writers to focus on heavy questions like ‘What went wrong?,’ ‘Whose fault was it?,’ and ‘What can we do now?’ Scholarship, both Chinese and Western, has generally followed this emphasis. Now The Age of Irreverence shows, in marvelous variety and detail, how laughter and raillery—not separate from the pain but complexly involved with it—infused the cultural scene as well.”—Perry Link, author of Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics

“Rea’s study is beautifully written and meticulously researched. At a time when western interest in and access to Chinese ‘cultural products’ have never been greater, books like this are essential for challenging entrenched stereotypes and fostering greater appreciation of the country.”—Jonathan Sullivan, Comedy Studies



Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia and a rabid fan of Monty Python.

“The Age of Irreverence” is a history of how China laughed its way into the modern age. It traces an unruly current in modern Chinese culture, following the stories of whimsical poets, vaudevillian entrepreneurs, renowned revilers, twee essayists, winking farceurs, and self-promoting jokesters–as well as the vocal opponents who tried to tame them. It shows how leading cultural figures used laughter to set the tone of various campaigns to transform the nation, and reveals their influential legacy in today’s China.

“The Business of Culture” is a study of cultural entrepreneurship that traces the rise of cultural personalities, tycoons, and collective cultural enterprises in China and Southeast Asia, from Tianjin and Shanghai to Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts,” is a translated collection of stories and essays by Qian Zhongshu, twentieth-century China’s paragon of urbane wit and acerbic satire.

“China’s Literary Cosmopolitans” offers a comprehensive survey of the literary oeuvres of two of China’s leading scholar-writers, Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang, and explains their contributions to the notion of literary cosmopolitanism.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (September 8, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520283848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520283848
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds

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