Scatological humour in Zhu Wen and Han Dong

By Nicky Harman, published

Pamela Hunt writes: Why are there so many modern Chinese novels in which, as Cindy Carter put it so nicely in an earlier post, ‘faeces play a starring role’? Any reader of contemporary Chinese fiction will tell you that you don’t have to look very far to find a joke about bodily functions. But at the same time humour is rarely discussed in academic writing on Chinese literature, let alone humour that centres around the toilet. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a shame, which is why I decided to tackle the subject myself in a recent essay for the MA in Modern Chinese Literature at SOAS, University of London, focusing on the work of two authors much discussed on the pages of Paper Republic, Han Dong and Zhu Wen.

Although there may be much to be said about the scatological aspect to the Chinese sense of humour, I start this essay from the viewpoint that jokes about shit are not simply a question of (forgive me) culture. Nor is it, as the authors might have us believe, merely a form of ‘plain-speaking’. Instead, two things seemed important. The first is that cleanliness, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas argued, is often equated with progress and order. The second is that progress and order are two inflated ideals that Han and Zhu seem to enjoy puncturing. The ‘Glorious Banishments’ of the Cultural Revolution, the shining modernity of postsocialist China, the elevated role of literature – all these sacred cows of Chinese society are happily ridiculed by both authors by associating them with bodily functions. Focusing on two particular scenes within What is Garbage, What is Love, and Striking Root, this essay explores how Han and Zhu’s excremental visions are a means both of challenging China’s social and political bodies, and an expression of their own iconoclastic power within the literary field. The significance – and potential power – of scatological humour, to me, lies in its subversive quality, in its transgression of the boundaries of order and good taste.

Download Pamela Hunt's complete paper here.


# 1.   

Great essay, Pamela! 'Excremental visions' is now my new favourite phrase. Nice idea to post essays like this.

AnnaHolmwood, June 3, 2010, 2:21a.m.


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