[REVIEW] “Psychological infiltration in Maoist Laughter” by Frances An

{Written by Frances An, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath (editors), Maoist Laughter (毛時代的笑), Hong Kong University Press, 2019. 232 pgs.

Accounts of communist terror—for example, Czeslaw Milosz’s non-fiction book The Captive Mind and Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness At Noon— dismantle the complex ways in which authorities hijack public and private psychology and justify moral play-acting against dissidents who challenge the dictatorship. In Maoist Laughter, co-edited by Ping Zhu, Zhuoyi Wang, and Jason McGrath, the term ‘laughter’ refers to two notions. The first is the innate response to a delightful stimulus, while the second is laughter as a synecdoche for the comedy genre. Maoist Laughter suggests that laughter’s primitive roots in the primary human emotion ‘happiness’ and role in shaping people’s cultural tastes make it the ideal tool with which to invade social and personal psyches.

Communism’s psychological infiltration of its populations is well-documented; Maoist Laughter avoids Orwellian caricatures of dumb sheep passively surrendering to outrageously abusive governments. Instead, Maoist Laughter’s three sections map the insidious ways in which the Communist Party established itself as a believable and all-encompassing reality. The first section “Utopian Laughter” covers the way laughter envisions a harmonious, heterogeneous Chinese nation bound together under communism. The second part “Intermedial Laughter” illustrates how the evolution of complex, mixed textual forms in pro-communist texts persuaded responders into accepting communist society as the sole reality. The third section, “Laughter and Language”, suggests the relationship between visual and written languages and how these aided in the mass indoctrination in communist ideals in illiterate and non-Mandarin-speaking populations.

This review considers three social-psychological themes from Maoist Laughter that arise in its coverage of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological pruning strategies: 1) comedic texts normalising communist-dominated environments, including texts composed for young audiences, illiterate and non-Mandarin-speaking samples; 2) comedy as a form of social modelling that marks in- versus out-groups, celebrating those who embody communist ideals and ridiculing those who disrespect collective harmony; and 3) laughter as a social lubricant between diverse groups which are now united under a communist China umbrella.

Normalisation of a Communist Environment

The communist government’s exploitation of laughter allowed for the subtle infiltration of socialist ideology throughout China. Comedic texts were sufficiently complex and pluralistic to create a wholesome sense of culture within the Maoist world but conveniently glossed over poverty and corruption at the highest levels. For any brainwashing tactics to work, comedic texts normalised the communist reality horizontally (i.e. across ethnic, linguistic and economic groups) and vertically (i.e. penetrating intimate aspects of daily life).

Transcending social and economic classes, comedy and laughter was instrumental in capturing China’s ethnically and linguistically diverse populations within the communist net. John A. Crespi’s “Propaganda, Play and the Pictorial Turn: Cartoon (Manhua Yuekan)” (p. 123-146) discusses the way manhua’s (satirical sketches or comics) widespread dissemination and modern subject matter helped normalise a Mao-worshipping physical reality across people of varied occupations and social standings. Manhua’s grotesque depictions of American and other foreign forces as greedy imperialists and threats to Chinese culture are common tropes in popular understandings of Chinese communism. Manhua’s dissemination throughout cities with strong foreign influence (e.g., Shanghai), its ubiquitous placement (e.g. factories, businesses, schools) and realistic style allowed it to pose as an imitation of life to people of all backgrounds, normalising displays of Maoist worship through inclusions of his portraits in realistic street sketches. Cartooning academies’ education of pro-communist manhua created young propaganda artists who maintained the infiltration of communist ideals within their cities. Moving away from visual and into aural forms of communist invasion, Ping Zhu’s “Huajixi, Heteroglossia and Maoist Language” (p. 162-178) illustrates how huajixi’s (a popular Shanghai-developed modern folk art combining many Chinese dialects and Western dramatic styles) acknowledgement of linguistic diversity invited ethnic minorities into the communist cause before working to assimilate them into speaking Mandarin. Similar to the way manhua’s detailed realistic sketching style validated a Maoist version of reality, huajixi’s show of linguistic diversity provided a sufficiently textured image of Maoist China’s linguistic profile that helped huajixi to seep into commercial spheres, film culture and rural audiences. Once the media and huajixi were fully hijacked by the Chinese Communist Party, huajixi functioned to promote Mandarin as the proper national language among masses, often through jokes targeting other dialects.

In addition to extending communist control across China’s marginal populations, humorous texts also illustrate the extent to which a Communist reality infiltrated people’s private lives and tastes. Yun Zhu’s essay “Fantastic Laughter in a Socialist-Realist Tradition? The Nuances of ‘Satire’ and ‘Extolment’ in The Secret of the Magic Gourd and Its 1963 Film Adaptation” (p. 89-104) illustrates how children’s books, which were often exempt from stringent socialist aesthetic requirements, still extolled socialist-collectivist values. Subliminal suggestions glorifying and normalising socialist principles were planted in children’s texts and humour, even if the texts themselves were not overtly didactic. An example Zhu gives is the politicisation of daily life, for example in the young children’s sunflower planting competitions which were the school conducted as demonstrations of support for the state’s agricultural ambitions. Magic Gourd’s protagonist’s middle-class residence and developed surroundings (e.g., a neon-lit department store) falsifies the reality of poverty and censorship under communist rule. Beyond naturalising a Maoist reality, texts also sought to make communism seem culturally progressive through its infusion into respected forms. For example, Li Guo’s “Humor, Vernacularisation and Intermedial Laughter in Maoist Pingtan” (p. 105-120) illustrates the injection of communist flavour into Pingtan, a radio-broadcasted musical story-telling style known for innovation and political consciousness.

Laughter as Social Modelling

As noted in Roy Chan’s “The Revolutionary Metapragmatics of Laughter in Zhao Shuli’s Fiction” (p. 147-161), psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud identified that jokes as expressions of social grievances and injustice. Zhao’s “The Rhymes of Li Youcai” (李有才板話) celebrate rustic witticisms and oppressed people’s collective laughter to ridicule the hierarchy and failed democratic values of their rulers. In “The Marriage of Little Erhei” (小二黑結婚), the main couple’s joking about their disapproving parents’ archaic values uses the realisation of free romance as a symbol of the new era’s progressiveness. However, Chan reminds readers that the main couple’s ‘free marriage’ is only a transition rather than upgrade from dated feudal values into restrictive socialist ones—even within the confines of their private bedroom, the couple are only positioned as triumphant heroes as they uphold socialism through their shared jokes about the older generation’s hierarchical ideas.

A related Freudian idea about jokes is that they are forms of sublimated aggression, demonstrating which members of society should be laughed at and whom audiences should laugh with. Individualistic characters prioritising their own gain over collective wealth are despised through slapstick. The exaggerated comical characterisation of antagonists noted in Ban Wang’s “Laughter, Ethnicity and Socialist Utopia: Five Golden Flowers” (p. 19-36) and Charles A. Laughlin’s “Revolution Plus Love in Village China: Land Reform as Political Romance in Sanliwan Village” (p. 37-53) fabricates a convenient moral binary for communist societies to impress upon their people: either you are a selfless and diligent citizen who embodies socialist values like the attractive female protagonists in Five Golden Flowersor a selfish materialist like Sanliwan Village’s Fan Denggao who endangers collective progress. Laughlin’s focus on the characterisation of Fan in the film adaptation of Saliwen Village titled Happily Ever After (Guo Wei) suggests that the promotion of socialist values via degradation of individualistic attitudes attempted to be more realistic and persuasive than an employment of capitalistic caricature. In contrast to the original text’s boorish image of Fan, Guo’s depiction of Fan as cunning and logical in his arguments against agricultural collectivism but flamboyantly engaging in self-interested, unethical behaviour (e.g., selling wares to fellow villagers for a profit) encourages audiences to laugh at and thus hold contempt for his anti-socialist ways.

Laughter as Social Lubricant

Ensuring communist control over all of China required the inclusion of its ethnic minorities in national discourse and a semblance of amicability between civilians and political controllers. Emily Wilcox’s essay “Performing Tibetan-Han Relations in the Chinese Military Dance ‘Laundry Song'” (1964) (p. 54-72) indicates that “Laundry Song” demonstrates amicable relations between Tibetan civilians and soldiers through the depiction of Tibetan women joking with a Han soldier. Showing good and supposedly equal relations between Tibetans and Han served to reduce Tibetan suspicion towards Han dominators. However, Wilcox suggests that these interracial friendships are at best token expressions of diversity, always ensuring that the Han people maintain superior positions to ethnic minorities. Attempts to establish Communist China as a diverse nation united under socialist values extended beyond China: Lawrence Coderre’s essay “Ma Ji’s ‘Ode to Friendship’ and the Failures of Revolutionary Language’ (p. 179-196) indicates that Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) tried to (at least superficially) promote international solidarity with Africans (especially Tanzanians and Zambians) through anti-imperial sentiment. International comrades allowed for Maoist China to boast the universality of its collective-centric values that claimed to protect third-world nations from Western imperialism and greed.

Ultimately, after throwing the communist net over China’s diverse groups, the government began its assimilation of minorities through the promotion of Mandarin-Chinese as proper speech. The assimilation process shows in the gradual change in xiangsheng’s function in Xiaoning Lu’s “Intermedial laughter: Hou Baolin and Xiangsheng Dianying in mid-1950s China” (p. 73-88). Xiangsheng wasan oral performance art that relied on satire, voice techniques and facial expressions to expose deceitful and hypocritical power structures. Widely disseminated in tea houses among illiterate working-class people, xiangsheng became the communists’ target medium for penetrating national consciousness. Under Mao, xiangsheng needed to ‘modernise’ which involved the PRC’s propaganda team editing performances to ensure they supported Party hierarchies and values. Like manhua, xiangsheng performances deemed politically tasteful (i.e., pro-communist) were widely disseminated through film mediums which authorities saw as forms of mass education.


This review argues that techniques in the transformation of public psychology fell under three themes: painting a sufficiently pluralistic and realistic image of Chinese life under Maoist rule; using laughter to shape social values through modelling of moral standards; using laughter as a social harmoniser that depicts socialist values as equalising and inclusive of Chinese ethnic minorities. The essays in Maoist Laughter tracked laughter’s function in Chinese communist authorities’ quest to manipulate people’s cultural tastes and perceptions of social and physical reality.

How to cite: An, Frances “Psychological Infiltration in Maoist Laughter.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 19 Nov. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/11/19/laughter/.


Frances An is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction and non-fiction writer based in Perth. She is interested in the literatures of Communism, moral self-perception, white-collar misconduct and Nhạc Vàng (Yellow/Gold Music). She has performed/published in the Sydney Review Of Books, Seizure Online, Cincinnati Review, Sydney Writers Festival, Star 82, among other venues. She received a Create NSW Early Career Writers Grant 2018, partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet Literary Program 2019, and 2020 Inner City Residency (Perth, Australia). She is completing a PhD in Psychology at the University Of Western Australia on motivations behind ‘curbstoning’ (data falsification in market research).


One thought on “[REVIEW] “Psychological infiltration in Maoist Laughter” by Frances An

  1. Pingback: [REVIEW] “Underground resilience in Popular Memories of the Mao Era” by Frances An | Cha

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