Chinese arrogance may prompt many jokes in the West but for millennia, jokes were no laughing matter in that country that suffered from an ailment described as “moral pomposity”. Sitting in the Heavenly Kingdom and surrounded by concentric circles of increasing barbarism as one moved away, the Chinese rulers had to usually maintain a grim visage leaving the business of laughing to an obese version of Buddha. The great Lin Yutang, a contemporary and friend of Pearl S. Buck, became a flat joke on both sides of the Pacific, disliked in the US for his pro-China stance and castigated in China for his liberalism. Yet, till Lin gave them a word for it in 1924, the Chinese did not have a satisfactory word for humour because they had hardly seen or heard this alien creature. Lin played with the word “humour” and created the neologism “youmo” that is now the standard Chinese word for humour. He had to reconcile the love for irony in Taoism and for reasonableness in Confucianism. Of course, in China, an intellectual’s safety lies in taking care that he does not step on the thin glass of Chinese tolerance, that we have seen in recent times cracking under single words like Tibet and Uyghurs and violently shattering under deadly two-word combinations like “Wuhan virus”, “organ harvesting” or “Falun Gong”. Lin was in no mood to submit voluntarily to a cruel fate and hence described youmo simultaneously as “tolerant irony” and “spirit of reasonableness”. 75 years later, we can certainly find youmo in the Chinese dictionary but nowhere in the Chinese Communist Party discourse. Nor can we find tolerance or reasonableness. You cannot afford to be humorous, tolerant or reasonable when engaged in the serious business of dominating the world and restoring the tradition of the world kowtowing to China, a tradition interrupted by what Xi Jinping keeps lamenting as a “century of humiliation”.
Absence of tolerance and reasonableness has been belatedly realised by many an American business and businessman, trying to act humorous. A recent example is of Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan. He was in Hong Kong when the Chinese were being made to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary. “The Communist Party is celebrating its 100th year. So is JPMorgan. And I’ll make a bet we last longer” he said jokingly. Then in November last year, at Boston, the widely anticipated mea culpa came. “I regret and should not have made that comment”, said Dimon. The Chinese were magnanimous as they have been historically to anyone kowtowing. Spokesman Zhao Lijian said that he had noted the “sincere reflection expressed by relevant people” and that he believed that “this is a proper attitude”. The magnanimity was aided by the huge presence of JPMorgan Chase in Hong Kong and China and substantial plans for expansion there. The much touted “strategic ambiguity” of the US was visible here too as Dimon again went not so tongue-in-Cheek. “If you opened up the doors of America, a billion people would come here. If you open the doors to China, how many people do you think will go there?” he said. The joke fell flat even in the US; the second part should have read, “If you open the doors in China, how many people you think will remain there?” China has a unique way of preventing people from going abroad, particularly after the recent news that their wealth has already preceded them on the journey to some land where the air is saturated with freedom. Many Chinese travellers had to return home from the airport after the officials used scissors to cut out a piece from the passport saying there are issues (unspecified) against their name because of which exit is being denied. Not too keen to get the putative issue “specified”, the prospective traveller declares that he is a Chinese at heart and the home is where the heart is.
All dictators have secrets and, of course, they have a spouse too. Since not much that goes on inside the palace is a secret from the queen for long, dictators have to bend backwards to keep the better half loyally bound to the throne. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines created the office of Governor of Metro Manila and appointed his wife Imelda (The lady with 3000 pairs of shoes) to it where she remained for 11 years. Later she faced criminal prosecution for corruption. Communist rule is sustained by propaganda and so the Chinese leaders seem to prefer women from show business. If they can help sell soap, they can help sell ideology too. Yet, the trouble with people from show business is that they are very competitive. When there are too many piglets and too little swill at the feeding trough, a lot of squealing and jostling is bound to be there. Mao married Jiang Qing, an actress and designated her as his personal secretary but soon she started working for more than mere handouts from Mao. She was the architect of the infamous Cultural Revolution and the murder of millions, particularly intellectuals and teachers. After Mao went to heaven (?) leaving the hell on earth that China had become during his experiments with living people, Jiang was sentenced to death (later commuted to life sentence). Cruel people humour themselves by inflicting pain on others but have a low threshold for pain themselves, opting for suicide when the crunch comes. Hitler did that and so did Jiang. Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan used to be a soprano and perhaps Xi thought it would be a good idea to marry her as her voice may help spread his thoughts far and wide. After her marriage, she wanted her piece of the cake that is China and she is now a Major General in the People’s Liberation Army. As for her future after Xi, we are holding our hand till we find a good crystal ball.
We all know about Communist Party’s biggest joke on the Chinese – the one-child policy. Any demographer would have known the consequences of that experiment and would have reasonably predicted that with that policy China will grow old before it got rich, as has actually happened now. But Chinese are very confident and they make mistakes because they know they can correct every mistake. So they brought two and three-child policies in quick succession. The young Chinese were not amused and they enunciated their own policy – no-child policy. Population has started declining and where there is a child, it is asking a question from parents – you brought me here to take care of two parents and four grandparents? Parents should direct them to Deng’s and Xi’s thoughts for guidance on the future of the annual tradition of ancestor’s tomb sweeping, because the lone child is likely to decide to remain single. Maybe, the robots can take over.
We mentioned the magnanimity of the Party in forgiving Dimon. Magnanimity, forgiving and absorption are integral parts of Chinese culture. The Manchu invaded China proper and ruled the Han Chinese from 1644 to 1912. The Han forgave them and made them all Han, part of the family, so to say. Today, Manchu language stands extinguished and on the official map of China there is no Manchuria; it is Northeast China. Tibetans had once briefly occupied parts of China. They have also been forgiven and efforts are afoot to make them part of the great Han family by intermarriages and Han migration to Tibet and Tibetan language may soon be found only outside Tibet in the refugee settlements around the world. Mongols, with the help of Uyghurs, had invaded and ruled China in the 13th century and they are also being assimilated in the Han community by China’s “benevolent” actions in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Mongolian language and script has been withdrawn from schools in Inner Mongolia and now instructions, that are only in Mandarin, will hopefully teach the happy nomads about the Chinese version of humour, the youon.
The biggest sworn enemy of the Communists were the bourgeoisie whose favourite pastime was to fatten themselves on the blood and sweat of the peasants and workers. All the old bourgeoisie families in China were taken care of during Jiang’s Cultural Revolution. With the onset of Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, China decided to decriminalise being a bourgeoisie. The party apparatchiks quickly got down to the business of getting rich and joined the forgiven category that had now been assimilated in the family that sustains the party ideology. That is the beauty of unquestionable ideology; it allows U-turns. The theory of Karma says, what goes around comes around. Or as the Chinese say, zìzuò zìshòu – as you sow, so shall you reap. As Xi tries to outdo Mao, wait for the next Cultural Revolution.