POSTED BY EVAN OSNOS
Jon Stewart has decided, as he put it this week, that he might be working the wrong continent. In a segment called “Big Ratings in Giant China,” Stewart expounded on his recent discovery that he is racking up millions of hits, and thousands of favorable comments, from Chinese viewers, who see the show in scattered subtitled clips posted on Chinese sites.
He decided to cater to the new audience by renaming his program, in one segment at least, “The Daily Show with Imperialist Puppet,” with attendant jokes: “How about this air pollution? I’ve seen Confucius quotes that are clearer.” And “What do you call a hundred Taiwanese citizens in a bathtub? Chinese! Because Taiwan does not exist independently.”
So just what does China think of “The Daily Show”? Max Fisher, the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, first noticed that a segment on North Korea, entitled “Nuke Kid on the Block,” had been subtitled in Chinese and racked up two million eight hundred thousand views in China.
He wondered if “the voraciousness with which Chinese viewers are watching the segment suggests that their appetite for such coverage, for publicly criticizing an ally that has become something of an embarrassment, far exceeds what they’re getting.”
He’s right, but there is something at work that runs even deeper: the popularity of Stewart and “The Daily Show” among the urbane crowd offers a good measure of how China is changing. And it bodes well for the future of satire in China.
Comedy—acted out in the open, at least—rarely thrives under autocrats. When the Communist Party came to power, in 1949, it did its best to stifle the laughter. The most famous form of Chinese humor, a two-man vaudeville-style routine known as “crosstalk,” had a history of lampooning corrupt officials, pompous intellectuals, and hayseed peasants, all with proudly bawdy repartee. But once in power, the Party formed a “Committee for Crosstalk Reform,” which set about correcting hundreds of classic bits. The Committee concluded that it was time for the comedians to replace satire with “praise.” After studying the effects, David Moser, an American linguist, concluded, “ ‘praise’ is not very funny.”
In television terms, “The Daily Show” is an undocumented immigrant in China. It’s nowhere to be found on official channels, but in the last few years ordinary men and women have banded together to subtitle and post clips as fast as they can. About half of the Chinese population is now online—a transformative experience for many people. In Chinese, “The Daily Show,” or “Meiri Xiu” (“Everyday Show”), is hosted by a certain Jiong Situ, a.k.a. 囧司徒. It’s an elegant transliteration: 囧, or jiǿng, is a fashionable Chinese character (yes, there are such things) these days, because it’s been adopted by young people to mean what it looks like: a face that is vexed, frustrated, embarrassed.
The Chinese reaction to Jiong Situ ranges from bewilderment—his Peter Dinklage reference in a joke about Kim Jong-un’s height may have lost something in the translation—to envy. His homage this week to his Chinese viewers sparked a discussion of its own. “I hope everybody sees this. Don’t mistake it for just a comedy show,” wrote one person on Weibo, the micro-blogging site. “When will China have its own Jon Stewart?” asked another.
That may take a while. Humor, as a habit of mind, is subversive. And that’s why leaders with the power to stifle it tend to do so. We’ve seen it this month in Egypt; for a long time, one of Burma’s most famous political prisoners was its most famous comedian, Zarganar. There is nothing funny about the Chinese Communist Party these days, at least officially. But every day that people in China are online, they are honing the arts of skepticism and independent thought. Stay tuned. Or, as Stewart put it, “Join us tomorrow; our guest, the Dalai—er, Dolly Parton. Yes, Dolly Parton.”