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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Embodying Modernity: Humor, Gender Politics, and Popular Culture in Republican Guangzhou

  • Author(s): Cheung, Roanna Yuk-Heng
  • Advisor(s): Goldman, Andrea S
  • et al.

My dissertation analyzes the representations of gender in cartoons and popular literature in 1920s and 1930s Guangzhou as a window onto the intersection among gender, humor, and identity construction in Republican-era (1911-1949) China. During this period, Guangzhou, among other cities, saw a proliferation of comical works that created an affective community in which both authors and audiences could enjoy, question, or escape from their urban experiences. The scenes and stories represented often exploited gendered characters, motifs, and tropes to express political dissent, to advocate for modern progress, or to caution against moral decadence. While previous scholarship explores the ways in which issues such as footbinding and prostitution became discursive fields in which nationalism and modernity were debated in early twentieth century China, the role that humor played in various gendered debates has been largely overlooked. My study fills this void by emphasizing the ways in which humor was mobilized to respond to changing relations between men and women, the private and the public, state and society, local and national cultures, and China and the global community.

Through close reading of a wide assortment of textual and visual materials—newspapers, popular fiction, cartoon magazines, local opera scripts, and advertisements—I reconstruct the competing discourses on gender ideals and urban life lying below the surface of playful banter or satirical sketches. In particular, I focus on the locally specific elements of humor, such as the use of Cantonese dialect and cultural phenomena particular to the city, to demonstrate the ways in which such commentary participated in, withdrew from, or competed against the conception of a broader national entity at different historical moments. I also use the iconic Modern Girl (and the Modern Boy, her male counterpart) as a category of analysis to reveal not only the masculine construction of local humor and identity, but also the shared but uneven colonial influence and channels of global exchange that linked different cities around the world commercially, visually, and ideologically. My project contributes to the field of modern Chinese history by interrogating the interplay between humor and gender in the conceptions of cosmopolitan modernity and China’s place in the world in local society.

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