Hammer and Tickle in China
At the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, there is a movie titled "Hammer and Tickle: the Communist Joke Book." Here are some excerpts from the review by Martha Fischer at Cinematical:
Narrated by director Ben Lewis, the film is loosely built around a trip to Europe’s former communist nations, where Lewis interviews subjects ranging from comedians to politicians; from historians to citizens once arrest for telling jokes, about the role of jokes and humor under communism. The interviewees generally agree that telling jokes -- which, because the government controlled every aspect of life, were almost always about the government -- was a way of claiming a bit of freedom, in a system that allowed none. By telling a joke about Stalin (and thereby risking arrest, and time in the gulag) a citizen was, in a very small way, saying no to the man in power.
... The fact is, Hammer & Tickle isn’t very funny. Most of the jokes are funny primarily on an intellectual, historical level, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious, and sequences that feature either animated devils and communists or actors, telling jokes in period costume, fall flat more often and not.
Maybe the reviewer did not get the jokes because she did not have to live under communism. I wish that there was a better explanation. But who can explain Hammer & Tickle better than the director Ben Lewis himself? He has an article in the May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine, with these excerpts (note: you really ought to read the whole thing):
Jokes were an essential part of the communist experience because the monopoly of state power meant that any act of non-conformity, down to a simple turn of phrase, could be construed as a form of dissent. By the same token, a joke about any facet of life became a joke about communism. There have been political and anti-authority jokes in every era, but nowhere else did political jokes cohere into an anonymous body of folk literature as they did under communism. With the creation of the Soviet bloc after the war, communism exposed itself to Czech and Jewish traditions of humour—mutating viruses to which the system never developed the right antibodies. ...
Communist jokes were a way to criticise and outmanoeuvre the system, but they were also something more than this. They comprised a secret language between citizens—membership of a club to which the government was not invited (or so they thought).
The first jokes about the Russian revolution surfaced immediately after October 1917. In one, an old woman visits Moscow zoo and sees a camel for the first time. "Look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!" she exclaims. As the system became harsher, a distinctive communist sense of humour emerged—pithy, dark and surreal—but so did the legal machinery for repressing it. Historian Roy Medvedev looked through the files of Stalin's political prisoners and concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, such as this: Three prisoners in the gulag get to talking about why they are there. "I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage," says the first. "I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying," says the second. "I am here because I got to work on time every day," says the third, "and they charged me with owning a western watch."
Yet there is an obvious problem with the idea that communist jokes represented an act of revolt: it wasn't just opponents of the regime who told them. Stalin himself cracked them, including this one about a visit from a Georgian delegation: They come, they talk to Stalin, and then they go, heading off down the Kremlin's corridors. Stalin starts looking for his pipe. He can't find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded head of his secret police. "Go after the delegation, and find out which one took my pipe," he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria—"Look, I've found my pipe." "It's too late," Beria says, "half the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."
Stalin's laughter underlines the cynicism of the Soviet enterprise. But after his death the joke trials petered out. One of Khrushchev's first acts was to release all those imprisoned for minor political crimes, which included telling jokes. In his famous secret speech to the 20th party congress, Khrushchev cracked one too. He said that Stalin would have liked to have deported all the Ukrainians, but didn't know where to put them. The stenographers recording the speech noted the reaction of the party—"laughter." ...
In this new era, political leaders took the view that the jokes were a harmless way for people to let off steam. They believed that jokes would help people to cope with the hardships of the difficult stage of socialism, before the communist utopia arrived. They also imagined that the jokes could be used as an early warning system; problems indicated by humour could be tackled before they caused a revolution. Ilie Merce, a senior member of the Romanian Securitate, said that he used to file reports on the jokes—who was telling what—in order to convey the popular mood to the ministry of the interior. ...
There were still occasional outbreaks of arrests for jokes in the 1960s and 1970s—usually linked to moments when the state felt vulnerable—when the Berlin wall was built or when there was another price hike. At these times, newspapers would publish "Outraged of Vladivostok" letters railing against the flood of jokes, like this one from Izvestia in 1964.
Dear Sir, Ten days ago I went to our savings bank. In front of the clerk's window there were five people waiting for their turn. And while standing there I heard too much. There were two of them in front of me, well fed, healthy, and really well dressed… and in a public place and with an insolent casualness they were trying to outdo each other, swapping their "best" political jokes… How can I restrain myself in front of these "jokers," who tell me mockingly a "new anecdote"? Nothing is sacred to them. They spit on everything!… We have to fight them; it is necessary to discredit, shame and dishonour them in front of honest people.
With deep respect, Nikolay Kuritsin, external student, Kadykchan village.
... Jokes did not bring down communism. That was achieved by the nonsense of its economic policies, and by the decisions of the leaders of the superpowers, east and west—in the case of Reagan, by pricing the Soviets out of the arms race; in the case of Gorbachev by glasnost and perestroika. This much is well known—what isn't is the significance both leaders attached to communist jokes. Gorbachev knew the jokes, and like his predecessors, he told them. You can't imagine Stalin or Khrushchev telling a joke about his own unpopularity, but Gorbachev did. In 1996 he appeared on the Clive Anderson show in Britain and told this one, whose lineage can be traced back through the 20th century: A man is queuing for food in Moscow. Finally he's had enough. He turns round to his friend and says "That's it. I'm going to kill that Gorbachev," and marches off. Two hours later he comes back. "Well," says the friend, "did you do it?" "No," replies the other, "there was an even longer queue over there."
... Jokes may not have carried the weight of the great forces which ended communism, but they were more than mere figures of speech. Jokes kept alive in the minds of the citizens of the Soviet bloc the idea of an alternative reality, and they made light of four decades of occupation of eastern and central Europe. They may even explain why the end of communism was so sudden and so bloodless. No point anyone getting hurt over a little joke, right?
What about China, then? Specifically, what about communist jokes in China? Here, I must say that it is hard to imagine a Chinese person telling this Hungarian joke:
Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other "What do you think of XXX?" "I can't tell you here," he replies. "Follow me." They disappear down a side street. "Now tell me what you think of XXX," says the friend. "No, not here," says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block. "OK here then." "No, not here. It's not safe." They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. "OK, now you can tell me what you think of our leader." "Well," says the other, looking around nervously,"actually I quite like him."
Is this because the Chinese have learned by experience to never ever say anything to anyone, not even one's most intimate companions or family members? Or is this because the Chinese are more dour and humorless, as exemplified by the recent press conference in which the former Minister of Culture Liu Zhongde PK's Super Girl:(see Shanghai Daily)?
China's former Minister of Culture, Liu Zhongde, criticized the popular TV show Super Girl for "harming youth education" and blamed the TV industry authority for poorly supervising the program, People's Daily reported on its Website today. "Though Super Girl is warmly welcomed by audiences, the viewer market really can't decide on these types of concerns as a whole. We have to consider what aspects it does effect, the positive and the negative?" emphasized Liu, who is now a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
... "Misled audience and contestants think that they'll become famous and rich without working hard. In reality, the success of the Super Girl winners goes against the principle of artists and the recording industry. The higher the audience ratings for Super Girl, the more harmful its influence is on society. I don't think that kids can't tell right from wrong. Parents must take the responsibility for them. Though Super Girl created a fortune for the country, it's not worth corrupting the society. We (the public) have the right to criticize any TV program and to criticize the value of what we're viewing, especially to protect our kids," Liu said.
Who knows? Perhaps the Chinese people do not have the kind of Eastern European penchant for telling political jokes, or perhaps they do not live in an environment that is conducive to telling political jokes. But the Chinese people are not humorless. Rather, their humor demonstrably comes through in more subtle ways.
The following is a translation of a blog post at 连岳的第八大洲, and it is a different kind of humor that overlaps in at least two places with Ben Lewis' essay.
In 1964, the Soviet Izvestia published a letter from a reader signed Nikolay Kuritsin.
Dear Comrade Editor, Ten days ago I went to our bank. In front of the clerk's window there were five people waiting for their turn. And while standing there I heard many shocking things. There were two of them in front of me, well fed, healthy, and really well dressed… and in a public place and with an insolent casualness they were trying to outdo each other, swapping their "best" political jokes… Must I stand next to these vulgar and contemptible people! -- they were making fun of our great nation! Nothing is sacred to them. They spit on everything good! We have to fight them; it is necessary to discredit, shame and dishonor them in front of honest people.
This letter caused the Soviet Russian authorities to increase their efforts to crack down on "the dissemination of vulgar reactionary political jokes." According to statistics, the Soviet Russian authorities imprisoned about 200,000 such criminals. But even though these people were locked up, their base natures remained uncorrected. The following political joke may have been created from jail:
Three prisoners get to talking about why they are there. "I am here because I always got to work five minutes late, and they charged me with sabotage," says the first. "I am here because I kept getting to work five minutes early, and they charged me with spying," says the second. "I am here because I got to work on time every day," says the third, "and they charged me with secretly owning a watch from a capitalist country."
The young man Nikolay Kuritsin who wrote that letter was deeply appreciated by the organization which trained him to become one of the successors. Later, he married a young Chinese woman who was studying in Russia and he went back with her to live in China. There, he adopted a very Chinese-like name: Liu Zhongde. In China, he continued to maintain his political acumen and combativeness, and he rose to become the Minister of Culture. He was called a "miraculous flower of the spiritual culture of socialism" by the Chinese people who loved him dearly!
I am looking at the biography of Liu Zhongde currently in circulation. It is a huge and regrettable flaw to have basically ignored all the things that he did to combat vulgar culture in his youthful days.
And here is the photograph of 'Nikolay Kuritsin,' now known as Liu Zhongde: