China and Inner Asia
Academia Sinica, United States
This paper examines the role of humor in court politics in Song China (960-1276). As their predecessors in the Six Dynasties (222-589) and Tang (618-907), Song literati elites enjoyed verbal humor, word play, and banter in various social activities. As a cultural ideal, elegance of humor was highly praised by contemporaries. However, based on examination of government policies, legal codes, official memorials, and anecdotes, this paper argues that although wit and banter were treated as a cultural ideal for literati elites from the tenth century onward, the attack on literati’s humor was a constant theme in political sphere. Government tried to regulate officials’ humorous behavior in the court, and frivolousness could be a reason for demotion or impeachment. Political factions also attacked opponent’s humorous behavior and language, while they themselves might still enjoy jokes in private banquet. While modern researchers tend to attribute this conflict between seriousness and humor to the popularity of Neo-Confucianism—a twelfth-century philosophical school which stressed the importance of moral cultivation and rejected humor—this paper argues that this tension was the reflection of Song literati elites’ long-term struggle to establish new cultural norms and shared identity in the face of political requirements and factional politics. Through tracing the use, praise, and criticism of humor, this paper provides a refreshing analysis of the political and cultural meaning of humor in Song China.