Laughable Leaders: A Study of Political Jokes in Mainland China

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


While the 1950s–1970s witnessed an idolization of the PRC founders, the turn of the century in China was marked by the proliferation of political jokes about their successors. Myths regarding Chairman Mao’s guerrilla warfare and Premier Zhou’s diplomatic finesse that once fascinated the whole nation have yielded to a spate of jokes, which unmercifully mock the ineptitude and corruption of Li Peng and Jiang Zemin, top leaders of the postrevolutionary generation. These quips often translate the clownish duo’s political incompetence into sexual impotence, playing between their powers and libidos. The distorted images of the highest officials suggest not only the discredit of certain politicians, who failed to establish themselves as the new Fathers of the People’s Republic in the shadow of their precursors, but also people’s distrust of the Party itself. In light of Freud’s and later theorists’ thoughts on jokes, this chapter presents some of the Chinese political jokes collected from social gatherings and hearsay, as well as some disseminated on the Internet. What does it mean when the communist dictators become standing jests? Are political jokes an indicator of freedom of speech or merely an alleviator of political pressure? Seemingly subversive and antisocial, political jokes actually function as a lubricant to maintain the state machine. In the economy of trading political anxiety for laughter, these amusing stories serve to postpone the impending bankruptcy of an authoritarian government without authority. Nonetheless, it is interesting to study how political jokes as formulaic and yet ever changing social texts are (re)produced, performed, and circulated in post-Mao China.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNot Just a Laughing Matter
Subtitle of host publicationInterdisciplinary Approaches to Political Humor in China
EditorsKing-fai Tam, Sharon R. Wesoky
Place of PublicationSingapore
PublisherSpringer Singapore
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9789811049606
ISBN (Print)9789811049583, 9789811352768
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2017

Publication series

NameThe Humanities in Asia
PublisherSpringer Singapore
ISSN (Print)2363-6890
ISSN (Electronic)2363-6904


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