Imported stand-up comedy should abide by Chinese law and social norms
Published: May 17, 2023 12:23 AM
Illustration: Hang Dachuan/Global Times

Illustration: Hang Dachuan/Global Times

Recently, a Chinese stand-up comedian going by the stage name House got caught up in a controversy after one of his jokes during a performance was deemed as "disrespecting the People's Liberation Army (PLA)." As a performance art from Western countries, stand-up comedy has expanded fast in China, gaining large numbers of audiences for both online and offline events.

After some netizens watched one of House's routines on Saturday, they found some of the expressions he used "very offensive." 

During the show, House, whose real name is Li Haoshi, said that watching his two dogs chase squirrels "reminded him of the phrase zuofeng youliang, nengda shengzhang," meaning they "can defeat enemies while maintaining good moral conduct," which is a typical slogan of the PLA.

It sparked strong revulsion and indignation among netizens who said it was insulting to PLA heroes and the numerous martyrs who sacrificed their lives during the nation's quest to win independence from foreign aggression.

This case is under investigation by the Beijing cultural law enforcement body. The company behind the performance said it "has strongly criticized the comedian and has suspended him from all following performances indefinitely." 

The body's most recent reaction toward the case was to impose administrative penalties on the company, including a more than 13 million yuan fine. Following an investigation from local cultural authorities, the company's performances in Beijing, as well as those in its home base Shanghai, will be suspended indefinitely too.

Stand-up comedy is known as having a lot of satire, where a lot of people or events are joked about; however, these jokes must have limits, even in the US, the home of stand-up comedy.

At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2022, when Will Smith heard stand-up comedian Chris Rock mock his wife's hair loss, Smith was so irritated that he went up on stage and slapped Rock in the face. 

Aside from the violence, this incident made people reflect on what can and cannot be joked about, as there should apparently be boundaries, although the red line varies from country to country, based on each country's unique history and culture.

After stand-up comedy was introduced into China, it gradually formed its own style. Comedy in China focuses on people's daily life and contain positive and inspiring topics, which can easily arouse empathy.

Likewise, stand-up comedy in China also has a red line. It should respect the Chinese audience based on their level of acceptance, and fundamentally, it should honor the social consensus, goodwill and Chinese laws. 

In June 2021, China promulgated the law of protection on servicemen's status, rights and interests, clearly forbidding any insults to its martyrs and the army.

A netizen questioned House, "Why did you offend those who are protecting us?" 

Furthermore, a Chinese blogger gave a more insightful view. He said that there is a contradiction between offending and being offended. Calling stand-up comedy an "offensive art" is "an extremely absurd and self-justifying fallacy."

Asking audiences to accept the offense is to pass the buck to them, which shows a performer's inability to make good comedy shows. 

Never assume audiences are ignorant because their eyes are sharp and bright. 

If people felt uncomfortable, it means the performer's jokes deserve reflection. 

In China and other countries in the world, some groups can absolutely never be offended or disrespected with words. 

Any artistic performances which are favored by the people must aim for a better world, not a worse world. 

The reason that stand-up comedy is loved by the people is because it is fun and can offer people pleasure and wit. Humor can carry positive energy in life, but not if it is expressed through disrespectful words and actions.