HAZE LIGHT­ENS

Rev­elry and wise­cracks emerge from the smog

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - RAY­MOND ZHOU X-RAY Con­tact the writer at raymondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Some­one in Bei­jing says its smog is so dense he can­not see the Chair­man Mao por­trait at the Tian’an­men Ros­trum. Another coun­ters: “You call that dense? I can­not see the Chair­manMao im­age onmy bank note.”

Don’t ac­cuse me of be­liev­ing in con­spir­acy the­o­ries, but I have a hunch that man­u­fac­tur­ers of fa­cial masks are be­hind this.

The long­est dis­tance in the world is not be­tween life and death, but be­tween you and me when I hold your hand in the street but can­not see your face.

Th­ese three para­graphs above are a sam­pling of the jokes that or­di­nary Chi­nese have cre­ated to make light of the smog that has been plagu­ing the coun­try for the past few years, es­pe­cially me­trop­o­lises like Bei­jing. When the haze re­duces vis­i­bil­ity to such a low level, peo­ple’s urge for gal­lows hu­mor is tick­led so re­lent­lessly that a spigot of cre­ativ­ity is opened, and funny lines pour out and spill over onto the In­ter­net.

If you think about it, the smog is a per­fect con­duit for a na­tional car­ni­val of such wit­ti­cisms. Smog is not as in­stantly fatal as mine blasts or bridge col­lapses, which, tragic as they are, do not af­fect a wide swath of so­ci­ety. Nor is it as cathar­tic as a mas­sive earth­quake or other nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, which usu­ally give rise to a col­lec­tive sense of no­bil­ity. It is chronic and wide­spread, and in a sense ev­ery­one is a per­pe­tra­tor as well as a vic­tim.

Some of the sar­casm comes from help­less­ness: You can­not re­lo­cate all man­u­fac­tur­ing with pol­lu­tion to re­mote places, and even if you do the pol­lu­tants may waft into your city any­way; you can ask oth­ers to drive less and use pub­lic trans­port, but when it comes to your­self most peo­ple still pre­fer the con­ve­nience of driv­ing; and even if you stay home and cook your kitchen may add to the haze.

When ex­perts said 13 per­cent of Bei­jing’s PM2.5 orig­i­nates from the restau­rant busi­ness, peo­ple laughed it off as lu­di­crous— and then they did some tests. Suf­fice it to say, no­body can to­tally ex­on­er­ate him­self.

A funny thing hap­pened when au­thor­i­ties asked the pub­lic to give a Chi­nese name to PM2.5, which is tech­ni­cal jar­gon for at­mo­spheric par­tic­u­late mat­ter with di­am­e­ter of 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters or less. It started as a se­ri­ous ex­er­cise in search of a pop­u­lar name and can­di­dates such as “fine par­ti­cles” or “par­ti­cles that can get into the lung” were floated. Then came a bunch of terms that use homonyms to make fun, such as gong wu yuan, lit­er­ally mean­ing “source of pub­lic haze” but sound­ing like “pub­lic ser­vant”, and jing chen, lit­er­ally “Bei­jing dust” but a homonym for “city of Bei­jing”.

How­ever, not ev­ery­one is ac­cepted when gal­lows hu­mor is de­ployed as a psy­cho­log­i­cal de­fense tac­tic.

On Dec 9, a writer named Wang Lei came out with an ar­ti­cle on CCTV’s web­site, ti­tled

Five Ben­e­fits In­duced by Smog. On top of the list is the ef­fect of smog to unite the whole na­tion. When un­abat­ing smog first hit Bei­jing, there was a pal­pa­ble schaden­freude in other cities, whose denizens some­times called it “the Bei­jing cough”. Nowthat it has en­veloped many cities. Few­can es­cape it— not even those who live in ru­ral ar­eas. Ev­ery­one is thrust to the fore­front of this pro­longed bat­tle for clean air.

Smog also func­tions as an equal­izer for so­cial classes. The rich and pow­er­ful suf­fer from it as much as the hoi pol­loi. There has been talk of “spe­cially pro­vided pure air”, but it is within a very con­stricted space, such as in­side a car or a room. One can­not live in th­ese co­coons for long stretches of time.

The third ben­e­fit, ar­gues the au­thor, is the shock value. Smog awak­ens us to the cost of be­ing the world’s “fac­tory floor”. We de­vel­oped our econ­omy but at what price? Dowe have to pol­lute our en­vi­ron­ment to raise our liv­ing stan­dards? Shouldn’t clean air be part of a de­cent liv­ing stan­dard?

Next on the list is the sense of hu­mor that has been brought out by the blan­ket of haze, which is the sub­ject ofmy col­umn. And then there is the in­crease in knowl­edge as pub­lic dis­course raises aware­ness of this en­vi­ron­men­tal hazard. Peo­ple get to learn more about what caused it and what so­lu­tions are avail­able.

Wang’s es­say was widely retweeted and up­braided. Com­ing from a State-owned me­dia plat­form, it is not self-deroga­tory enough to be taken as hu­mor or satire, say some ar­gu­ments, and nor is it for­bid­dingly fraught with jar­gon to be taken as a gov­ern­ment edict or a sci­en­tific pa­per. But it was quite pos­si­ble that many sim­ply jumped at the con­clu­sion from a glance at the ti­tle rather than read­ing through the en­tire piece. What it says is essen­tially true— al­beit with an up­beat tone that can be ei­ther sar­cas­tic or mat­ter-of-fact.

If this is not caus­tic enough, there is another piece from a se­ri­ous news­pa­per that sug­gests smog is good for na­tional de­fense be­cause hos­tile coun­tries can­not ac­cu­rately aim their war­heads at tar­gets in­side China. So, you can­not ac­cuse Chi­nese of lack­ing a sense of hu­mor.

Satire is not some­thing ev­ery­one is com­fort­able with, es­pe­cially in a cul­ture ruled by pa­tri­ar­chal con­de­scen­sion as the tra­di­tion­ally pre­dom­i­nant voice. In the old days, satire was re­served for a few opin­ion lead­ers who wielded their mighty pen, fig­ures like Lu Xun. There is a type of es­say in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture called za­wen, which tend to be acer­bic and crit­i­cal of so­cial mal­adies.

For a while, crosstalk, a form of en­ter­tain­ment re­sem­bling stand-up com­edy, flour­ished on so­cial satire, but it has never evolved into tele­vi­sion shows that could be the equiv­a­lent of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. The clos­est we have is Zhou Libo, a Shang­hai-based co­me­dian who repack­ages much of his ma­te­rial from online sources. There are sim­ply not enough pro­fes­sional writ­ers, it seems, who can re­li­ably churn out high­qual­ity jokes that send up daily events.

For­tu­nately, the In­ter­net has cre­ated a plat­form where ev­ery­one can con­trib­ute their wis­dom and very of­ten the best out­put gets dis­trib­uted to the largest read­er­ship. It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to trace the ori­gin of a good joke, which may get re­vised and re­fined as it goes vi­ral. I was asked by a publisher to edit a yearend best so­cial com­men­tary in 2008, and the Olympic song Bei­jing Wel­comes You had so many satir­i­cal takes there could be a spe­cial chap­ter de­voted to them.

But my publisher deleted all en­tries from the col­lec­tion be­cause she feared lit­i­ga­tion from some­one who claims to be the au­thor. Nowthat I think about it, the ab­sence of fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in cre­at­ing so­cial satire is a dou­ble-edged sword: It makes the ef­fort pure, but it also re­moves the in­cen­tive for the best satirists to make a liv­ing out of it. The re­sult is, out of a mil­lion who retweet a witty one-liner, not one may want to spend time and rack his or her brain to cre­ate an orig­i­nal one. With­out a team of pro­fes­sion­als, great satire ap­pears ei­ther in ebb and flow or in hit and miss.

Some­times, peo­ple can be funny with­out in­tend­ing to be. A teenager per­suades her younger sis­ter to eat veg­eta­bles by say­ing: “Veg­eta­bles are the best rem­edy for smog.” The 9-year-old said she would ver­ify this claim online. So, the teenager pleaded for peo­ple to join her in the white lie. The last time I checked, some 8,000 peo­ple have left words that veg­eta­bles can be an an­ti­dote to poi­sonous smog.

Now, this is black hu­mor, though un­in­ten­tional.

PANG LI / CHINA DAILY

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