Meeting Pher was an off-putting experience. Our acquaintance followed hard
on the heels of another, interesting meeting; that between Jian and I. I encountered both Pher and
Jian in Chengdu, and though Pher is a local, Jian hails from Hebei Province. Encountering Pher and
Jian at precisely the same moment was startling because they are the first two Chinese men I have
met who feel truly comfortable poking fun at the government within my earshot.
Pher and Jian are dissimilar in almost every aspect. Pher's large round eyes contradict his diminutive stature; they peek curiously over the tops of his black wire frame glasses, a smile playing within them before it can break over his lips. While his eyes laugh in delight, his tiny, dark pink bow of a mouth purses momentarily before erupting into a wide grin, surrounded by deep, dancing laugh lines. Pher 's skin is creamy white and it shines in the heat of summer like wet marble. His fingers are quite long with delicately rounded-tips. As he flips through the notebook that he carries about with him, the ink stains that cover his left hand, his drawing hand, are starkly visible against each sought-after blank page.
Jian, by contrast, is tall; his frame distinguished and straight. His eyes are tiny, and a color of brown that closely mimics black. They are set not too-close together in his long thin face, and shine out from his dark, uneven skin. When he smiles his eyes ignite, and if he is truly amused, a baritone guffaw issues from the recesses of flat tummy. Jian rarely carries anything that won 't comfortably fit in one of his trouser pockets, but he joins Pher in artistic talent, for Jian is a pianist.
Both men have perpetually enjoyable laughs. Jian 's booming laughter has a wholesome and unaffected quality that sets his listeners at ease. Though he laughs less frequently than Pher, when he does everyone can hear it. Pher 's laugh, on the other hand, is a high-pitched breathy squeal; like a loose fan belt in an old car. And it is almost invariably followed by an, "Ah, yes," that just narrowly escapes comparison with some sort of dark and twisted villain.
The commonality between them, Pher and Jian, lies in their mutual love of jokes. They share a love for irreverent politically foddered bits of history cum legend that disappointment tinged with dissidence has twisted into pieces of hilarious double-entendre and witty dialogue. Former Chairman Mao most frequently occupies the starring role in such jokes. Occasionally he plays a full-blown hero who can be deflated only by the pinprick of the punch line. At other times, he begins as a villain of satanic and otherworldly proportions, but the sobriety of the punch line drops him back to earth, back to the realm of fallibility, corruption and human error.
I 've met very few here who will so openly criticize the former Chinese leader. Even today, Mao is deified figure who holds a power which is undeniable. Many believe that having a Mao talisman can protect them from harm, which is a belief that has surrounded powerful Chinese leaders for centuries. However, The Chairman, as he is oft referred to in jokes, was not and is not worshipped blindly or by all here in China, however, because of my outsider status, I am not usually privy to such free critique and amusing disparagement. Here, as in most places, humor is a weapon that can cut through the authorized and recorded history, creating a space for new understandings of both the past and the present to be discussed more freely.
At home in the States we have comedians like Conan O 'Brien and Jon Stewart, whose late-night television shows have become personal platforms. They undercut any and every important 'figure of the moment' or current 'media darling' both for the sheer enjoyment of the audience, and as a challenge to authorities they believe have become vested with too much power. However, such open political satire is not common in China, and when it is found, it is often located underground, below the radar of state censored media systems.
I found their humor lightening rather than dangerous. I experienced and regarded it in the same way that I experience and regard such political humor and satire in any culture, in any time period. Politics and history are not laughing matters as such, but sometimes a joke is a great way to clear the electrified air that surrounds such serious topics. While it is prudent to take stock of your audience before launching into such potentially explosive material, it can initiate interesting and fruitful political conversation.
Pher and Jian 's jokes have begun to subside, (as they are running out of fresh material), but our politically oriented conversations have only heated up. I enjoy an open rapport with both of them, and through them my understanding of recent Chinese history and current Chinese politics has increased ten-fold. 'Talking politics' has always been a vibrant part of my life, a part of my life that I felt I was missing in China. Meeting Pher and Jian made me realize that such open discussions were indeed occurring all around me, I was just unable to hear them.