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Humour as Negotiation: Digital Cultures of Friendly Political Humour on the Chinese Internet



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This thesis works on the digital cultures of friendly political humour on the Chinese internet, examining the potential of humour in bridging communication and negotiating the hegemonic relationship between the online public and the state. Previous research mostly emphasises the more extreme cases of digital humour in China, understanding them primarily as grassroots resistance with subversive potential in the authoritarian context. To move beyond the restricted scope of humour practiced by few and far between, my research focuses on non-contentious humour that circulates more widely among the online public. With its creative discourse strategies to repurpose political language for entertainment, non-contentious humour has much less critical or subversive implications and wider impacts on everyday life. I argue that these much-neglected cases of humour are highly relevant to understanding everyday politics in authoritarian societies.

Based on ethnographic observations on Chinese social media, discourse analysis of online humour, and 40 in-depth interviews with cultural participants, I find that practices of friendly political humour can lubricate communication on sensitive and controversial topics, and open up the official rhetoric on socialist ideology in China to personalised reinterpretations and redefinitions. Furthermore, while interweaving individuals’ everyday experiences with ideological discourse, these practices of humour reconfigure the socialist hegemony in China from authoritarian coercion to be more firmly based on active cultural participation from the online public in the discourse formation process of dominant ideology. With these findings, I argue that humour plays an important role in enabling the public to negotiate the relationship between the dominant discourse of ideology and the public discourse of diversified voices orchestrated through practices of digital culture. In so doing, humour serves important functions of mediating and negotiating the hegemonic relationship between the state and the online public in China. Rather than signifying grassroots resistance to the authoritarian rule, friendly political humour can mobilise potentials of humour and digital affordances to steer political persuasion towards benign and harmonious ways of state-society interaction. This thesis on humour as negotiation brings much-needed theoretical nuance to our understanding of the power dynamic in authoritarian societies as well as valuable empirical nuance to the discussion of culture and everyday politics in the digital age.





McPherson, Ella


China, humour, digital culture, politics, discourse analysis


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
China Scholarship Council