Most Chinese were familiar with House’s reference. It has been a propaganda tagline since 2013, when Xi Jinping began to frame China’s military as flag-bearers on the country’s march to superpower status. After the show, an anonymous user leaked House’s joke on Weibo, a popular social-media site, where nationalists verbally thrashed the comic, imploring officials to bring him and Xiaoguo to justice. “These second-rate traitors can’t be punished enough,” one commenter wrote. By week’s end, hashtags related to House’s bit had surpassed a billion hits.

Flippant references to China’s military, like those to top leaders, are considered off limits in official life, and such taboos have been codified under Xi, with a new criminal code outlawing the slander of political “heroes and martyrs.” The Wednesday after the show, the police placed House under investigation, and culture authorities fined Xiaoguo two million dollars for the joke. The studio’s shows were suspended indefinitely. State media flooded the Internet with diatribes against amoral artists and implored them to provide the masses with “high-quality spiritual content.” When a woman in Dalian posted a message in House’s defense, she was promptly detained.

From his bedroom in northern China, Alex, a comedian in his twenties and a friend of House’s, fretted about the end of his industry. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he told me. (He asked to use a pseudonym for fear of official reprisals.) “I’d wake up every two hours, check my phone, and think, We’re screwed.” Once the hand of the state comes down, the results are brutal. Alex had stopped contacting House after his investigation, but he’d heard from other comedian friends that House was now “looking for a job in a different industry.”

When a new genre of art attains mainstream repute, Chinese call it poquan, or breaking out of the circle. For the in-crowd, it is a Pyrrhic triumph, one that validates the medium’s soft power even as it is remolded by the iron fist. Standup comedy was the latest art form to reach this inflection point, which is familiar to many Chinese writers, artists, and musicians. Around four years ago, the lead singer of a Beijing rock band told me, culture police started showing up at concerts and screening his lyrics. These days, his band submits lyrics, recordings, and rehearsal videos to the culture bureau before each performance. If the song has no lyrics, authorities demand a written explanation of its “intent.” “You can’t half-ass it, either,” he told me, chuckling.

The House incident plunged the comedy industry—and the wider entertainment scene—into hibernation. Standup shows across the country were cancelled. Police shut down music festivals and bar gigs. By the fall, most comedy clubs had resumed operation, but the industry was settling into a new, bowdlerized state. In Shanghai, where Xiaoguo is based, authorities frequently visited shows unannounced to keep clubs on their toes. Comics who veered off script could be fined several thousand dollars. Improvisation was effectively banned. One proprietor of a Shanghai comedy club told me that “Rock & Roast” ’s run was most likely over and, with it, the irreverent sketches that had defined China’s standup spring. Standup survived the crackdown, he said, but in the process it “has lost its soul.”

Standup comedy entered China through Hong Kong in the two-thousands, and blossomed during the late twenty-tens thanks to streaming platforms and Chinese TikTok. In bar basements, shopping malls, and performance halls, young comics talked subtly and sardonically about the lack of job prospects, the rat race of education, and the pressures to marry and bear children. Using the mike as a generational megaphone, they described what early adult life is like in a decade when the economy has plateaued and the Chinese Dream—the promise that hard work and political quiescence would lead to prosperity and property—has begun to crumble.

China’s comedy boom gave expression to the vast numbers of young Chinese embracing the culture of sang (literally, mourning), a life style of willful underachievement and self-sabotage. Such was the tone of Wang Mian, the guitar-strumming champion of “Rock & Roast” ’s third season. In his viral performance “Song of Escape,” Wang limns a morning ritual in which he and a stranger regularly jockey for the last shared bicycle for their respective commutes. One day, the stranger asks why Wang never puts up much of a fight. “Because I don’t want to go to work!” Wang cries. “I don’t want to go to work and edit PowerPoints!” The audience burst out laughing.

“We’re just venting our troubles,” Vickie Wang, a Taiwanese comic who began doing standup in Shanghai, in 2018, told me. “When you’re laughing along with everyone at a club, you feel, like, Oh, I guess I wasn’t the only one suffering after all.” In 2020, Yang Li, a comic from the northern province of Hebei, struck a generational chord among female “Rock & Roast” viewers. “Men are so mysterious,” she said, facetiously. “How can they be so average yet so confident?” The gag “average yet confident” became a meme among Yang’s fans but triggered male netizens, who reported her to authorities for stoking “gender opposition.” She has so far skirted official censure.

One evening late last year, I went to see a show on the second floor of a department store in Shanghai’s French Concession. Twenty- and thirtysomethings filed into a theatre adjoining a hair salon and a pet store. I sat in the fifth row, near the back wall, where a staff member was operating a camcorder. The recording, I later learned, was sent to the local culture-and-tourism bureau for inspection.

Spotlights beamed onto center stage, and Shuyi, a lanky man with wire-rimmed glasses leaped atop it. (Shuyi is a pseudonym; like Alex, he feared state reprisal.) He introduced himself as the m.c. before surveying the crowd on their home provinces—roughly forty per cent of Shanghai residents come from elsewhere in China. “Is anyone here from Henan?” he asked. As spectators raised their hands, he shot off a quip invoking the regional stereotype. “They’re not treated very well online, are they?” he joked. (Netizens often caricature the people of Henan as thieves.) When he got to Xinjiang, a round, frumpy man in the back raised his hand. Shuyi asked him what had brought him to Shanghai. “To kill people!” he shouted. The crowd eked out a nervous laugh. Shuyi muttered something incoherent, then moved on with the show.

Comedy m.c.s enjoy an exception to the improvisation ban, but they tend to steer clear of risky exchanges. Instead, they expend their time going over house rules (no recording, no interrupting comics in the middle of their sets) and offering other self-protective disclaimers. “We’re just here to laugh, all right? Don’t turn things over in your head too much,” Shuyi warned. With his arms folded, eyes glaring in disapproval, he imitated a make-believe spectator reacting to the jokes. “If he says something like that, that comic’s going to jail,” he jeered.

Of a dozen comedians I spoke to in recent months, most told me that their fear was not of the censor but of the spectator. As standup broke out of its in-crowd—for the most part, young urbanites familiar with the Western variety—it began to reach a diverse audience that included nationalists, Internet trolls, and those who struggled to separate a joke from a sincere opinion. Alex recalled that, one night, after a show, an audience member reported him for touching on gender-related issues. “They claimed I had violated the rights of women,” he told me. The police arrived and left only after the staff showed the officer that the joke had been approved by the culture bureau. “It’s not authorities doing it. It’s people doing it,” Jake, a comic in Shanghai who also asked to go by a pseudonym, told me.

When a spectator reports a comic for political misconduct—what Chinese call jubao, “to inform against”—it sets into motion a machine with a long, tragic past. During the Cultural Revolution, children reported on parents, and students reported on teachers. And, during China’s economic rise, the system was inundated with complaints from consumers about unscrupulous businesses, and unscrupulous businesses about their competitors. These days, the machine lies at the heart of the country’s variant of cancel culture, one animated not by feminism and anti-racism but by hypernationalism and an allergy to insult. “You can’t offend people in China,” Jake told me. “In American comedy, if someone’s offended, ‘Free speech, bitch’ ”—there is at least some recourse to First Amendment principles. “The stuff we have to work around is, ‘Oh, I didn’t like the fact that someone asked me what university I went to,’ ” he said.

Nationalists call on the state to punish disloyal actors, such as Western brands, Chinese feminists, and incautious celebrities. In 2021, the actor Zhang Zhehan was pilloried by nationalists after an old photo emerged of him near Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial with strong associations to the country’s imperial past. Authorities blasted Zhang for historical obtuseness, and credits for many of his works were wiped from the Web. Months before House’s investigation, Wang Yuechi, a comedian formerly employed by Xiaoguo, was blacklisted on Chinese social media after he spoke curtly about the government during a tour of North America. No recordings surfaced from the shows, but audience members described sketches involving Chinese censorship and the trials of his Uyghur friend, who applied for a passport and was refused by the government.

Before House’s fall, Shuyi had no interaction with the authorities. Now they required his jokes to be approved and every show to be videotaped. There was no room for deviation: last fall, Shuyi was fined seven thousand dollars for ad-libbing a minute past his fifteen-minute script. His club covered half the costs, but not all clubs could afford this after weathering pandemic lockdowns. In 2023, he estimated, nearly half of the dozen clubs in Shanghai had closed. When I asked him for his personal views about his industry’s predicament, he demurred. “I’m pretty agnostic about these things because I’m a Party member,” he said.

“They keep asking us to say positive things about our lives,” Alex told me. “But the reason we stand up there at all is because we’re all negative.” Last fall, I travelled to Nanchang to see him perform, at a hole-in-the-wall comedy club, nestled inside a shopping plaza that had once been a Daoist temple. Inside, the m.c., a short, stocky man with a boyish face, issued a familiar disclaimer: “Don’t take what I say too seriously, and don’t get offended. I’m just asking some casual questions.” He then struck up a conversation with a couple in the front row. The woman—slender, and wearing a fashionable white sweater—hailed from Nanchang, and the man was from the eastern city of Nanjing. They said that they had been dating for three years. The crowd cooed.

“So, are you all planning to get married or . . . ?”

“Of course,” the boyfriend said, sounding a bit ruffled. “You don’t even have to ask that.”

“Are you familiar with the local dowry rates?” the m.c. asked. The crowd guffawed. The girlfriend clarified that she wasn’t expecting any money. “No dowry?” the m.c. said, feeding off the crowd. “Then you’re clearly not a native of Nanchang!”

Chinese refer to the chidu of a piece of entertainment—the measurement or, more figuratively, the moral leeway. An edgy show is said to have a large chidu; Internet censors implore netizens to “grasp the chidu” of their posts. Life as an artist in China has always involved maintaining a chidu large enough to attract public interest, but not large enough to attract official reproach. But a defining feature of the Xi Jinping era is that performers have lost confidence in their ability to walk that path unscathed. “In the U.S., everyone wants to go viral. In China, nobody does,” a Beijing entrepreneur working in the arts-and-culture scene told me. Before the m.c. introduced Alex, he added another disclaimer: “Since this is a live performance, the chidu will be higher than what you see online. Is everyone O.K. with that?” The crowd roared.

Since his tour began, Alex has cleared his set with every local censorship bureau in the fifteen cities he has performed in. He has found some regional idiosyncrasies. A sketch involving an altercation with a traffic cop was approved everywhere except for one district in Shanghai. “They told me they were worried about the ‘negative impacts,’ ” Alex said. I asked him if he had noticed any other patterns. “Generally, the cities that do worse economically tend to be the strictest,” he told me. “They’re more bureaucratized.” Officials in less wealthy regions, he explained, tended to be more risk-averse, caring less about comedy than the potential fallout from a comedian’s words. “It’s the same with the red states in the U.S., right? They tend to be poorer and more conservative?”

In August, when Japan began releasing treated wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi plant into the ocean, over vehement protest from China, comedians were told not to mention Japan in their sets. After the Party forced Shanghai into a two-month lockdown in 2022, amid a coronavirus outbreak, authorities prohibited the word “lockdown” because it sounded too harsh. “We can only say ‘during the period when I was quarantining at home,’ ” Alex told me. Twice in my conversation with comedians, when I pressed them on where they believed the line was, I received a circular answer: “When you get in trouble, that’s the line.”

Alex’s sixty-minute set consisted of witty rants on the quotidian vexations of life, such as squabbles with Internet bullies and an awkward first date. He once told me that observation was, in effect, the only way to pursue comedy in China. “Everyone is Jerry Seinfeld,” he said. Alex is an exceptionally clean comedian, but, at times, he gestures toward the forbidden. He once sarcastically described standup in China as going “pretty swimmingly,” drawing a laugh from the politically aware.

The writer Miklós Haraszti compared censorship in the waning years of Communist Hungary to a “velvet prison.” As censorship deepens and evolves, Haraszti wrote, artists and censors are “entangled in a mutual embrace,” hoping to “cultivate the gardens of art together.” For all the havoc censors have wrought on his profession, Alex believes that they have also played a custodial role. “The truth is that a lot of local governments are trying to protect the industry,” he told me. “What they’re trying to avoid is a public commotion like what happened with House.” From offices in minor cities, censors answer to a vast chain of command leading up to the central authorities in Beijing. They rely on comics to avoid mishaps that could cost them their jobs. Comics rely on censors to prevent them from going over the line. Neither one is free, and both survive longer by working together.

Moments before Alex arrived onstage, I asked him if he had taken any lessons from the House incident. Since May, many comics had revisited their scripts, tweaking their material in a timeworn ritual of self-censorship. But ponder the rules long enough and a futility begins to set in. “I think I learned just how close the red line was to me,” Alex responded. “That I could step on it at any moment.” This was a raw, seemingly candid answer, but moments later he offered another. “Fear,” he told me. “I learned fear.” ◆