Plays about Dongfang Shuo

There are several plays featuring Dongfang Shuo 東方朔 (c. 160 – c. 93 BCE) as a jester.  Apart from an anonymous and non-extant Ming dynasty variety play called simply Dongfang Shuo, there is a twenty act chuanqi play by Wu Dexiu 吾德修 (fl.c. 1692) entitled The Newly Cut and Annotated Woodblock Print of `Dongfang Shuo Stealing a Peach’ and a one act Qing dynasty sketch by Yang Chaoguan 楊朝觀 (1712-91) called Dongfang Shuo Caught Stealing a Peach.

Wu Dexiu’s is by far the longest and most complex Dongfang Shuo play.  At the end of Act VI the emperor decides to make Dongfang Shuo his jester, and this gives us the Chinese phrase `to keep a jester’ (xu paiyou) (p. 14a).  Although the play has a few inconsistencies – Dongfang Shuo starts as a young, handsome scholar and is suddenly portrayed as being old – it is a very accurate depiction of the jester and his relationship with the emperor.

Yang Chaoguan’s play takes an anecdote from the Hanshu 漢書 (History of the Han Dynasty) biography in which Dongfang Shuo points out to the emperor that court dwarfs receive the same stipend as he does despite being a third his height, complaining that he is starving while they have plenty. He steals a peach to stave off his hunger and is caught and beaten for it.  He tries to steal again and is caught a second time, using the jester’s quick-witted humour to talk his way out of trouble.

Dongfang Shuo opens the play by asking who can compare with him in humour, somersaults and tricky talk, and suggesting that anybody who wants to learn to steal should learn to run first (p. 173).  He ends with a poem asserting that immortality is nothing compared to the immortality of his witty `three-inch tongue’ (san cun she) (p. 178).

The stage directions also give the jester the same licence to improvise humour as the real court jester and the stage clown of English drama.

A third play (non-extant) about Dongfang Shuo takes another story from the History of the Han Dynasty in which the emperor ordered a gift of meat to be given to his attendants.  When nobody appeared to distribute the meat, Dongfang Shuo took his sword and cut some to take home for his `little lady’, disregarding court etiquette.  The emperor summoned him to scold his bad manners and ordered him to criticize himself which he did in terms of bold-faced self-praise, making the emperor laugh and forgive.  The play, Dongfang Shuo Cuts Meat to Give to Xi Jun (Dongfang Shuo gerou yi Xi Jun), has been attributed to Yang Shen (1488-1559), and the incident also appears in Act VIII of Wu Dexiu’s play.

He is said to have engaged in – and won – riddle contests with another jester.  But he was also reputed to speak out boldly when he felt it was the right moment.  See also our bibliographic note on Ban Gu’s biography.  

See too a Japanese painting of Dongfang Shuo, by Torei Hijikata (1741-1807), and a personal favourite by a contemporary of Hijikata, Goshun Matsumura (1752-1811).


Xinke chuxiang yinshi dianban Dongfang Shuo toutao ji 新刻出相音釋點板東方朔偷桃記 (The Newly Cut and Annotated Woodblock Print of `Dongfang Shuo Stealing a Peach’), by Wu Dexiu 吾德修 (fl.c. 1692), in Guben xiqu congkan 古本戲曲叢刊, Zhuang Yifu ed. (Shanghai: Shanghai Commercial Press, 1955), 2nd collection

Toutao zhuozhu Dongfang Shuo 偷桃捉住東方朔 (Dongfang Shuo Caught Stealing a Peach), by Yang Chaoguan 楊朝觀 (1712-91), in Yinfengge zaju 吟風閣雜劇, coll. and annot. by Hu Shiying 胡士瑩 (Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1983), pp. 173-82

Dongfang Shuo gerou yi Xi Jun 東方朔割肉遺細君(Dongfang Shuo Cuts Meat to Give to Xi Jun), attrib. to Yang Shen 楊愼 (1488-1559); see Zhuang Yifu 莊一拂, ed., Gudian xiqu cunmu huikao 古典戲曲存目彙考, 3 vols (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1982), vol. 1, p. 461

`Dongfang Shuo zhuan’ 東方朔傳, in Hanshu 漢書, by Ban Gu 班固 (32-92), fol. 65, Ershisi Shiji 二十四史記, Zhang Shenshi 張沈石 and Wu Shuping 吾樹平 (eds) (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1980), vol. 6, fol. 65, p. 2843.

Image credit: Dongfang Shuo Steals a Peach, illustration in Chuan Xihua, ed., Zhongguo gudian wenxue banhua xuanji, 2 vols (Shanghai: Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 1981), vol. 2, p. 270.


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