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.
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.
See a Japanese painting of Dongfang Shuo, and other anecdotes about him. 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.
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 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.