Chunyu Kun 淳于髡 (‘Baldy Chunyu’) is one the jesters included in Sima Qian’s (145-c. 86 b.c.) ‘Accounts of Jesters’ in the Historical Records. He served at the court of Weiwang of Qi (c. 356-319 BCE) and used wit and other forms of indirect humour to remind the king not to neglect his duties in living it up too much. He was also entrusted with diplomacy such as when the country was threatened with invasion, and he persuaded the king to give him the resources needed to fulfill his mission.
There are two anecdotes about Baldy reining in the king’s drinking and the neglect of business it engendered. In both cases he used a gently humorous and indirect way to get the message across.
On one occasion he used a riddle to wake the king up to the disaster he could bring on the state if he didn’t take his obligations seriously.
When once Weiwang asked his jester how much wine it took to floor him, he said that on formal occasions he only needed a gallon, but the more relaxed the atmosphere, the more he could ‘knock back’ before being knocked out, but then slipping in a wrapped up warning.
`Then I’m really on top of the world and I can put away up to ten gallons. But, yes, that’s where the old proverb comes in: When you go too far with wine, you lose control; a surfeit of pleasure brings a host of sorrows. It’s the same with everything, mind you. You can’t go too far with what you say, either. If you do, it spells ruination. That’s why some people couch good advice in humour.’
Baldy did couch good advice in humour and managed to avoid ruination. He persuaded Weiwang to focus on the affairs of state, and the king put him in charge of receptions for foreign dignitaries and ambassadors. Henceforth, Baldy was `always at his side’ on important occasions.
Sima Qian clearly thought highly of jesters, whereas Liu Xie 劉勰 (c. 465-522) was ambivalent about their levity. However, even he commented in The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons that Baldy used it for good purpose, being one of those jesters who:
`In spite of their wandering and devious speeches always aim towards the right principle.’
Liu Xie 劉勰 (c. 465-522), Wenxin Diaolong Jinyi (文心雕龍今譯), trans. Zhou Zhenfu, ed. Ji Ren (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1986), p. 132; trans. ‘On Humor and Enigma’ in The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, Vincent Yu-chung Shih (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p. 80
Sima Qian (司馬遷) (c. 145-86 BC), `Guji liezhuan’ (滑稽列傳) (‘Accounts of Jesters’) in Shiji (史記) (Historical Records), annot. Pei Yin 裴駰 (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), vol. 10, fol. 126, pp. 3197-3214.
Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BC), `Jesters’, in War Lords, trans. by William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), pp. 157-68. This remains the most engaging and spirited translation I have come across – read it to get a feel for the jesters and how Sima Qian wrote about them.
Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), ‘The Witty Courtiers: Memoir 66’, trans. by Giulia Baccini and Maddalena Barenghi, in The Grand Scribe’s Records, vol. XI, The Memoirs of Han China, Part IV, William H. Nienhauser, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), pp. 149-95. A full translation, less sprightly than Dolby and Scott, but richly annotated; this is the ‘go to’ scholarly version to read alongside the original text.
Sima Qian, ‘Biographies de Bouffons’, in Mémoires historiques: Vies de Chinois illustrés, trans. by Jacques Pimpaneau (Arles: Editions Philippe Picquier, 2002), pp. 158-63. A French translation.
Weingarten, Oliver, ‘Chunyu Kun: Motifs, Narratives, and Personas in Early Chinese Anecdotal Literature’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 27:3 (July 2017), pp. 501-21.