Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BC), ‘Accounts of Jesters’ in the Historical Records

There are a hundred ways to kick off a canon*, and one on fools and jesters could trigger as much argument about what should be included as a Shakespearean or other body of essential works on a given topic.  One advantage of slow-mo online accretion is that it is never final and so the discussion can be limited to what you have included and why, rather than what you have excluded, since what is excluded may simply be pipeline-pending.

After too much midnight mind-mulling, I decided to start with the ‘Accounts of Jesters’ in Sima Qian’s Historical Records, on the grounds that while this may not be the earliest reference to court fools and jesters (though it is one of the more reliable), it appears to be the first study by a historian.

This, and the fact that it is the starting point for any work on Chinese jesters, made it jump ahead of other books jostling to be here. His work, and the jesters he describes, have a resonance among Chinese people that echoes Lear’s Fool among Westerners – the first they can name and the instinctive reference point for the role of fools.

In describing my work to Chinese people, there doesn’t seem as ready and vivid a term in modern Chinese as ‘court jester’ in English (or similar terms in other Western languages). But mention Sima Qian’s ‘Jesters’ or those he names in it, and they have the same ‘aha’ of recognition.

Another reason for beginning with Sima Qian is that foolsareeverywhere.com, like the book which informs it, aims to redress an imbalance. I believe the Western view of court jesters tends to be Eurocentric due to a lack of exposure and access to materials on non-European fools. Starting with a major work of Chinese history may help shift this perception from the outset.

Portrait of Sima Qian: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sima_Qian_(painted_portrait).jpg

Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BC) 

Sima Qian isn’t well known in the West and is commonly portrayed as a Chinese equivalent to Herodotus (484-424 BC). Like Herodotus he aimed to write an all-embracing world history (albeit the world of China), and he was innovative in his approach. His Historical Records (often called Records of the Historian) set the tone for the main standard dynastic histories to follow, although his work covered a multi-dynastic sweep of a few thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to 95 BC and:

… was to set the form for a new way of writing history that came to be known as jizhuanti (‘annals-biography’ after its two most important parts … The two main innovations of Sima Qian were the monographs (shu) and the memoirs (liezhuan).[i]

He also shares with Herodotus a certain human immediacy and liveliness of style, summed up by two of his best translators in English:

Sima Qian was no mere tabulator of soulless statistics, no mere scavenger of faceless trends and movements. Instead he emphasised the realities and human drama of history.[ii]  

His own words give something of the breadth and depth of his project:

It was my desire to go thoroughly into universal natural and human relationships, to reach a deep understanding of the great crises and decisive upheavals of ancient and modern times, and to formulate all these things into one whole work according to one consistent philosophical approach.[iii] 

Sima Qian - Historical Records - Jesters - Dongfang Shuo

One of Sima Qian’s ‘Jesters’ – Dongfang Shuo

Most significant, for our purposes, is that he saw fit to dedicate one section of ‘memoirs’ to jesters, providing a store of engaging accounts of some ‘superstar’ jesters and their candid interactions with the ruler.

In giving them ‘air time’, he may have helped make them a legitimate subject for ‘serious’ later historians to include in their purview, perhaps contributing to the richness of jester records in the Chinese context. 

In the coming months, we will feature his accounts of fools. Among a number of translations, the sparkiest one is by Dolby and Scott in their War Lords selection from the Historical Records

Lastly, Sima Qian’s closing comment:

Old Baldy Chun-yu laughed like hell, the King of Qi ran riot beyond belief;

Jester Meng shook his head in song and the firewood-hawker picked up a fief.

One shout from Jester Twisty Pole and wretched guards gained sweet relief.

Were all these not great men too?!!

 

淳于髡仰天大笑,齊威王橫行。優孟搖頭而歌,負薪者以封。優旃臨檻疾呼,陛楯得以半更。豈不亦偉哉! [iv]

 

*  For readers uncomfortable with calling a body of selected literature a ‘canon’, feel free to consider it a working list of essential reading. 

[i] Wilkinson, Endymion, Chinese History: A Manual (Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2000), Monograph Series 52, pp. 501-02

[ii] William Dolby and John Scott, War Lords (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 9

[iii] Sima Qian quoted in William Dolby and John Scott, War Lords (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 14

[iv] Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BC), `Guji liezhuan’, in Shiji,annot. Pei Yin (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), p. 3203; trans. `Jesters’, in War Lords, William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 168

 

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 (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963).  Trans. William Dolby and John Scott, `Jesters’, in War Lords (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), pp. 157-168.

Source: Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC), `Guji liezhuan' 滑稽列傳, in Shiji 史記, annot. Pei Yin (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), p. 3203; trans. `Jesters', in War Lords, William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 168
Source: Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC), `Guji liezhuan' 滑稽列傳, in Shiji 史記, annot. Pei Yin (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), p. 3203; trans. `Jesters', in War Lords, William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 168

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