A common theme in the interactions between fools and kings is the need to rein in regal carousing or other forms of distraction from the affairs of state.

On one occasion Baldy Chunyu used a riddle to talk Weiwang of Qi (c. 356-319 BC, whose name has been neatly translated as King Awesome) out of his boozy excesses.

On another occasion the king invited Baldy to a private wine party and asked him how much it took to make him drunk.  Baldy framed his response to gently hint that the king could do with exercising some self-restraint. He also made an oblique reference to couching criticism in humour.  Firstly, though, he answers the king’s question, explaining that on formal occasions he only needed a gallon, but the more relaxed the atmosphere, the more he could quaff:

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“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.”

當此之時,髡心最歡,能飲一石。故曰酒極則亂,樂極則悲;萬事盡然,言不可極,極之而衰。

This persuaded the king to give up his unrestrained boozing and make Baldy his `chamberlain in charge of receptions for visiting foreign princes and ambassadors, and whenever he attended parties given by royal clansmen and nobility, Baldy was always at his side’.

See another example of Baldy’s witty intercession – this time using a riddle to snap the king out of his dereliction of duty.

 

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. 3199; trans. `Jesters’, in War Lords, William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 162

See Sima Qian’s entry in the Canon. 

Chinese quotation from Sima Qian's 'Biographies of Jesters' (Guji Liezhuan) in the Records of the Historian (Shiji)
English translation of a quotation from Sima Qian's 'Biographies of Jesters' (Guji Liezhuan) in the Records of the Historian (Shiji)

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