Dongfang Shuo 東方朔 (c. 160 – c. 93 BCE), sometime jester to emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE), appears to have been one of those who developed a reputation among ordinary people for their wit, with their wisecracks becoming common currency.
Ban Gu’s 班固 (32-92) comment suggests Dongfang Shuo had a popular status resembling Birbal or Tenali Rama in India, or Robert Armin and Richard Tarlton in England. In this sense, he qualifies as one type of ‘folk fool’, those historical individuals who acquired legendary status and to whom embellished or even made up stories could be attributed.
Ban Gu’s history of the Han dynasty includes a detailed biography of Dongfang Shuo, who is also included in Sima Qian’s 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC) Biographies of Jesters, and elsewhere. We’ve opened a foolology file on him and will keep you posted when we’ve lined up a few more materials.
Shuo’s jokes and sallies, his divinations and guesses, shallow and inconsequential as they are, were passed around among the ordinary run of people, and there was no stripling or cowherd who failed to be quite dazzled by them. In later times, men who fancy such matters have invented all sorts of saying and outlandish tales and attached Shuo’s name to them. That is the reason I have written of him in such detail.
He was known for setting impossible riddles and solving others’, and also for speaking out when he saw the emperor’s mood was right. See one of many depictions of him, this lively one by a Japanese artist.
Source: `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. VI, fol. 65; translation by Burton Watson in Ban Gu (32-92), Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the `History of the Former Han’ by Pan Ku (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 106.
`Guji liezhuan’ 滑稽列傳, by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC), in Shiji 史記, annot. Pei Yin 裴駰 (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), vol. 10, fol. 126, pp. 3197-3214.