Shi Dongtong 石動筩 (Moving Bucket), jester of Bei Qi Gaozu 北齊高祖 (r. 550-59), was exceptionally gifted in verbal wit and could run rings around scholars and clerics. The emperor had people read Xiao Tong’s 蕭統 (501-31) great Anthology of Literature 文選. He sighed appreciatively over a poem entitled ‘Wandering Immortal’ by Guo Pu 郭璞 (276-324). But Moving Bucket reckoned he could easily make a better job of it.
Moving Bucket stood up and said, `What’s so great about this poem? If you ask me, I could compose one twice as good’. Gaozu was displeased and said, `Just who d’you think you are? Telling us you can write a poem twice as good as Guo Pu’s! You deserve the chop for that’. Moving Bucket then said, `Right, Your Majesty just needs to ask me to compose a poem and if it isn’t twice as good as Guo Pu’s then I’ll gladly agree to give you my head!’ The emperor ordered him to do it. Moving Bucket said, `Guo Pu’s poem about a wandering immortal says, “Halfway along the clear stream, stretching for a thousand ells or more, there is a Taoist master.” Well, I say, “Halfway along the clear stream, stretching for two thousand ells, there are two Taoist masters.” How can that not be twice as good?’ Only then did Gaozu have a good laugh about it.
高祖嘗令人讀文選, 有郭璞遊仙詩, 嗟嘆稱善。諸學士皆云: 『此詩極工，誠如聖旨。』動筩即起云: 『此詩有何能! 若令臣作，即勝伊一倍。』高祖不悅, 良久, 語云: 『汝是何人? 自言作詩, 勝郭璞一倍。豈不合死! 』 動筩即云: 『大家即令臣作，若不勝一倍，甘心合死。』即令作之。動筩曰：『郭璞遊仙詩云: 「青溪千餘仞, 中有一道士」，臣作云: 「青溪二千仞，中有兩道士。」豈不勝伊一倍? 』高祖始大笑。
Not the only time Moving Bucket used word play to run rings around erudites.
Source: Qiyan lu 啓顏錄, Hou Bai 侯白 (fl. c. 581), in Taiping Guangji 太平廣記, comp. Li Fang 李昉 (925-96), fol. 247, Lidai xiaohua ji 歷代笑話集, Wang Liqi 王利器 ed. (Hong Kong: Xinyue Chubanshe, c. 1958), p. 37
Image credit: Three Taoist Immortals, Kim Hongdo (1745-1806), colour on silk; National Museum of Korea; Google Arts & Culture