Riddles are one technique in the rag-bag of fools’ tools and can prove a playful, indirect way of bringing someone round to another view. First they focus the person on solving the riddle, allowing a moment for the real meaning to sink in quietly. The decoy of a riddle can also be a face-saving way of remonstrating as the shock of confrontation is avoided.
King Weiwang of Qi (c. 356-319 BC) had two things in common with Charles II of England* – a tendency to neglect his duties as king in order to indulge in booze and women, and to have a jester to persuade him to sober up. In Weiwang’s case, the state was in chaos and nearby countries were encroaching on its borders.
As often happens in these cases, the courtiers are either unable or unwilling to raise the issue with the monarch, and the jester needs to intercede.
`None of his courtiers dared suggest he should mend his ways. But Baldy Chunyu attempted to reason with him by means of a riddle.
“There’s a big bird in this land who has settled on the royal palace and for three years it hasn’t flapped its wings or uttered a single peep. Does Your Majesty know what sort of a bird it is?”
“As long as that bird doesn’t spread its wings and fly,” countered the King, “all well and good. But once it does, it will smash its way through Heaven itself. As long as it stays silent, that’s all there is to it. But once it opens its beak and sings, it will give people one hell of a fright.”
The implication is that having woken up to his obligations, the king will take the reins of government and anyone standing in his way had better watch out. So the king solved the riddle and got the message, subsequently applying himself conscientiously to the running of the country.
See another example of Baldy curing the king’s carousing.
齊威王之時喜隱,好為淫樂長夜之飲,沈湎不治,委政卿大夫。百官荒亂,諸侯並 侵,國且危亡,在於旦暮,左右莫敢諫。淳于髡說之以隱曰:「國中有大鳥, 止王之庭,三年不蜚又不鳴,王知此鳥何也?」王曰:「此鳥不飛則已,一飛沖 天;不鳴則已,一鳴驚人。」
* The Charles II version to follow…
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. 3204; trans. `Jesters’, in War Lords, trans. by William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), p. 160.