How to up the game

This account of a Chinese jester is from what may be the earliest study of their exploits. It highlights a common technique for influencing behaviour – not through confrontation but by lightly indirect means, allowing the king to draw his own conclusions.

In the fourth century BCE, the state of Chu launched an attack on Qi and the king of Qi sent his jester Chunyu Kun (Baldy Chunyu 淳于髡) (c. 356-319 BC) to ask for relief forces from another state, Zhao. The gifts he was sending with Baldy were paltry and so the jester laughed his head off. The king asked if he thought the gifts insufficient. The jester denied this explaining that he was amused by the fact that he had seen a man who was performing sacrifices in hope of a bumper harvest; his offerings comprised a pig’s trotter and a cup of wine, and yet he was asking that heaven,

`Grant cartloads from the low ground

and full hampers from the high,

grain in ripe abundance

and sheaves piled to the sky.’

It was just the huge disparity between the man’s measly investment and his expectation of high returns which made Baldy laugh – so uproariously that his jaw movement snapped his hat-straps.

The king understood the analogy and sent Baldy off with a splendid supply of gifts, Zhao responding with sufficient reinforcements to persuade Chu to withdraw the same night.

威王八年,楚大發兵加齊。齊王使淳于髡之趙請救兵,齎金百斤,車馬十駟。淳于髡仰天大笑, 冠纓索絕。王曰:「先生少之乎?」髡曰:「何敢!」王曰:「笑豈有說乎?」髡曰:「今者臣從東方來,見道傍有禳田者, 操一豚蹄,酒一盂,祝曰:『甌窶滿篝, 汙邪滿車,五穀蕃熟, 穰穰滿家。』臣見其所持者狹而所欲者奢,故笑之。」於是齊威王乃益齎黃金千溢,白璧十雙,車馬百駟。髡辭而行,至趙。趙王與之精兵十萬,革車千乘。楚聞之,夜引兵而去。

A classic example of using humour to give indirect advice, fengjian (諷諫) in classical Chinese. Note too that the king considered his jester a suitable envoy to seek relief forces from another state.


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 - Records of the Historian (Shiji) - on fools and jesters

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