A catch for a king

The jester’s quiver of skills could include poetry, or at least verse.  There is evidence of overlap between bards and jesters, and there are accounts of jesters engaged in verse-capping – finishing off someone else’s couplets with something funny or outrageous.   In some cases, the verse can be serious, as when Li Jiaming 李家明 (Adding Clarity Li) shamed the emperor by reminding him of territories he had lost. 

Source: `Huixie zhuan' 詼諧傳, in Nan Tang shu 南唐書, by Ma Ling 馬令

However, on this happier occasion, Adding Clarity used his skills to cheer up the emperor, another vital function of the jester.  Nan Tang Yuanzong 南唐元宗 (r. 943-61) invited his close ministers to go fishing and between them they caught dozens of fish.  Only the emperor failed to catch anything, and so Adding Clarity made up a ditty about it, describing the peaceful scene of dangling hooks in the gentle water, all in high spirits, and then explaining the emperor’s lack of a catch as simply due to the fish themselves knowing that kings should only catch dragons, and so not daring to take his fragrant bait.  

Over the walls of the pond, our fish hooks we dangle

But no fish for the king, who for dragons should angle.


`The emperor was delighted and rewarded them all with a banquet, and there was great merriment.’


元宗賞花後苑,率近臣臨池垂釣。臣下皆登魚,惟元宗獨無所獲。家明因進詩曰: 『玉甃垂鈎興正濃,碧池春暖水溶溶。 凡魚不敢吞香餌,知是君王合釣龍。』元宗大喜,賜宴,極歡。

Sources: `Huixie zhuan’ 詼諧傳, in Nan Tang shu 南唐書, by Ma Ling 馬令 (fl. c. 1105), fol. 25, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 464, p. 362b; `Paiyoumen’, Shihua zonggui (General Compendium of Poetry Critiques) by Ruan Yue (fl.c. 1082), part 1, fol. 46, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1478, p. 646a.

Photo credit: Abdelhamid Azoui at unsplash


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