A pun to peel back power

Emperor Zhuangzong of the Later Tang 後唐莊宗 (r. 923-26) gave a little party at which fresh oranges were presented and he commanded all his entertainers to compose poems about it.  The jester Tang Chaomei 唐朝美 (whose name could sound like Best At Mocking) was the first to finish a verse with a pun using the oranges as a metaphor for the prime minister and his ‘eight or nine brothers’, presumably hangers-on, daring the emperor to have the prime minister skinned, in other words have his followers and trappings of office removed.  The emperor at least took the point, as he laughed loudly and rewarded the jester with the golden goblet he had been using:

Golden and fragrant appears the great minister

With his eight or nine little brothers,

Rip off his pips, peel pith and kin,

Will you be the man to do such a thing?



Chengxiang can refer either to a prime minister or the appearance of an orange. There is also a visual pun on zi meaning ‘dregs’ (or ‘pith’?) which contains the character zai meaning ‘prime minister’, the overall gist suggesting that the prime minister’s power should be curtailed.

Source: Qingyi lu 清異錄, by Tao Gu 陶穀 (?-970), fol. 1, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1047, p. 865a. 

Photo credit: Leonardo de Assis at unsplash

Quote - Qingyi Lu - Tao Gu - Chinese text

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