There’s a raft of stories of Chinese jesters taking a pot-shot at religion and its preachers, though they were scrupulously even-handed in their scoffing. A jester to the Tang dynasty Emperor Yizong 唐懿宗 (r. 859-73), Li Keji 李可及 (Attainable or Surpassable Li), affirms this. It was said of him that while not very good at using humour for corrective purposes, he was unsurpassable when it came to quick wit and jocularity.
By means of apposite quotation and deft misinterpretation he managed to prove that Sakyamuni, Laozi and Confucius were all women:
Someone asked: `Since you reckon you’re so familiar with the three religions, what kind of person was the Buddha?’ [Surpassable Li] answered, `A woman’. The man who had asked was astonished and said, `How can that be?’ He answered, `The Diamond Sutra says, Buddha “fu zuo er zuo” [laid out a seat and then sat on it]. If Buddha wasn’t a woman why would it mention her husband and then her son sitting down [fu zuo… er zuo]?’ The emperor smiled. He was then asked, `And what kind of person was Laozi?’ He replied, `Also a woman’. The person asking was even more baffled, so Attainable Li explained, `The Way and its Power says “My one big worry is that I you shen [have a body], if I had no body, I would have no worries”. If Laozi wasn’t a woman why would she worry about being pregnant [you shen]?’ The emperor was very pleased. He was then asked what kind of person Confucius was, and again he said, `A woman’. His interlocutor said, `How d’you figure that out?’ and he answered, `The Analects say “Who will buy? I’m dai jia [waiting for a buyer]!” If Confucius wasn’t a woman why would she be about to take a husband [dai jia]?’ The emperor was absolutely delighted and rewarded him generously.
咸通中，優人李可及滑稽諧戲，獨出輩流，雖不能托諷諭 ，然巧智敏捷，亦不可多得。嘗因延慶節，緇黃講論（必)〔畢)，次及優倡為戲。可及褒衣博帶，攝齋以升坐，稱三教論衡。偶坐者問曰：既言博通三教，釋迦如來是何人？對曰：婦人。問者驚曰：何也？曰：《金剛經》云：敷座而坐。非婦人，何（凡）〔煩〕夫坐而後坐也 。上為之啟齒。又曰：太上老君何人？曰：亦婦人也。問者益以不喻 。乃曰：《道德經》云：吾有大患，為吾有身，及吾無身，吾有何患。倘非婦人，何患於有娠乎。上大悅。又問曰：文宣王何人也？曰：婦人也。問者曰：何以知之？〔曰：〕《論語》曰：〔沽之哉，〕沽之哉 ，我待賈者也 。向非婦人，奚待嫁為？上意極歡，賜予頗厚。
Source: Qunju jieyi 群居解頤, by Gao Yi 高懌 (Song), in Lidai xiaohua ji 歷代笑話集, Wang Liqi 王利器 ed. (Hong Kong: Xinyue Chubanshe, c. 1958), p. 58. The text can also be found at the Chinese Text Project, here.
Photo credit: A T’ang dynasty woman dressing in juch’ün (襦裙) and holding a red flower from a silk painting ‘Paradise of Amitābha Buddha, discovered in Dunhuang. British Museum; photo by Uriel Wang