Heaven’s surname

There are several stories of Chinese jesters running punning rings around this or that sage scholar or religious master.   When Emperor Gaozu of the Northern Qi 北齊高祖 (r. 550-59) held an erudite gathering, his jester Shi Dongtong 石動筩 (Moving Bucket) mocked one of the scholars into a tight corner by using the homophone xing which means both `nature’ and `surname’:

Quotation: Qiyan lu 啓顏錄, by Hou Bai (侯白)

`Master!  What is the surname of heaven?’  The erudite said, `Heaven’s surname is Gao’.  Moving Bucket said, `Since the Son of Heaven’s surname is Gao, heaven’s surname must also be Gao, you learnt it from the Shu minister Qin Mi, it’s not a new argument.  On all Thirteen Classics there is the surname for heaven; the master can quote from classical texts and shouldn’t just borrow old statements’. The scholar admitted, `I don’t know which classic has heaven’s surname’. 


The jester mockingly chided, `The master really hasn’t read his classics, has he?  It seems he hasn’t even read the Classic of Filial Piety.  The surname of heaven is Ye.  Hasn’t the master read “The principles governing the relationship of father and son are in the nature of heaven [tian xing ye, also puns as `heaven’s surname is Ye],” so how can this not be heaven’s surname?’  The emperor burst out laughing.  



Source:  Qiyan lu 啓顏錄, by Hou Bai 侯白 (fl. ca. 581), in Taiping Guangji 太平廣記, comp. Li Fang 李昉 (925-96), fol. 247, in Lidai xiaohua ji 歷代笑話集, Wang Liqi 王利器, ed. (Hong Kong: Xinyue Chubanshe, c. 1958), p. 11. The text is also available online at the Chinese Text Project, here.

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