A charming tale of a prominent jester’s landing himself in the bad books of a powerful minister but being saved from wrathful retribution by the emperor.
Prime Minister Wang Anshi (1021-86) instituted a series of sweeping reforms although he later fell into disfavour and his policies were reversed. He was reportedly frugal, unwashed and obstinate. It is his arrogance rather than his policies which made him the butt of jester skits and gibes. In the reign of the Song dynasty Emperor Shenzong (r. 1068-85) Wang wielded immense power and even the emperor:
‘… acceded to him in everything. Decrees poured forth but the people felt disaffected. Old ministers and famous scholars voiced their disapproval and many found themselves demoted or dismissed. Thereafter, new ones tied up their tongues and kept quiet…
One of Wang’s laws had just been enacted, and the jester put it into a skit on stage at a banquet, and gave free rein to his mockery. The joke was passed on to make people laugh, which Wang could not endure although he could do nothing against his mocker. In a rage he determined to have Ding Xianxian (丁仙现 or Immortal Revelation) executed, so the emperor secretly despatched two favourite younger brothers to spirit him away and hide him in a royal residence.
A saying was made up about the affair: `A top minister can’t top a jester’.’
而神廟方然 … 一切委听，号令骤出，但於人情适有所离合, 於是故臣名士, 往往力陈其不可。且多被黜降，後来者乃寖结其舌矣… 丁使遇介甫法制适一行，必因燕设，於戏场中, 方便作为嘲诨,肆其诮难,辄有为人笑传。介甫叵堪，然无如之何也。因遂发怒必欲斩之;神廟乃密诏二王取丁仙现匿诸王邸。二王者，神庙之两爱弟也。故一时谚语，有「台官不如伶官」。
Source: Herbert Giles, A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (London: Kelly and Walsh, 1898), p. 804; Tie Wei Shan congtan 铁围山丛谈, by Cai Tiao 蔡絛 (d. 1126), fol. 3, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1037, pp. 590b-91a
Image credit: Portrait of Emperor Song Shenzong, National Palace Museum, Taiwan, public domain