In fear of his wife

There is a whole class of jester stories involving rhyming or other witty ditties to make fun of or entertain the ruler.  Here a jester uses one to joke about the emperor’s fear of his shrewish wife, first alluding to a wife-cringing official and then pointing out that nobody could beat the emperor himself in this department.

The empress, far from being offended, looked pleased and rewarded the jester with silks, presumably feeling it didn’t harm her if everyone knew who wore the trousers.

Pei Tan, a censor in the reign of Emperor Tang Zhongzong 唐中宗 (r. 684 and 705-10), had a shrewish wife who terrified him.  The emperor’s wife, similarly intimidating, was a commoner who modelled herself on the sadistic Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705) and the emperor came to fear her.  At a palace banquet a jester sang a verse, saying that it was a great thing to fear one’s wife, referring to Pei Tan, but adding that within the palace nobody surpassed the emperor, whose family name was Li, for wife-induced quaking:

Oh whirling waves and wicker wares,

Great if your wife gives you the scares!

Outside the court there is only Pei Tan,

But within, no one surpasses Li Old Man.






The image is of the empress’ terrifying role model, the notorious Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705)


Source: Benshi shi 本事詩, by Meng Qi 孟啓 (fl.c. 841-86), in Gujin yishi 古今逸史, comp. Wu Guan 吳琯 (Taibei: Taiwan Commercial Press, 1969), vol. 20, fol. 1, pp. 21b-22a.

Image credit: 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes; originally published in China, 18th century (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231)


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