My horse, my horse

Jester Meng 優孟 is one of the Chinese jesters immortalized in what may be the world’s first historical study of jesters, by China’s Herodotus Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC).  He served King Zhuang of Chu 楚莊王 (r. 613-591 BCE) and Sima Qian gives several lively accounts of his indirect interventions.  This account was so well known that well over 1,000 years later it was cited as a reference point for a jester using humour to change a ruler’s behaviour. 

Quotation - Sima Qian 司馬遷 - Shiji 史記 - 滑稽列傳

Jester Meng uses the classic technique of reductio ad absurdum in which the fool goes overboard in supporting royal plans (or whims), allowing the boss to conclude for themselves that they’ve gone too far. 

For similar examples, see Jing Xinmo (Newly Polished Mirror), or another 10th century jester whose name hasn’t been preserved. 

Jester Meng of the Kingdom of Chu was originally a musician.  Quick-witted, he often gave indirect advice in the guise of a joke.  The king had a favourite horse which he cosseted until it died of overweight.  He arranged for the horse to be buried with all the ceremony due to a dignitary and when some of his courtiers tried to suggest that this was a little excessive he issued a decree stating that `whoever dares to submit contrary advice to me about my horse will be committing a crime to be punished by death’.  Jester Meng entered the king’s presence and, looking up to heaven, cried his eyes out.  The king was shocked and asked what was the matter:

“It’s that horse of yours, Your Majesty,” sobbed Meng.  “You loved him so much.  With a great powerful nation like Chu at your disposal anything you want is yours for the asking.  Yet all you’re giving him is a minister’s burial.  That’s a bit shabby.  I beg you to bury him with the rites customarily accorded a monarch.”

He then listed all the sumptuous arrangements necessary to give the beloved horse a suitably impressive burial, including bestowing on his descendants a fief of ten thousand households, before ending innocently with the words, `Then, when the rulers of the other states in the world hear of this, they will all know that Your Majesty prizes horses above mere men!’  The king realized his folly and asked the jester how to make good his error, then following Meng’s advice to:

“Let a clay oven serve as his outer coffin, and a bronze tripod cauldron as his inner coffin.  Shower him reverently with ginger and dates, strew offerings of magnolia upon him, and sacrifice the purest white rice around him.  Enshroud him with the light of a fire, and lay him to rest in the bellies of men.”

 

優孟,故楚之樂人也。長八尺,多辯,常以談笑諷諫。楚莊王之時,有所愛馬,衣以文繡,置之華屋之下,席以露床,啗以棗脯。馬病肥死,使群臣喪之,欲以棺槨大夫禮葬之。左右爭之,以為不可。王下令曰:「有敢以馬諫者,罪至死。」優孟聞之,入殿門。仰天大哭。王驚而問其故。優孟曰:「馬者王之所愛也,以楚國堂堂之大,何求不得,而以大夫禮葬之,薄,請以人君禮葬之。」王曰:「何如?」對曰:「臣請以彫玉為棺,文梓為槨,楩楓豫章為題湊,發甲卒為穿壙,老弱負土,齊趙陪位於前,韓魏翼衛其后,廟食太牢,奉以萬戶之邑。諸侯聞之,皆知大王賤人而貴馬也。」王曰:「寡人之過一至此乎!為之柰何?」優孟曰:「請為大王六畜葬之。以壟灶為槨,銅歷為棺,齎以薑棗,薦以木蘭,祭以糧稻,衣以火光,葬之於人腹腸。」於是王乃使以馬屬太官,無令天下久聞也。

 

Source: `Guji liezhuan’ 滑稽列傳, in Shiji 史記, by Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145-86 BC), annot. Pei Yin 裴駰 (Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), vol. 10, fol. 126, p. 3200; trans. by Dolby, ‘Jesters’, p. 17 and in War Lords, trans. by William Dolby and John Scott (Edinburgh: Southside, 1974), pp. 162-63.

Image credit: Giuseppe Castiglioni, ‘Handscroll of the Qianlong Emperor receiving tribute horses from Tartar envoys’ (1757), public domain.

 

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