Not half!

There are two strikingly similar accounts of jesters intervening when someone in authority had the bright idea to cut somebody else’s pay by half.  Here we share the first of these, used by a Chinese jester at the court of Song Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-26).  Soon we will feature a similar tale relating to a French jester 500 years later.

This is an example of a jester or a group of jesters using a short skit to act out a situation wittily, in order to bring the ruler’s attention to a problem, giving them chance to rectify it.  

Quotation - Duxing zazhi 獨醒雜志 - Ceng Minxing 曾敏行

In China such skits were a kind of proto-drama, and a key term for ‘jester’, you 優, also came to mean ‘actor’. 

There were agricultural shortages and it was suggested that the part of the mandarin salary which was paid in grain should be halved.  Visual and verbal puns on the character xing 行 meaning both `to walk’ and `to carry out’ or `put into practice’ were used to quash this idea:

A jester dressed up as a mandarin and started removing his hat, his belt and the skirt of his robe until he was only half dressed.  The other jesters wondered at this and asked him what he was doing.  `Cutting down by half!’  He put both his legs into one trouser leg, and hopped forward.  He was again questioned about it, and again he answered, `Cutting down by half!’  The jester who asked gave a long sigh and said, `Although you’ve got cutting down by half to a “T”, you just don’t realize how crippling it’ll be!’  This story was passed around the palace and the suggestion [to halve the grain pay] was abandoned.

 

又大農告乏時,有獻廩俸減半之議。優人乃為衣冠之士,自冠帶衣裾被身之物輒除其半,眾怪而問之,則曰:「減半。」已則兩足共穿半褲,輕足而來前。復問之,則又曰:「減半。」問者乃長歎曰:「但知減半,豈料難行。」語傳禁中,亦遂罷議。

 

Source: Source: Duxing zazhi 獨醒雜志, by Ceng Minxing曾敏行 (d. 1178), fol. 9, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1039, p.579a.

Photo credit: Hans at pixabay

 

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