Po-faced poet

There are several anecdotes concerning exchanges between jesters and the renowned Chinese poet, Su Dongpo 苏東坡 (1036-1101), with the former poking fun at Su with a view to getting a laugh out of him.  In this account, they initially fail to amuse him, until one of them puns on some of the poet’s lines, suggesting a level of literary sophistication as well as wit.

Quote - Yang Wanli - Chengzhai Ji

On one occasion Su Dongpo attended a banquet at which jesters were putting on all kinds of tricks, none of which made him laugh.


A jester suddenly appeared brandishing a club or slapstick with which he began cudgelling the performers while yelling at them, `The Hanlin Academician [Su Dongpo] is not laughing, and you call yourselves fine jesters!’  Another jester answered, `”It’s not that he’s not laughing, it’s that in not laughing he’s laughing all the more!”‘  Dongpo then burst out laughing.



The jester adapted a line of Su’s to cure his po-face: Su Dongpo’s line referred to how a monarch should rule, advocating a less-is-more approach, and the jester simply replaced `rule’ with `laugh’.

Source: Chengzhai ji  誠齋集, fol. 115, by Yang Wanli 楊萬里 (1124-1206), Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1480, pp. 736b-37a. 

Image credit: Bronze figure of an entertainer (5th c. BCE), China; Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art Collection, Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment


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