Some of the most startling examples of a jester’s being impudent to the point of lèse-majesté can be found in anecdotes concerning Emperor Zhuangzong of the Later Tang (r. 923-26) and Jing Xinmo 鏡新磨 (Newly Polished Mirror). This brassy jester constantly pushed his luck and almost paid for it, but always managed to talk his way out of trouble. This was the crux of his success: he made Zhuangzong laugh so that he could not bring himself to punish the jester. Not only that, he ended up being generously rewarded.
Like other similar anecdotes, it belies the image of the Chinese emperor as being frozen in aspic formality, painting a somewhat more intimate picture of the imperial court.
But here is Newly Polished Mirror just about overstepping the mark (again). On one occasion the emperor was fooling around with a group of entertainers and
‘… looking all around him he said, `Son of Heaven Li! Where’s Son of Heaven Li?’ – referring to himself. Newly Polished Mirror rushed forward and slapped him across the face. Zhuangzong turned ashen and the courtiers were all terrified and the crowd of entertainers, also panic-stricken, seized the jester and asked `Just what d’you think you’re playing at, slapping the Son of Heaven in the face?’ Newly Polished Mirror answered simply, `But there is only one Son of Heaven Li, so who was asking for him?’ Thereupon the courtiers all laughed and Zhuangzong was delighted and rewarded Newly Polished generously.’
四顧而呼曰：「李天下！李天下何在？ 」新磨遽前以手批其頰。莊宗失色，左右皆恐群伶亦大驚駭。共持新磨诘曰：「汝奈何批天子頰？」新磨對曰：「李天下者一人而已，復誰呼耶？」於是左右皆笑，莊宗大喜，賜 與新磨甚厚。
Source: `Lingguan zhuan’ 伶官傳, in Wudai shi 五代史記 (The Historical Records of the Five Dynasties), by Ouyang Xiu 歐陽脩 (1007-72) and others, fol. 37, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 279, p. 229a; trans. Beatrice Otto.
Image credit: Emperor Zhuangzong of the Later Tang. Hanging scroll, color on silk. The painting is located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.