Two common features of the jester come together in this anecdote: resilience and quick wittedness. The emperor’s idea of a joke, giving his jester a dunking underwater, is a bit schoolboy-bullyish, but the jester reacts so cheerily and cleverly that he wins hiimself a handsome reward.
Unusually for Chinese accounts, it also mentions that the jester excelled in ‘acting the fool’. Usually, in praising Chinese fools, they are more likely to mention a ready wit or the willingness to use humour to criticize.
At the court of Emperor Jingzong of the Tang 唐敬宗 (r. 825-27), the jester Gao Cuiwei 高崔嵬 (Tall Towering Mountain) excelled in acting the fool. For a joke the emperor ordered that his head be pushed underwater. He was held for quite a while and when he came up for air, he was laughing about it. The emperor was amazed and asked him what was so funny. Towering Mountain explained that he had seen Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BCE), the famous minister who drowned himself in the Miluo River because his king was ruling badly and refused to heed his good counsel. The jester claimed Qu Yuan had said to him:
`I was landed with King Huai of Chu [r. 328-299 BC] who lacked virtue, so I drowned myself in the Miluo River. You’re lucky enough to have met with a sage emperor, so what are you doing here?’ The emperor laughed and rewarded him with a hundred bolts of silk.
敬宗時，高崔嵬善弄癡大。帝令給使撩頭向水下。良久出，而笑之。 帝問，曰：『見屈原，云：「我逢楚懷王，無道！乃沉汨羅水； 汝逢聖明主，何為來？」』 帝大笑，賜物百段。
Source: Chaoye qianzai bu 朝野僉載補, anon. (Tang), fol. 6, quoted in Youyuji 優語集, ed. & comp. Ren Erbei 任二北 (Shanghai: Wenyi Chubanshe, 1981; repr. 1982), p. 47, in which he also cites several other versions of this `I saw Qu Yuan’ joke, including some attributing the witticism to another jester. Bei Qi shu, by Li Baiyao (565-648), fol. 15, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 263, pp. 115b-21b.
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