"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Like their European counterparts, Chinese jesters aimed at anything deemed sacrosanct, mocking their sovereign's enemies and friends."
When Emperor Er Shi Huangdi (二世皇帝) (r. 209-207 BCE) decided to lacquer the Great Wall, his dwarf jester, You Zhan (優旃) (Twisty Pole), praised the idea. "Magnificent! Smooth and shiny! Too slippery for any invaders to climb over!" And now the punchline, "How big will the drying room need to be?" That was the end of that project.
Then when King Zhuang of Chu (楚莊王) (r. 613-591 BCE) favourite horse died from overfeeding, he ordered a full state funeral and wouldn't listen to objections. He threatened death to anyone who disagreed. But Jester Meng (優孟) entered the king's presence, weeping.
"It's that horse of yours, Majesty," he sobbed. "You loved him so much. Great Emperor, anything you wish is yours for the asking. Yet all you desire is a proper burial. I beg you to give him all the honours due a monarch, including land for 10,000 households bestowed on his descendants. And by these gestures, the world will know that Your Majesty prizes horses above mere men."
The Emperor paused, realising his foolishness and asked how he may rectify the situation. Meng suggested, "An immense cauldron as a coffin, some ginger, the most expensive rice, and a final resting place in the bellies of men." The Emperor laughed. Such indirect criticism, packaged as humour in riddles, verses or skits, was known as guifeng or fengjian.
In ancient China and medieval Europe, the role of the court jester was to entertain the court and amuse the royals and guests. But they also enjoyed "jester's privilege", which allowed them to mock and speak freely under certain circumstances. So, besides singing storytelling, acrobatics, and juggling, the court jesters sometimes acted as advisors and critics for the monarchs.
Some held positions of privilege and influence, accompanying sovereigns to treaty negotiations and weddings. Some were keepers of secrets not safely committed to paper acting as trusted envoys.
China has a 2,000-year jester tradition that began between 770 and 476 BC. They sported excellent names; Baldy Chunyu, Moving Bucket, Wild Pig, Mole, Fitting New Bridle, Going Round in Circles, Subtle Reformer King, and Flawless Jade.
Chinese jesters aimed at anything deemed sacrosanct like their European counterparts, mocking their sovereign's enemies and friends. They laughed at the wise and challenged the virtuous. Not even Lao Tze or the Buddha was spared. For example, Surpassable Li, a jester to the Tang Dynasty court of Yizong (860-74), created an irreverent argument that Confucius was a woman.
Throughout history, jesters used humour to highlight a monarch's shortcomings, providing a rare breath of fresh air for rulers surrounded by sycophants. To these ends, they needed to be able to make their responsibility-laden employers laugh.
The expression wu guo chi – "fools of no offence" – is the nickname for jesters. But as comedians throughout time are well aware, knowing how far to push the envelope is an inexact science with shifting variables. Speaking truth to power will always be a paradoxical privilege. There were instances when a line was crossed. The result came in banishment, imprisonment, or worse. In several cases, an execution was evaded by the same silver tongue that had led to the fix in the first place.
There are several recorded examples of jesters helping to expose corruption at court. In 1499, aware that the chief civil service examiner was accepting bribes from candidates seeking the answers to the exam, the court jesters decided to act. They organised a wordplay game that turned on "cooked" and "uncooked pig's feet," homophones for "seen" and "unseen questions."
Parading before the Emperor with a tray, one of the jesters hawked his wares: "Buy my trotters!" Someone asked, "How much?" An enormous sum was quoted. "Why so expensive?"
"Because," the vendor explained, "these are all cooked trotters (shu ti), not raw ones (sheng ti)." The court erupted, and the Emperor realised what was afoot.
We don't have jesters these days, yet comedians and cartooning are often equated with the canary in the free speech coal mine. "We need humour like we need the air we breathe," notes Patrick Chappatte, a multi-award-winning talent whose "cartoon" reportage has raged from the war in Gaza and the slums of Nairobi to gang violence in Central America and the nasty aspects of Silicon Valley culture.
In July 2019, the New York Times, having won a Pulitzer for political cartooning in 2018, suddenly cut all political cartooning. A social media uproar erupted over an image reprinted from a Lisbon newspaper. The cartoon had Donald Trump, blind and wearing a yarmulke, led by Israeli President Netanyahu, depicted as a guide dog wearing a Star of David collar.
As a result, all its cartoonists lost their jobs over a cartoon they didn't draw. The New York Times decided on self-censorship to calm the waters. Yet, critics argue that political cartoons are meant to be thought-provoking. They assert that satire breathes fresh air into the hothouse corridors of power; it points to the Emperor and dares to proclaim, "He's naked!"
Still, it can prove a dangerous business. In January 2015, Islamist gunmen attacked the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo – an irreverent, satirical weekly that has poked fun at everything from Catholicism and Judaism to Charles de Gaulle – because it published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. Twelve people were killed in the deadliest terrorist attack in France in 50 years.
And yet, there will always be a lot that deserves mocking or cut down to size. For instance, in recent days, former transport secretary Frank Chan compared district council members to domestic helpers earning a well-deserved lambasting. After all, a decent domestic helper is far more valuable.
Arguably, those in power need jesters as much as they ever did.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.