Here are some passages from a Chinese play that my friend Edward and I have been laughing about for many years. It’s called ‘Autumn in the Palace of Han’ by Ma Chih-yuan. We found it in an anthology of Chinese literature edited by Cyril Birch.
The funniest character is a guy named Mao Yen-shou, who is remarkably candid. He starts out with a song:
“I have a hawk’s claws and a vulture’s beak.
I deceive the great and oppress the weak.
Thanks to flattery and an avaricious bent,
I’ve built a fortune too huge to be spent.”
Then he tells us about his plans:
“I am no other person than Mao Yen-shou. I serve the Han court as middle counsellor. I have employed a hundred arts of deceit and steady flattery to dupe that old man, the emperor, and I keep him in sufficiently good spirits.
“My words are heeded; my plans are followed. Within and without the court, is there a man who does not respect me, does not fear me?
“I have been studying a new plan: if I can persuade the emperor to devote as little time as possible to his learned ministers, and to give himself instead to fleshly pleasures, my command over the imperial favor will truly be secure.”
Then the emperor comes in and Mao Yen-shou makes his proposal:
“Your majesty, even a country fellow, when he harvests ten more loads of wheat than he had expected, will want to get a new wife. Why should your majesty, whose rank is supreme, and whose riches encompass the nation, not enjoy as much. Would it not be wise to send an official throughout the empire to select maidens for the palace?
“These girls should be chosen without respect to their families’ position, the only condition being that they are between fifteen and twenty years of age, and of pleasing features.
“You should fill the women’s palace with the maidens selected. What objection could there be to such a plan?”