As far as anyone could prove, ancient China had no equivalent to April Fool’s Day, and even the word humor, 幽默 (yōumò), is said to have been transliterated from English by the writer Lin Yutang (林语堂), who first used the term in an article by Chen Bao newspaper in 1924.

But whether or not there was a word for them, Chinese history was still full of pranksters, cheats and comedians. We’ve scoured the records and here are three of the best historical pranks we’ve found:

Qian Zhongshu pranks his pretentious family with French “sugar”

Renowned writer Qian Zhongshu (钱钟书) had no time for the pretentiousness of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan people, satirizing their use of foreign culture to boost their status in his much-loved novel besieged fortress of 1947. But this annoyance came from a personal experience.

After a long period spent studying in the UK and France, Qian returned to China in 1936, first visiting his family home in Wuxi (just north of Shanghai). He was sickened to see how pompous his third uncle, who now ran the household in the absence of his father and second uncle, had become. His uncle often displayed his cosmopolitanism with long monologues at the table, while his guests “smashed their sentences with French and English swear words, when one of our Shanghainese would do just as well”, Qian wrote to a friend in September. 1936.

“He has heard of a British apple called ‘Pink Lady’ and assumes its color and shape match the description,” Qian continued in the letter, which was later published in the anthology. Limited Knowledge: Essays on Ideas and Letters in 1989. “Last weekend he described in detail the apples he simpered sent to him by a British business acquaintance, and how an 18th century gardener had perfected the form of the Pink Lady, modeled on the voluptuous curves of his master’s wife.”

The uncle’s colorful lies and the guests’ flattering nods infuriated Qian. To teach them all a lesson, Qian bought a box of purple powder pigment and placed it in a jar with a French label (washing powder advertising). He told his family that it was a present sent by a friend who had just returned from abroad and that it was the last fashionable cooking ingredient in Paris, a type of sugar made from candied violets. The family waited until their next dinner to use it, asking the servants to bake croissants with them, served a brilliant shade of mauve. “The third uncle pushed the pastry,” Qian noted in his diary, “and trilled them [the guests] on the history of croissants, colored purple since the 1870s to honor the fall of the Paris Commune.

Qian then happily recorded how the uncle and the guests smiled sweat through the sour and bitter taste of the acrylic-infused pastry. The uncle regularly mentioned the delicious taste of the pastries to future guests afterwards, sadly telling them that if only he had met them then, they would have been entitled to a share. The “sugar” jar actually remained untouched in the family pantry, until the family fled the impending Japanese invasion in 1937. Returning to the situation, in an essay in Limited knowledgeQian liked to imagine a Japanese colonel finding the jar, and falling into the same trap.

Li Qingzhao gets burned by a jealous official

The Song dynasty (960 – 1279) had many poetesses, but we will never know exactly how many: In Voices of the Song Lyric in Chinaformer Yale University professor Kang-i Sun Chang wrote that educated women in the Song dynasty burned their work for fear “of exposing their poetic talents to the outside world”.

But Li Qingzhao (李清照), poetic legend of the time, proudly read his in public. These were bold, often provocative lines: at just 17, she snubbed the established belief of master poets of the time that the previous Tang dynasty (618 – 907) was infallible – her verses involved the downfall of the dynasty due to weaknesses. and corrupt leaders.

But a courtier apparently took personal offense to Li’s beards and set out to exact revenge. Li recorded in her remarkably detailed afterword to her husband’s treatise Discs on metal and stone, how the man, called only Zhao, tried to humiliate him: It was almost 大寒 (dàhán, “great cold”), the 24th and last solar term of the year, and Zhao said that “A this [poetic lines sung to music, popular at parties and one of Li’s specialties] would warm the court. He told Li that he wanted to get his job back and use it to entertain the officials when the coldest part of the year came around.

Flattered and expecting Zhao to read her life’s work, Li handed over a selection of manuscripts. But on the evening of the “big cold,” at a banquet of local officials, Zhao stood before the assembled courtiers, praised Li to the heavens, and then set fire to his manuscripts. “He honored my obedience,” Li fumed in Discs on metal and stone. “That for the new year I had chosen a path of heavenly harmony.” To the sound of gongs and the roar of stringed instruments, he gently placed Li’s manuscripts on a bronze coffin and set them on fire.

Historian Gavin Johnson of the University of Warwick suggested in a 2018 article for the Journal of Chinese Literature that “in a time before MeToo, [Zhao] made a joke intended to shame, putting Li in his “place”.

“But maybe we should thank Zhao: if not for her very public bashing, Li might never have pushed herself to compose so many this as she did later,” Johnson wrote.

The Yuan Dynasty Butcher Who Infiltrated an Army

Usually, the legal records of Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing) in the Yuan dynasty are, as expected, dry and dusty. They would probably have been forgotten by popular history had it not been for a moment of tersely worded comedy, circa 1308, during the reign of Emperor Wuzong, the great-great-grandson of Kublah Khan. . Among sinologists it is politely referred to as the “T15-H” case, after the file under which it was found by Cambridge University archivists in 1932:

“Yu Lingjun, butcher, sentenced to death for infiltrating the army of prostitutes, disguised as a servant. Defendant’s defense that he liked to dress as a woman and broke into the wrong building – invalid. »

In the Travels of Marco Polo, the early 14th-century Venetian explorer had described with wonder the army of prostitutes – led by a “captain”, with deputies in charge of “every hundred thousand” – among whom one member a night would be assigned to heat the beds of foreign dignitaries visiting the imperial court. “It may be possible,” wrote Joseph Needham in The Great Migration, “that the petty merchants of the great city looked enviously upon the army, generally hand-picked throughout the empire for their beauty. The T15-H case proves that at least one had the courage to break in, but perhaps not the learning to explain themselves.