Monday, 28 February 2011

the proverbial fool

Nobody likes to be thought a fool, although this may be in part because the word has developed increasingly negative connotations over the past four centuries. I suspect a religious influence. In the Middle Ages, ‘fool’ was another name for the court jester, who was the mediaeval equivalent of a professional comedian, a man whose job it was to make his employer laugh.

In fact, there were two types of fool: the natural fool really was an idiot, and his humour would have been of the unsubtle, slapstick variety, much like the general buffoonery of the modern circus clown; the licensed fool, on the other hand, was not merely permitted to criticize and poke fun at his employer and his or her guests, he was expected to do so, in the process providing a social commentary in a series of short, witty phrases.

This can be seen most clearly in a dramatic portrayal of the relationship. The fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear repeatedly reminds the king that he made a mistake in renouncing his throne:
Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that
      thou wast born with. [Act I, Scene 4]
He is also a master of stating the obvious in a humorous way:
Fool: …The reason why the
      seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear: Because they are not eight?
Fool: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool. [Act I, Scene 5]
However, Shakespeare was not the only influence on the English language at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The first officially sanctioned translation of the Bible, the Authorized Version, was published in 1611. It was based largely on William Tyndale’s 1526 translation, which had been unauthorized and for which the unfortunate translator was burned at the stake for heresy. It quickly became apparent to the new audience that the biblical writers did not suffer fools gladly:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. [Proverbs 1:7]

How long…will…fools hate knowledge? [Proverbs 1:22]

It is as sport to a fool to do mischief…. [Proverbs 10:23]

…it is abomination to fools to depart from evil. [Proverbs 13:19]

A fool hath no delight in understanding…. [Proverbs 18:2]

Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words. [Proverbs 23:9]

He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool…. [Proverbs 28:26]
Note that some of these examples define rather than describe a fool. Clearly, the greatest of all follies was to reject the word of God. However, the early Stuart monarchs (James I and Charles I) continued to employ fools, and it was only with the ascent to power of the Puritans in 1649 that the practice was finally abandoned. One can surmise that these po-faced killjoys (they also forbade the celebration of Christmas) put an end to the role of official court jester because they disapproved of such frivolity, but it can be seen from the quotations above that there was substantial scriptural authority for such a move.

On the other hand, none of the many aphorisms in the Book of Proverbs can be regarded as widely used. The two best-known English proverbs about fools come from other sources:
…a foole and his money is soone parted.
Dr John Bridges, Defence of the Government of the Church of England, 1587.

Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709.
These are statements that have attained the status of folk wisdom, but they are merely statements. Their Chinese equivalents tend to have a story attached. They also follow a set formula: four characters that summarize the story (they are often referred to as ‘four-character idioms’, or chengyu).

One example that deals with apparent folly is yú gōng yí shān [‘foolish old man moves mountains’]. As with most chengyu, there is no standard text of the story, but the general thrust is as follows:
In ancient China, there was an old man who was annoyed that every visit to the provincial capital entailed a lengthy detour because the direct route was blocked by a substantial mountain range. He resolved to remove the mountains. He was aided in this endeavour by his sons and grandsons, but there were many scoffers. They asked the old man what he expected to achieve, given that he was already old and could not expect to succeed in his lifetime. He replied that after his death his sons and their sons, and their sons, and so on, would continue the work, while the mountains would grow no higher [he clearly hadn’t heard of plate tectonics], so in time the job would be done.
There is no agreement on how the story ends. In some versions, the old man’s neighbours, impressed by his diligence, join in and the mountains are eventually removed; in others, the immortals are moved by the old man’s perseverance, and they move the mountains for him. This chengyu would be used in the same way that an equivalent English proverb (such as ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’) would be used: to encourage someone who is daunted by a seemingly impossible task to persevere. It should not come as a surprise to learn that this was Mao Zedong’s favourite chengyu, used to exhort his fellow citizens to greater efforts, although if he used it during the Great Leap Forward his efforts must be judged a failure.

My own favourite chengyu is yān ēr dào líng (‘cover ears steal bell’). The story goes like this:
One day, an itinerant beggar was passing through an isolated village when he spied a beautifully polished bronze bell hanging above the outer gate of one of the houses.

“A-ha!” he said. “That’s a fine bell. I shall steal it and sell it in the next village.”

“Wait a minute,” he thought. “When I take down the bell it will start ringing, and that will alert the villagers.”

He pondered this dilemma for a few minutes before coming up with a solution.

“If I cover my ears while carrying the bell, I will not hear it ringing,” he proclaimed confidently to himself. “And this means that I can make my escape in silence, because the bell will not be ringing.”
Needless to say, the beggar’s plan didn’t work. The conventional explanation of how this chengyu should be used (to describe someone who thinks they are clever but aren’t) is incorrect. I was taught to use it as a comment when someone does something that is unutterably foolish.

A similar chengyu is kè zhōu qiú jiàn (‘drop sword mark boat’), which relates the story of a man who loses his sword while crossing a river in a boat. He cuts a notch in the side of the boat to indicate where he lost it. Again, it would normally be used to admonish someone who has just done something inconceivably stupid.

Chengyu were routinely taught in Hong Kong’s schools in the 1960s and 1970s, but this no longer happens. I have only one comment for the nameless official who thought it would be a good idea to drop this important aspect of Chinese cultural tradition from the curriculum: yim yee doh ling, which is the local (Cantonese) version of ‘cover ears steal bell’.


  1. Very interesting! The guy cutting a notch in his boat to indicate where he lost his sword, is a classic! I've known and even worked for a couple of "fools."
    A great post Dennis!

  2. I really enjoy your commentaries on Western and Eastern traditions, and the way you bring the two together. On first impressions, I thought there must be so many more of these sorts of stories from Chinese tradition, but on reflection we have many too but hardly notice it! I guess they have their own signature type too.

  3. It seems to me that the word fool has gone out of style. I just don't here: "You're a fool" or "damn fool" or "That was foolish" as much as I used to. And now that I think about it, I really like the word.

  4. We're all fools at one time or another Pat!

    There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of these chengyu Ben. I might introduce a few more.

    I agree Bruce. Especially when used as a verb: "You can fool all the people some of the time...."

  5. Tis been a while, Dennis. Just resting your proverbial pen, I hope.

  6. I’ve had some annoying distractions lately Bruce, but rest assured that I have quite a few (already half-written) posts up my sleeve, and I hope to find time to finish off some at least fairly soon.


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