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Ancient China: Yu Sze
According to legend, Chinese national hero Yu Sze was the jester of Emperor Shih Huang-Ti, who oversaw the construction of the Great Wall of China. Thousands of lives were lost building the Wall, and the Emperor decided to have it painted - which would have cost even more. Yu Sze mocked the Emperor into abandoning the plan.



Nasr-ed-Din Hodja, from an illustrated 17th century book

Turkey: Nasreddin Hodja
Historical/legendary jester of Tamerlane, 13th century Turkey, and probably the most famous Islamic jester. Nasreddin can be found spelt many different ways, including Nasrettin, Nasrudin, Nasr-id-deen, Nasr-eddin, Nasirud-din, Nasr-ud-Din; Hodja means teacher or scholar. Nasreddin was possibly a real imam, although the stories attributed to him are generic folktales and it is highly unlikely that they originated with him.

'One day the king glimpsed himself and a mirror, and saddened at how old he looked, started crying. The other members of the court decided they had better cry as well. When the king stopped crying, everyone else stopped crying as well, except Nasr-ed-Din. When the king asked Nasr why he was still crying, he replied, "Sire, you looked at yourself in the mirror but for a moment and you cried. I have to look at you all the time." Nasr-ed-Din Hodja has become a Turkish folk figure, and a festival dedicated to him is held every year in Aksheir, where his tomb is.'


Birbal - illustration from children's book by James Moseley

India: Birbal
Raja Birbal (Birbal "The wise"), Minister, courtier and friend to Akbar, the mighty Moghul Emperor of India (1556-1605 A.D.) It is said that Birbal was a poor brahmin and that it was only on the strength of wit and sharpness of his intellect that he could rise that high in the Moghul empire as favourite courtier, personal friend and chief minister - to be known as Raja Birbal. Birbal was killed in the battle of Khandhar in 1588. The tales of Birbal and Akbar are still much-loved Indian children's folktales today.



Lan Ts'ai-ho

Chinese mythology: Lan Ts'ai-ho
Lan Ts'ai-ho is one of the eight-strong pantheon of immortals (the Pa Hsien) from ancient Chinese Daoism. He is a minstrel; his emblem is a lute, flute or flower basket; he represents the poor and also gardeners/florists. The origin, indeed the sex of Lan Ts'ai-ho, is obscure - he is referred to as either androgynous or a transvestite, a woman or a young boy. It is said, "Though he was a man, he did not understand how to be one".

Supposedly of the Tang dynasty, he roamed around in tatty blue gown, a black wooden belt and one only shoe. In summer he wore padded under clothes and in winter he slept in the snow. He wrote and sang songs about his disillusionment with life and the ways of humankind, as well as he would also sing songs to tell of the beauty of the tao. One day, after drinking too heavily at an inn, he passed out and was taken to heaven (on a cloud, according to some legend, or carried off by a stork, according to others)

While on holiday in China, I visited a Daoist temple and spotted Lan Ts'ai-ho in a frieze of the Eight Immortals - click here to see the pictures.




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