Comedies from the State of Qin

Li Jing

Illustration by Emily S. Franklin


233 B.C.E. and later


MO LI:  Official historian, playwright, head of a theatre troupe, thirty-nine years old at the beginning of the play
HAN FEIZI:  (280–233) Guest minister at the Qin court, royal clansman at the Han court, legalist thinker and anti-intellectualist
MINISTER LI SI:  (284–208) Long-serving officer, born in a lower class in the State of Chu, former classmate of Han Feizi
KING YING:  (259–210) King of the State of Qin, the future Qin Shihuang
DU HENG:  Actress, nineteen years old
WU BAO:  Senior fellow, apprentice of Du Heng
ZHAO GAO:  The chamberlain who keeps record of the emperor’s daily life


( . . . )

HAN FEIZI (fixing his sweater):  Next, let’s have a look at another core concept in politics—the King. If one opposes him, then we have to deal with another edgy political core concept—the people. The concepts of “King” and “people” originate from opposite forms of human existence, one noble, the other ignoble; one wise, the other ignorant; one authoritarian, the other powerless; one omnipotent, the other deficient . . . to cut a long story short, the King confronts a primitive form of existence, whereas the people confront a superior form of existence. Heaven has no mercy. For the sake of balancing and conserving the energies of the universe, Heaven has always disposed of the ignoble, ignorant, powerless, and deficient organisms, while sacrificing for the noble, wise, authoritarian, and omnipotent ones. This is the purpose of the universe; this is the law of the universe.

All men anchored in the cosmic order should be able to recognize their own position and destiny and choose to sacrifice themselves or accept the sacrifice of others. If a man of low class ignores his own position and destiny and refuses to sacrifice himself, then another man who is nobler, wiser, more powerful, and omnipotent has to lead him into making the right decisions. If the nobleman has a womanly kindness and refuses to accept the sacrifices of the man of a lower class, then he is not fit to be King, either. It will serve him right to have the fate of “the people” trampled upon by the will of others.

WU BAO:  The fate of “the people”?

KING YING (striking a pose):  Sounds really, really scary!

HAN FEIZI (oblivious, fixes his sweater and continues):  Majesty, your humble servant ever since Xunzi . . . (Gives MO LI a meaningful look.) Mr. Mo, are you familiar with Xunzi?

MO LI:  Oh, Xunzi is my . . .


MO LI:  My former idol.

HAN FEIZI:  Do you have anything more to say?

MO LI:  Nothing more.

HAN FEIZI:  Mr. Mo, you may have more.

MO LI:  Great Han, I really have no more.

HAN FEIZI:  All right then, we should save this topic for later discussions. Your Majesty, your servant mentions Xunzi only because your servant once studied all forms of government known to humankind—monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, representative democracy, republic, presidential system, military dictatorship, etc., etc., etc.—at his private school. After a detailed comparison, your servant realized that the most advanced, effective, and likely government to embody the will of the cosmos has always been monarchy—absolute domination by the King. Why “the King”? (Gets down on his knees, caught up in fatherly affection, entranced, as if he were a passionate singer. WU BAO, also immersing himself in the role, exuberantly gets down on his knees and won’t get up despite DU HENG’s tugging, mimics HAN FEIZI’s rhythm and grimaces.) He is the commander of the masses, the sun of mankind, the lawmaker of the universe, the order-maker, the mentor of the human soul, the patron of granting life and death, the mercurial father, the mystery impossible to decipher. He is God, he is Heaven, he is Dao, he is the Supreme One. His immense energy makes the stars around him glide in harmonious and automatic movement. His powerful state and his great nation are his careless children. If that is his wish, then the people shall live and work in peace and contentment under his grace; all creatures shall dance delicately to his music; the high mountains shall go flat on his order; oceans and seas shall turn into mountainous ranges at his volition . . . if that is his wish. He is ultimate freedom. The very essence of existence. Except for his freedom, there is no other freedom. Except for his sense, there is no other sense. If the King were weak and incompetent, he’d be like the sun losing his light and gravity; the entire solar system would fall apart. The world would split into countless countries until every person would be a country unto himself, and since not every person can govern, not every person can be governed, either. What a world of strife and depravity that would be! After years and years of war, the people shall be destitute—and all of this springs from that disobedient tongue.

WU BAO:  Disobedient tongue . . .

KING YING (silent for a short moment):  Minister Han and his fancy words attract the King’s admiration, though he understands not a single thing. Apparently, before you took up politics, you studied literature. Did you?

(LI SI laughs coldly.)

HAN FEIZI (embarrassed):  Civilian officials, historians, literary critics, philosophers, they all go hand in hand.

WU BAO:  All go hand in hand . . .

KING YING:  And your central argument is?

(HAN FEIZI is at a loss.)

WU BAO:  Indeed, the central argument . . .

LI SI:  His central argument is “digression.”

KING YING:  The central argument is more orgasmic than sex. Minister Han, the concubines have already cautioned me, if the foreplay is too long, then the climax fades away.

(LI SI and WU BAO laugh loudly; MO LI and DU HENG stifle their laughter. HAN FEIZI chokes, ashamed and resentful. The gentry stands still and unshakable.)

KING YING:  Oh, I was just cracking a joke. Of course, there are other concubines who say, “outstanding foreplay is its own climax.” The brilliant remarks that you have just made prove that they are not liars. You are worthy of being called the world’s greatest philosopher.

HAN FEIZI (displays cold politeness):  I am humbled and do not really deserve such an honor.

KING YING:  Et après?


KING YING:  Your central argument is?

HAN FEIZI (pauses, fixes his sweater):  My central argument is, pluck out all thorny tongues.

WU BAO:  Thorny tongues . . .

KING YING:  Too obscure, I don’t understand.

HAN FEIZI:  I will illustrate.

KING YING:  Please do.

HAN FEIZI:  Let’s take the example of Mr. Mo Li. With his preposterously absurd farce, he subverts authority, generates mockery, poisons cognition, spreads ill intentions against the King’s authority. His tongue is as venomous as it is thorny. This tongue’s venom would turn the whole city of Xianyang upside down, people would lose their heads, common folks’ minds would lose morale, in great defiance of the monarchy. His ideology is the exact opposite of mine.

MO LI:  His Majesty the King . . .

KING YING:  I like it that Minister Han is forthright. Even if he sides with his own fellows and disposes of dissenters, he is still fair and square.

LI SI:  Your Brilliant Majesty the King, Great Han loathes siding with his own fellows and disposing of dissenters.

HAN FEIZI:  Your Majesty the King, thus spoke I: side we not with our own fellows and dispose of dissenters, the truth shall be revealed to all. Your humble subject reckons the doctrine of the monarch is analogous. His Majesty is the incarnation of Heaven, Heaven is the soul of his Majesty. Mr. Mo Li reckons the King is under Heaven, and he is subject to its rule just like mortals; I reckon only the King is entitled to unlimited freedom—because he is wise, commoners will just follow him—because they are dumb, abiding order can be established, and order is the premise for the development of the country. Mr. Mo Li reckons the King’s freedom should be limited—because the King could also be dumb and the freedom of the commoners should be respected—because they, too, could be wise. Order is established through restricting power, otherwise, it’s worthless and it cannot last long. I reckon class is fated by Heaven, and the hapless should sacrifice for the noble; Mr. Mo Li reckons all men are born equal; a noble man should have no right to sacrifice the humble. Your Majesty, in All under Heaven, there is no more poisonous thought and no more hollow a lie than “equality.” Not only does this weaken the authority of the King, but it leads All under Heaven straight into chaos. The common people should know that the King’s absolute authority is by no means for the King’s sake, but rather for the peace of All under Heaven. The King has an equal position with God, only thus can he undertake the mighty Mandate of Heaven. This balderdash Mr. Mo Li, with his eloquence, stirs up the commoners of Xianyang and obstructs the Mandate of Heaven! Such a tongue spreading venomous thorns—how can I not pluck it out?

KING YING (silent for a bit):  Perhaps Minister Han exaggerates slightly?

MO LI:  Your Brilliant Majesty! Please allow the commoners to argue for themselves . . .

DU HENG:  Your Majesty . . .

KING YING:  Actually, there is no need to argue . . .

LI SI:  Your Majesty, Great Han has always craved greatness and success. He likes to use alarmist theatrical effects in this play to satisfy his pitiful vanity. Of course, this is understandable. After all, talking and talking and talking is not really that easy, but I believe debating politics is not like acting in a play. You can’t just throw aside common sense for the sake of pursuing one-sided theatrical effects.

KING YING:  What Minister Li wants to convey is: nobody, no matter how virtuous and powerful, can possibly adjust to the high-level vision of God.

LI SI:  Pas du tout! Your Majesty, “the doctrine of the monarch is analogous” is the only valuable perspective that he has exposed. This is my own standard quintessential idea. I used to have debates with Great Han, but as soon as he would become anxious, the whole discussion would come to an end.

HAN FEIZI:  Great Li, you, you, you . . .

LI SI:  He just does not interpret it thoroughly. Not even close! The King and the Way of Heaven are One. This is a complex, profound, and enormous theory about the system. It requires a tremendous amount of common sense to be able to interpret the hearts of humans. How can one speak casually while using boastful, pretentious words in an informal situation? Great Han, you plagiarize so recklessly and so hastily my important theoretical research. I wonder what you’re up to?

HAN FEIZI:  Li Si, you, you, you . . .

LI SI:  This is a matter I will not elaborate upon for the time being. But as far as Mr. Mo Li, his play, and the question of tongue and thorns are concerned, my humble self reckons . . . (Mutters to himself.) . . .

KING YING:  Speak up!

LI SI:  It’s far better to pluck out the thorns than to pluck out the tongue itself.

KING YING:  I don’t get it.

LI SI (looking at MO LI):  Uprooting and cutting out such healthy tongues would upset the commoners. People’s hearts could feel offended, but it is not right if they feel too offended. What exactly could make them feel too offended? Not draconian laws. Draconian laws have no effect on their body . . . nor does injustice. Injustice hasn’t yet fallen upon their shoulders. But to deprive them of fun and not allowing them to laugh!

translated from the Chinese by Andreea Chirita