According to the sources of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a certain dwarf named Actor Zhan served in the courts of the First (r. 221-210 BCE) and Second (r. 210-207 BCE) Qin Emperors of China. Zhan’s job description was something akin to the Western idea of a court jester—he navigated a fine line with his humor, joking about the emperor’s poor ideas, while staying respectful enough to keep his head intact. His goal was not only to make the emperors laugh, but to also inform them of their mistakes so that these could be corrected.
Sima Qian recorded a few tales in which Actor Zhan played a prominent role. One of the stories was set on a cold, rainy day when the First Emperor was holding a banquet in his palace. While the emperor was hearing toasts and receiving cheers to his health from the important guests, all of the guardsmen were shivering in their soaked uniforms out on the palace steps. Taking pity on the guards, Actor Zhan made a quip about how blessed a dwarf he was to be able to lounge in the comfort of the palace while brave and valiant soldiers were left to freeze in the cold downpour. Enlightened to the situation, the First Emperor directed the guards to split into shifts, so that they were not all in the rain at the same time.
In another story, the First Emperor supposedly had the bizarre idea of converting most of the land around the capital city of Xianyang into one huge royal hunting park, even to the extent of displacing military garrisons and defenses. Actor Zhan was said to have gleefully agreed with the idea, but also suggested that animal trainers would need to be brought in to teach the wildlife how to fight rebel armies. Warned that turning the whole capital region into a hunting reserve could leave Xianyang open to attack, the First Emperor decided to no longer pursue the idea.
Actor Zhan still had influence in the imperial court even after the Second Emperor seized the throne in the aftermath of the First Emperor’s death. Sometime in 210 BCE, the first year of the Second Emperor’s reign, the new emperor allegedly decided that the capital city needed some renovations. He proclaimed that he wanted all of the capital’s walls to be lacquered. Actor Zhan apparently proclaimed that it was a splendid idea. He energetically envisioned rebels slipping and sliding down the slick, shiny lacquered walls of the city. Surely the enormous manpower and expenses required to apply lacquer to the whole city would be worth such a sight. He ended his witty outburst with a joke about the gargantuan drying shed that would be needed to finish the project. After listening to Actor Zhan’s veiled criticisms, the Second Emperor decided to spruce up the city by different means.
According to Sima Qian, Actor Zhan eventually became disillusioned with the Qin emperors. Following the suicide or execution of the Second Emperor of Qin in 207 BCE, Zhan defected to the growing rebel movements. By the end of the same year, rebels executed the Third Emperor and the Qin Dynasty collapsed. Not long after the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, Actor Zhan died, presumably from natural causes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Chinese dwarf, Chung Mow. Wood engraving, via Welcome Images, on top of A mural painting from Cave 61 at the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Public Domain via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.