Calling in Sick during the Reign of Gongsun Shu

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J. Michael Farmer



Calling in sick to get out of work is a time-honored practice, and something of an art form in and of itself. Early and medieval Chinese texts are full of instances of individuals claiming illness to either excuse themselves from current positions, or to avoid appointments to office, a practice firmly situated in the rhetoric of reclusion. This paper focuses on several cases contained in Chang Qu’s 常璩 (ca. 291–ca. 361) Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志 (Records of the States South of Mount Hua, compiled ca. 350 CE) of men who made medical excuses to reject appointments offered by Gongsun Shu 公孫述 (d. 36 CE), the self-proclaimed emperor of the Shu region. I will examine these anecdotes with an eye toward understanding primarily their historiographical significance. Moreover, this paper is not an effort to compile a comprehensive history of illness and public service, nor a detailed examination of the medical science behind the illnesses used to avoid work; its focus is narrow and specific. How did the persons narrated by Chang Qu use illness to avoid service under a particular ruler, and what underlying messages might we glean from Chang’s own telling of these stories?

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