Bathe the Monkey and Put a Crown on Its Head (沐猴而冠)

Ancient Chinese Dark Humor Labels Our Inability to Rise Above Ourselves, also a Racist Insult

Literally, the monkey gets a good wash and then gets a fancy hat. As the saying goes: a clean monkey wearing a crown is still a monkey.

The story associated with this saying is also interesting. Supposedly it was used as a critique of a failed revolutionary (項羽), depicting his character flaw, vanity, as the root cause of his demise. This is how he was characterized according to the story in a history text:


Literally translated: people say that people from the nation of 楚 are like monkeys who have been bathed and dressed up with a fancy hat, confirmed!

Of course, it is unfair to characterize an entire group of people based on one individual. On the other hand, the historian may be trying to communicate the point that whatever the failed hero’s shortcomings may have been, he is not the only person with those same flaws.

Specifically, the failed revolutionary (項羽) was said to have wanted to go back to his country (楚) after he successfully captured the city of 咸陽, which was the capital of the former regime (秦). His advisor recommended that he stay and consolidate his gains. At this juncture, at the peak of his success, he famously claimed that being rich and not going back to one’s home town is like being dressed in fancy cloth and walking in the dark night, no one will know (“富贵不归故乡,如衣绣夜行,谁知之者”). As he had already burnt the palace and plundered the city, he decided to retreat home.

The advisor upon hearing this, supposedly uttered the “bathe the monkey and put a crown on his head” saying. This was learned by 項羽 who ordered the advisor cooked to death in a pot (鼎鑊煮死).

On his way home, 項羽 suffered devastating military defeats at the hands of rival forces. With defeat, he became too ashamed to return to his home country and chose to end his own life.

Military success did not make him a visionary leader. A fancy hat will not change the monkey.