I feel sorry for my American friends. It must be deeply embarrassing to have a buffoon representing you on the world stage. New lows were reached during United States President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations last month. Bereft of his fans or the deference he is used to back home, the audience of international diplomats laughed at him for making the most ludicrous claims. While I do not think Trump is stupid, the job of presiding over a global superpower is probably way over his head.

Hereditary monarchies all over the world have produced numerous less-than-intelligent rulers, and imperial China was no exception because, sometimes, the principle of primogeniture (wherein the eldest son of the principal wife takes precedence) was adhered to in lieu of common sense.

Why leaders in China and beyond need critics

Liu Shan, the second and last ruler of Shu-Han state, based in present-day Sichuan, had neither the courage nor the wits of his father Liu Bei, an intrepid warlord during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) and founding emperor of the state. He was lucky to have several able ministers assist him in his 40-year reign, but when they passed he became as helpless as a baby.

When the state of Wei to its north launched a military campaign against Shu-Han in 263, Liu Shan capitulated without a fight, putting a swift end to the kingdom that his father had fought so hard to acquire. After his surrender, Liu was relocated to Luoyang, the capital of Wei, and named Duke of Anle (literally “duke of peace and happiness”). On one occasion, Sima Zhao, the regent of Wei, threw a banquet for Liu, during which Shu-Han music and dance were performed. While his entourage seemed saddened by the familiar sights and sounds, when Sima asked Liu whether he missed home, he replied: “Life is enjoyable here; I don’t think of Shu.”

Xi Zheng, one of Liu’s followers, later advised him that if Sima were to pose the same question again, he should say, with tears in his eyes: “The tombs of my ancestors are all in the land of Shu. My heart aches for the west, and there is not a day I do not think of home.” And then he should close his eyes in grief.

When Sima repeated the question, Liu answered as instructed – complete with an unconvincing show of sadness – to which the former said: “Why do they sound like Xi Zheng’s words?” Liu exclaimed in genuine surprise: “Why, it is exactly as you say!” Sima and everyone present burst out laughing.

While history has not judged Liu too kindly, singling out his lack of kingly qualities and intelligence, some of his contemporaries had good things to say about him. In a letter to a friend, his chancellor, Zhuge Liang, wrote that Liu was kind, hardworking, virtuous and humble. Later commentators also agreed that though the foolish Liu was a most unsuitable ruler, he nevertheless had a kind heart and didn’t perpetrate any of the excesses and bloodletting that were the wont of many last emperors of Chinese dynasties.

While the hapless Liu Shan would have been content to live out his life as a happy prince, he had no choice in inheriting the throne of Shu-Han. The bumbling Trump, however, was elected as president through a democratic process, which speaks volumes about the people who voted him into office and who continue to support him.