About Chinese Folktales

Chinese tales are many and varied. Myths, legends, fables are among them. Some come down to us from ancient Taoist writers like Lieh Tzu and Zhuangzi, and others from Chinese myths, Confucianism and Buddhism. How humans are, the supernatural and stories explaining natural phenomena are also told of in some tales.

Some folktales may have originated in India and been transmitted along with Buddhism. Other tales that are widespread throughout East Asia are without any known counterparts west of China.

Chinese traditional tales inspired Chinese writers and poets for centuries. In the 1910s, a rising sense of national identity also spurred interest in traditional folklore. Further, to help improve the condition of people, it was believed to be necessary to understand their ideas, beliefs, and customs.

We select some of the most popular Chinese tales here:

The Melon and the Professor

Wu-Kiao was a professor in a large Chinese university, and a learned man. He had hundreds of students, and many thousands honoured him, for out of his deep knowledge he explained a lot of questions to the people. So when he went out of his house, five people followed, singing and playing the drum all the way down the street, and eight men carried his chair. At home he had six servants about him. During each meal, thirty dishes were served at his table.

One day Wu-Kiao sat in the shade of a tree in his garden. He turned his head and saw a watermelon lying on the ground, nearly covered with its green leaves. Then, seeing the fig tree with many figs on it, he said: “I think the Creator should have made the big melon grow on this big tree.”

He touched the tree and said: ”How strong you are; you could bear larger fruit like the watermelon.” And he said to the vine: “You, so thin and small, should bear small fruit like the fig. Things are not well ordered. Mistakes are made in creation.”

Just then a fig dropped from the tree on his nose, and he was a little bruised. He shook his head and said: “I was wrong. If the fig tree bore fruit as large as the watermelon and dropped it on my nose, I think I could be killed. It would be a dangerous tree to many people.”

Buying Shoes

A man who wanted to buy a pair of shoes, measured his feet with a piece of straw and made marks on it. Then, he headed straight for the market. Unfortunately he was forgetful and left his marked straw at home. So when he got to the shoe shop without the measurements of his feet, he was at a loss.

Finally he decided what to do and said to the shop assistant: “I am afraid you’ll have to wait until I fetch my straw.”

He rushed home in a great hurry, snatched the straw and sped up to town. But when he reached the shop, night had already fallen and the shop was closed.

Others heard about this, and went to ask him: “Didn’t you have your feet with you when you were in the shop?”

“Yes, of course,” the man answered, “but the straw is very carefully measured, and I am afraid my feet are less trustworthy.”

Two Mountains

A man was nearly ninety years old. He lived in a place facing two big mountains, the Taihang and the Wangwu. Each mountain was thousands of meters, and covered hundreds of square miles.

To travel around the mountains was troublesome for the old man, so one day he summoned his whole family and said to them: “How about removing these two mountains so that we have a straight road to Yuzhou?”

“Good idea!” The family shouted and agreed. Already next day the project went on its way. The old man’s neighbour was a widow who had a son of about seven. They both came to the old man’s aid, of their own will, speeding up the task.

Near the Huanghe River there lived another old man. When he heard about this, he felt it very stupid, and decided to go and make the other old man wiser. He said to him: “How long do you think you can live on, so that you can remove these big mountains? Rest your old bones, rather, and be ready to go peacefully to heaven!”

The other looked at him, shook his head sadly, and sighed: “They say you are wise, but in my view even a donkey is wiser. It is true that I am on the edge of the grave. But I have sons; and my sons have their sons, and grandsons again. And the mountains are eroding. So why cannot we remove them in the end?”

The mountain deity, hearing this, felt greatly worried and depressed. Moved by the old man’s resolve he will, he then carried away the two big mountains and made the old man’s dreams come true.

The Suspected Thief

A man lost his axe and suspected that it had been stolen by his neighbour’s son. He watched the youth closely and his suspicion brewed increasingly. “Doesn’t he walk the way a thief does? And his appearance, manner, the language he uses, all are a robber’s.”

But a few days later the axe was found in the valley where he had worked with it. Obviously it was his carelessness that had made him lose the axe. “So I have blamed the young man wrongly, ” he thought.

Now when he met his neighbour’s son, things seemed different. The youth did not look like a thief at all any more: his walk, his looks, his behaviour and talk were all innocent.

The man sighed.

The Man in a Shell

A woman was anxious to have descendants. Therefore she went time after time to all the shrines in her neighbourhood to make offerings and pray:

“O, let the wife of my only son have a child!”

She prayed again and again to all the gods within travelling distance from her house, but her son got no child for all that. Then she came to think of the Sea Dragon King. Though she had never heard of anyone appealing to him for help in such cases, she would try just about anything to get a descendant. Therefore, one day she carried with her some offerings she hoped might be suitable, and went to the shore. There she entreated the god who lived deep in the sea or wherever he might be.

A water snake carried word to the Dragon King that a woman was offering him gifts on the beach. The king sent a fish to hear why she did that. The fish overheard her prayers and brought back report that she wanted a grandson.

The Sea Dragon laughed and said: “We have no human infants here; only shellfish and polyps. She will have to go elsewhere for what she desires.”

But the woman came to the shore again and again, until the Dragon King grew tired of her entreaties and said: “If she is so determined to have a grandchild from me, she must take a young conch; that is the best I can give her.”

Time passed, and the old woman had her ardent desire fulfilled. A child was born to her son and his wife, but the child was encased in a spiral shell; only the child’s head reached outside of it. The family was wealthy, and the queer babe was taken good care of and reared. When he grew older, he would come out of his shell, as does a snail, but would withdraw quickly into it again when he got tired or frightened.

When he grew up to be as big as a man he would often come out of his shell and sit on it, but would never wholly leave it.

The family made no secret of how he had been given them and raised in a shell that had grown with him, for he was well favoured, highly educated, and very polite. When he was old enough to take a wife, the wealth of the family soon secured for him a pretty young girl for a wife.

Soon after the marriage, the grandmother asked the bride whether her husband left his shell at night or lay in it as before by the side of his couch.

The young wife replied that he left his shell on the floor and lay by her side on nights. The grandmother then told her:

“One suitable night, just pretend you are sleeping. When you are sure your husband is sleeping, jump without a sound from the bed, seize the shell and carry it to my room.”

The plan was carried out successfully, and as the bridegroom could neither find his shell nor say how it had disappeared, he lived without it and appeared like other people.

Some happy years passed, the young wife bore sons, and all was harmonious in the house.

But the grandmother put the mouldy shell out to air it one day her grandson was away, However, the grandson returned unexpectedly, saw, recognized, and entered his shell. At once he crawled off in it to the sea and never returned. His sons remained, so there were still descendants left in the family.

The Lost Mare

One day, an old man living on the frontier lost one of his mares. All his neighbours felt sorry for him and came to console him. But the old man was not in the least disheartened. “Well,” he said lightly. “I don’t care much about it. Who can say that it is not for good also?”

A few days later, the mare came back itself, accompanied by a fine wild horse. The neighbours were surprised and came to congratulate, full of praise of the horse. But the old man showed no sign of happiness. “Joy often begets sorrow,” he said, “So who cannot tell if this won’t turn out to be a bad thing.”

Now the old man’s son was very fond of riding, and the new horse, vigorous and wild, was a great temptation to him. Every day he took particular interest in fighting with it on its back, risking his neck. At length he was thrown off the horse and got one of his legs broken.

The neighbours again came to lament the young man’s misfortunes. But the old man shook his head and said philosophically “Well, don’t mind it too much. We know good and bad fortune often lurk within each other. So can you determine if it isn’t a blessing in disguise?”

Not long after the country was attacked by invaders, and to resist the violent attack, all the young people on the frontier were summoned up to join the army. The fight was extremely fierce, and most of the young men laid down their lives on the battle fields. But because of his injured leg, the old man’s son was allowed to stay at home, and thus saved his life.

Silver Troubles

Zhang San had managed to save up three hundred ounces of silver. It gave him both happiness and anxiety. It was a large amount of money, but if it were stolen, the pleasure of owning it would be gone. He racked his brains, trying to find a place that was safe enough for his treasure. At last a fine idea came to mind: “Why don’t I put my silver into a solid box and lock it with two giant locks? But what if the thief simply takes away the whole box with the locks and the silver in it?”

The more he pictured his riches being taken away, the more uneasy he felt, till nightmares made him shout in despair. He looked around, but could see no safe place in his house at all. But several days’ hard thinking a good idea came. When night fell, he dug a hole at the base of the wall in his back room. There he buried the silver in secret. To make it safer, he put a note on the wall.

“My silver is not buried here.”

Now Zhang San set his heart at ease and fell to sleeping soundly. But his neighbour Wang Er had seen what happened. He waited till midnight and then went to dig out the silver. Wand Er also thought up a plan not to be suspected. Side by side with Zhang San’s note, he put another, which read.

“Your neighbour Wang Er did not steal it.”

The Miser and the Tiger

In ancient times there was an old woodcutter who went to the mountain almost every day to cut wood. It was said that this old man was a miser who hoarded his silver until it changed to gold, and that he cared more for gold than anything else in all the world.

One day a wilderness tiger sprang at him and though he ran he could not escape, and the tiger carried him off in its mouth. The woodcutter’s son saw his father’s danger, and ran to save him if possible. He carried a long knife, and as he could run faster than the tiger, who had a man to carry, he soon overtook them.

His father was not much hurt, for the tiger held him by his clothes. When the old woodcutter saw his son about to stab the tiger he called out in great alarm,

“Don’t spoil the tiger’s skin! Don’t spoil the tiger’s skin! If you can kill him without cutting holes in his skin we can get many pieces of silver for it. Kill him, but do not cut his body.”

While the son was listening to his father’s instructions the tiger suddenly dashed off into the forest, carrying the old man where the son could not reach him, and he was killed.

Suicidal Hares

A farmer was once ploughing in the fields, when suddenly a hare rushed across in a great hurry, dashed against a stump and broke its neck. It died right there.

“What good luck!” the farmer said, picking up the dead hare, “If I can harvest hares that come like this one, I can make a much easier living. Why shouldn’t I just wait here instead of toiling all day long, sweating blood, tiring my body out like a great fool?”

Getting this idea into his head, the farmer no longer worked. He sat at the stump, his hands supporting his cheeks, and waited patiently for more hares. Unfortunately no more long-eared-and-short-tailed food came. Day in and day out the farmer starved, only to become a laughing-stock in the neighbourhood.

Flattery for Fools

Zou Ji was an official in Qi, and a handsome man. One morning he looked at himself in the mirror and asked his wife “Who is more handsome, I or Xu in the North City?”

His wife replied without hesitation, “Of course you, my dear. No man can compare with you!”

Hearing this, Zou could not help feeling a little complacent. Yet to prove what his wife had said, he asked his concubine the same question. “Oh,” answered the woman, “Beyond any doubt you are the number one in our country!” This sounded pleasant.

Next day a friend called on him in the hope of begging a favour of him. Business finished, Zou once more raised the same question. “Certainly Xu cannot compare with you in that,” his friend answered. Now Zou really believed this was so, till Xu himself dropped in on him by chance. Looking Xu up and down, and then measuring himself carefully in the glass, Zou had to conclude that Xu was much more handsome than himself.

“Why, they all cheated me then!” he thought. All night he wrangled with the matter. At last it dawned on him. “I see now,” he said to himself, “A man is liable to be flattered: my wife favoured me because of her love; my concubine, of fear; my friend, to gain his own ends. How foolish I have been taken in by festering lies!”

As soon as the sun appeared in the east next day, he went to the king directly and told him the whole story and added, “For love, for fear, for benefit, truth can be twisted.”

The king was impressed by Zou’s story and at once gave orders: “Those who dare to point out my faults in my presence can be given the best rewards. And the timid ones who only talk about my errors in public and the talks reach my ear, rewards will also be given, though it may not be of great value.”

This command issued, the palace became crowded with officials and common people coming to advise or criticize the king. As a result the king ruled the country very, very well.

The Fool of the Family

A rich Chinese lady had a foolish son, and had chosen a wife for him from a cultured family. When he was about to pay the first visit to his future bride’s parents, his mother told him how to behave and what to say, for she did not want the other family to find out how stupid he was. She tried to anticipate which questions he would get there, and told him what to answer well enough, and at the same time ward off further questioning.

He was to carry a costly fan with a landscape painted on it. Therefore she thought that guests at the other place, disposed to be polite and friendly, would ask him about the landscape painting, especially where the scene was from. She taught him to respond to such questions by saying, “Oh, that’s just a fancy sketch.”

And as he was to ride a fine mule, she thought the gentlemen would comment on what a fine animal it was and to ask what it cost, so she drilled her son to reply with courteous humility: ”The animal is a good beast of burden, reared on our farm – not worthy of your attention.”

When the young man arrived at the door of his host, the first to greet him was his forthcoming mother-in-law. She politely asked about the health of his mother.

He promptly answered: “The animal is a good beast of burden, reared on our farm – not worthy of your attention.”

The horrified mother-in-law drew back, while exclaiming half unconsciously: “I was told that you come from a very well ordered family!”

The fool had come to think he first should have used the first answer that his mother had taught him, and hastened to say: “Oh, that’s just a fancy sketch.”

The Two Melons

An honest and poor old woman was washing clothes at a pool when a bird that a hunter had shot in the wing, fell down into the water before her. She gently took up the bird, carried it home with her, dressed its wound, and fed it until it was well, Then it soared away. Some days later it came back, put an oval seed before her, and left again.

The woman planted the seed in her yard. When it came up she saw from the leaf it was a a melon plant. She made a trellis for it, and soon a fruit formed on it and grew to great size.

Toward the end of the year, the old dame was unable to pay her debts, and she was so poor that she became ill. Sitting one day at her door, feverish and tired, she saw that the melon was ripe and looked luscious, and thought it was time to try how it. Taking a knife, she severed the melon from its stalk and was surprised to hear it chink in her hands. On cutting it in two, she found it full of silver and gold pieces. With them she paid her debts and bought supplies for many days.

Among her neighbours was a busybody who craftily found out how the old woman so suddenly had become rich. She thought she could do as her and get fortunate too, and therefore she spent much time on washing clothes at the pool. At the same time she kept a sharp lookout for birds until she managed to hit and maim one of a flock that was flitting over the water. She then took the disabled bird home, and treated it with care until its wing healed, and it flew away.

Shortly afterwards it came back with a seed in its beak, laid it before her, and again took flight. The woman quickly planted the seed, saw it come up and spread its leaves, made a trellis for it, and was pleased to see how a melon formed on its stalk.

She expected to get wealthy when the melon was ripe, and therefore ate rich food, bought fine garments, and got so deeply into debt that debt collectors harried her before the end of the year. But the melon grew fast. She was delighted to find that it became taller than people as it ripened, and that when she shook it there was rattling inside.

At the end of the year she cut it down and divided it, expecting it to be a casket of coins, but only two old, lame, hungry beggars were in it. They crawled out and told her they would stay and eat at her table as long as they lived.

Out Fishing

The last king of the Shang dynasty was a tyrant. Jiang Shang, one of his ministers, saw that the ruler stopped at no evil, and managed to escape from his office, and settled in a secluded place near the Wei River, in an area that was dominated by Duke Jichang, and the duke was eager to attract talented people in his service.

The escaped Jiang Shang used to sit at the Wei River, fishing with a straight hook, and with no bait on it. He stretched his pole, let his “hook” remain a meter away from the surface of the water, and sang, “Those that are tired of living on those that are seeking their death, come up”.

Talks about his queer way of fishing soon reached the duke’s ear, and he sent some soldiers for him. Jiang, seeing the soldiers approaching, turned his back on them and said, “What a bad luck, tiny shrimps jumping instead of a fish!”

The soldiers’ report resulted in an official being sent, and again Jiang overlooked him, saying, “What a pity, only a small fish appears, and I fail to catch the big one!”

Next the Duke came. He brought with him some precious gifts, and this time Jiang agreed to assist him. Jiang was made the duke’s adviser, and later promoted to be prime minister. Under his wise leadership, the state grew stronger and stronger.

Some years later, Jiang assisted the descendents of the duke in sending an expedition against the king of the Shang dynasty. They defeated him and thus founded the Zhou dynasty.

The Golden Nugget

Once on a time many, many years ago, there lived in China two friends named Kim and Pao. These two young men were of one heart. No cross words passed between them; no unkind thoughts marred their friendship.

On a bright, beautiful day in early spring Kim and Pao set out for a stroll together, for they were tired of the city and its noises.

“Let us go into the pine forest,” said Kim lightly. “There we can forget the cares that worry us; there we can breathe the sweetness of the flowers and lie on the moss-covered ground.”

“Good!” said Pao, “I, too, am tired. The forest is the place for rest.”

Happily the two friends passed along the winding road, their eyes turned in longing toward the tree-tops as they drew nearer and nearer to the woods.

“For thirty days I have worked over my books,” sighed Kim. “For thirty days I have not had a rest. Oh, for a breath of the pure air blowing through the greenwood.”

“And I,” added Pao sadly, “have worked like a slave at my counter and found it dull. It is good, indeed, to get away for some time.”

Now they came to the border of the grove, crossed a little stream, and plunged headlong among the trees and shrubs. For many an hour they rambled on, talking and laughing merrily; when suddenly on passing round a clump of flower-covered bushes, they saw a lump of gold shining in the pathway directly in front of them.

“See!” said both, speaking at the same time, and pointing toward the treasure.

Kim, stooping, picked up the nugget. It was nearly as large as a lemon, and was rather heavy. “It is yours, my dear friend,” said he, at the same time handing it to Pao; “yours because you saw it first.”

“No, no,” answered Pao, “you are wrong, friend, for you were first to speak. Now you have been rewarded you for all your faithful hours of study.”

“Repaid me? Are not the wise men always saying that study brings its own reward? No, the gold is yours: I insist on it. Take it,” said Kim laughingly. “May it be the nest egg you may hatch out a great fortune from.”

Thus they joked for some minutes, each insisting that it belonged to the other. At last, the chunk of gold was dropped in the very spot where they had first found it, and the two comrades went away, each happy because he loved his friend better than anything else in the world. Thus they turned their backs on any chance of quarrelling, and it never occurred to them that they could easily split the nugget in half to have equal shares.

“It was not for gold that we left the city,” exclaimed Kim warmly.

“No,” replied his friend. “One day in this forest is worth a thousand nuggets.”

“Let us go to the spring and sit down on the rocks,” suggested Kim. “It is the coolest spot in the whole grove.”

When they reached the spring they were sorry to find the place already occupied. A countryman was stretched at full length on the ground.

“Wake up, fellow!” cried Pao, “there is money for you near by. Up the path over there a golden apple is waiting for some man to go and pick it up.”

Then they described to the unwelcome stranger the exact spot where the treasure was, and were delighted to see him set out in eager search.

For an hour they enjoyed each other’s company, talking of all the hopes and ambitions of their future, and listening to the music of the birds that hopped about on the branches overhead.

At last they were startled by the angry voice of the man who had gone after the nugget. “What trick is this you have played on me, you two? Why do you make a poor man like me run his legs off for nothing on a hot day?”

“What do you mean, fellow?” asked Kim, astonished. “Did you not find the gold we told you about?”

“No,” he answered in a tone of half-hidden rage, “but in its place was a monster snake which I cut in two with my blade. Now, I was first on this spot and you have no right to give me orders.”

Kim said to him, “We thought we were doing you a favour. If you are blind, there’s no one but yourself to blame. Come, Pao, let us go back and have a look at this wonderful snake that has been hiding in a chunk of gold.”

Laughing merrily, the two companions left the countryman and turned back in search of the nugget.

“If I am not mistaken,” said the student, “the gold lies beyond that fallen tree.”

“Quite true; we shall soon see the dead snake.”

Quickly they crossed the remaining stretch of pathway, with their eyes fixed intently on the ground. Arriving at the spot where they had left the shining treasure, what was their surprise to see, not the lump of gold, not the dead snake described by the idler, but, instead, two beautiful golden nuggets, each larger than the one they had seen at first.

Each friend picked up one of these treasures and handed it joyfully to his companion.

“At last the fairies have rewarded you for your unselfishness!” said Kim.

“Yes,” answered Pao, “by granting me a chance to give you something you deserve.”

Dreams

In the time of King Mu of Chou, there was a magician who came from a kingdom in the far west. He could pass through fire and water, penetrate metal and stone, overturn mountains and make rivers flow backwards, transplant whole towns and cities, ride on thin air without falling, encounter solid bodies without being obstructed. There was no end to the countless variety of changes and transformations which he could effect; and besides changing the external form, he could also spirit away men’s internal cares.

King Mu revered him as a god and served him like a prince. He set aside for his use a spacious suite of apartments, regaled him with the daintiest of food, and selected a number of singing-girls for his express gratification. The magician, however, condemned the king’s palace as mean, the cooking as rancid, and the concubines as too ugly to live with.

So king Mu had a new building errected to please him. It was built entirely of bricks and wood, and gorgeously decorated in red and white, no skill being spared in its construction. The five royal treasuries were empty by the time that the new pavilion was complete. It stood six thousand feet high, overtopping Mount Chung-nan, and it was called Touch-the-sky Pavilion. Then the king proceeded to fill it with maidens, selected from Cheng and Wie, of the most exquisite and delicate beauty. They were anointed with fragrant perfumes, provided with jewelled hairpins and earrings, and arrayed in the finest silks, with costly satin trains. Their faces were powdered, and their eyebrows pencilled, their girdles were studded with precious stones, and sweet scents were wafted abroad wherever they went. Ravishing music was played to the honoured guest by the Imperial bands; several times a month he was presented with fresh jewelled raiment; every day he had set before him some new and delicious food.

The magician could not well refuse to take up his abode in this palace of delight. But he had not dwelt there very long when he invited the king to accompany him on a jaunt. So the king clutched the magician’s sleeve, and soared up with him higher and higher into the sky, until at last they stopped, and lo! they had reached the magician’s own palace. This palace was built with beams of gold and silver, and incrusted with pearls and jade. It towered high above the region of clouds and rain, and the foundations whereon it rested were unknown. It appeared like a stupendous cloud-mass to the view. The sights and sounds it offered to eye and ear, the scents and flavours which abounded there, were such as exist not within mortal ken. The king verily believed that he was in the Halls of Paradise, tenanted by God himself, and that he was listening to the mighty music of the spheres. He gazed at his own palace on the earth below, and it seemed to him no better than a rude pile of clods and brushwood.

The king would gladly have stayed in this palace for decade after decade, without a thought for his own country. But the magician invited him to make another journey, and in the new region they came to, neither sun nor moon could be seen in the heavens above, nor any rivers or seas below. The king’s eyes were dazed by the quality of the light, and he lost the power of vision; his ears were stunned by the sounds that assailed them, and he lost the faculty of hearing. The framework of his bones and his internal organs were thrown out of gear and refused to function. His thoughts were in a whirl, his intellect became clouded, and he begged the magician to take him back again. Thereupon, the magician gave him a shove, and the king experienced a sensation of falling through space. . . .

When he awoke to consciousness, he found himself sitting on his throne just as before, with the selfsame attendants round him. He looked at the wine in front of him, and saw that it was still full of sediment; he looked at the viands, and found that they had not yet lost their freshness. He asked where he had come from, and his attendants told him that he had only been sitting quietly there.

This threw King Mu into a reverie, and it was three months before he was himself again. Then he made further inquiry, and asked the magician to explain what had happened.

“Your Majesty and I,” answered the magician, “were only wandering about in the spirit, and our bodies never moved at all.”

(From the Liehzi, which is attributed to Lie Yukou. Giles 1912, 58-62; also see Graham 1990, 58-64)

Garlic Tears

A poor man planted a bed of garlic. He had no land besides, so he took great care in tending each one of his garlic plants. The plants grew quickly. When the crop was almost large enough to be pulled up, he placed a portable storage chest beside the garlic bed and slept on it on nights to guard against thieves.

After watching for many nights without seeing any sign of trespassers, he supposed his garlic plants were safe enough, and that he might sleep at home, He left the empty hutch beside the garlic bed, and spent the night in his own house.

When he came back next morning to water his vegetables, he found that all of his plants had been pulled up and carried off. In distress and tears he went to the magistrate and complained of his loss. The magistrate asked him why he did not catch the thief.

“Because I was not there when he came, your honour.”

“Then why don’t you bring as witness someone who saw him?”

“Because nobody caught a glimpse of him, your honour.”

“Then why did you not bring from the garlic bed some clue to trace the thief by?”

“Because he left nothing in the garlic bed besides the portable hutch that was there already, your honour.”

“Very well,” said the magistrate; “since the hutch was the only object known to be on the field when the garlic plants were stolen, we will accuse the hutch in a suit. Come here tomorrow morning as plaintiff against it.”

The complaint and the result of the preliminary examination were reported far and wide, with the official announcement that on the next morning a portable hutch would be tried for theft. Such a remarkable a trial had never before been heard of, and throughout the neighbourhood people about it, and commented and debated it all.

When the case was called, the court was crowded with people who had come to watch. The constables brought in the hutch and put it in the place for prisoners. It was charged with the crime, and as it did not defend itself in any way, the magistrate ordered that it should be beaten until it confessed. The constables struck it so well that it was shattered in pieces.

As the public watched the dramatic scene, amazement gave way to laughter. When the constables were whipping the fragments of the hutch, all the audience laughed heartily.

In seeming rage the magistrate charged the whole assembly with contempt of court. He ordered all the gates to be shut and locked, and fined each person present a pound of garlic. Many constables were now set to escort those who wished to go out to buy garlic to pay their fine, and each one merrily spent a few farthings on garlic for it.

In the course of the day, all the garlic in the market had been bought up, and the nearby hamlets had been ransacked to supply the unexpected demand.

As each one handed in his fine, he was to tell where he got the garlic. The garlic was then placed bunch by bunch in a chamber of the courthouse.

When all the fines were paid, the poor plaintiff was invited to examine the garlic bunches and tell whether he recognized any as his own. He did. Without hesitation he declared certain bunches to be his. When the record of the buyers was examined, it showed up that these bunches had all been bought at the stall of a certain greengrocer.

The greengrocer was arrested and made to tell where he had got the stolen goods. He said that he knew nothing more about the garlic than that he had bought it from a certain villager. Then the villager was arrested for the garlic theft.

The magistrate thus got a great reputation for being wise and clever for the thief soon confessed and got forty blows for his crime, and the poor gardener got all the garlic that the court had got in fines for contempt of court. He could now sell garlic enough to buy a new portable storage chest and even a little more, apart from getting back his own garlic crop.

(Fielde 1912, 123-28)

The Beginning of the World

Long ago there was a big, big crusty stone egg. One day the egg hatched and of the egg came the giant Pangu who was as tall as the mountain and as broad as the sea – but there was neither heaven nor earth back then, for they were unified.

Pangu pushed the heaven and earth apart with a loud crack and held the heavens and earth apart for a great long time, till he fell down and died from using up all his enormous strength. Giant sweat and blood became rivers, giant hair became woods, hopefully. The giant body became landscape and mountains, and his breath became wind and clouds. In this way the World was created.

Nu Wo, a fairy, came to earth to look at it. Se exclaimed: “How boring! – Well, well.”

Then she took some wet clay from the riverbank and moulded little clay figures into the shape of men. She breathed life into them through a very special reed, so now they could walk and talk. But they were too lonely, so the fairy said, “Men need companions. I will make women.”

She took more clay and made women. After a while she decided that making men and women by hand was too tiring. Then she sprayed the mud around, and it became people. That is why we have clever and simple people, they say.

Spear and Shield

A man was trying to sell spears and shields. He held high his shields first and boasted, “Look at the best shields! See the design! The quality! And the shape! No spear on earth can pierce them! The surest protection for your body! Buy one to be a respected warrior!”

Then he put down his shields and raised one of his spears and shouted, “This is the sharpest spear there is. It is a spear of death! Any shield, no matter how hard it might be, can be penetrated by the spear at a single blow!”

This sounded nice. But one onlooker stepped forward and asked, “Excuse me, but if I use your spear to strike your shield, what will then happen?”

The advertiser rolled his eyeballs, opened his mouth wide, but couldn’t find any good answer. He withdrew instead.

Useful Uselessness

First get useful to yourself inside the world of men. Then learn to thrive.

Carpenter Shih went to the Ch’i State. On reaching Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred spans around, towering up eighty feet over the hilltop, before it branched out.

A dozen boats could be cut out of it. Crowds stood gazing at it, but the carpenter took no notice, and went on his way without even casting a look behind. But his apprentice took a good look at it, and when he caught up with his master, said,

“Since I first took up my axe and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as pretty as this. Why not care to stop and look at it?”

“Forget about it. It’s not worth talking about,” said his master. “It is good for nothing. Made into a boat, it would sink; into a coffin, it would rot; into furniture, it would break easily; into a door, it would sweat; into a pillar, it would be worm-eaten.

It’s wood of no quality, of no use. That is why it has grown so old.”

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, he dreamt that the spirit of the tree appeared to him in his sleep and said:

“What are you comparing me with? Is it with fine-grained wood? Look at the cherry-apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, and other fruit bearers: As soon as their fruit ripens they are torn apart and abused. Their huge limbs are broken off, the small ones scattered abroad. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they do not get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring in on themselves – the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it is the same way with all other things.

As for me, I have been trying for a long time to be of no use. Many times I was in danger of being cut down, but I have finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, I should not be able to grow this large. Moreover, you and I are both created things. Have done then with this criticism of each other. Is a good-for-nothing fellow in imminent danger of death a fit person to talk of a good-for-nothing tree?”

When Carpenter Shih woke up he reported his dream. His apprentice said, “If the tree is intent on being of no use, what is it doing there at the village shrine?”

“Shhh! Say no more! It is only resting there. If we carp and criticise, it will merely conclude that we do not understand it. Even if it were not at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you will be way off!”

(Zhuangzi. See Yutang 1963: “This Human World”; and Watson 1968, 63-5)

Killed by Lightning

Once on a time ten farmers who were crossing a field together. They were surprised by a heavy thunder-storm, and took refuge in a half-ruined temple. But the thunder drew ever nearer, and so great was the tumult that the air trembled about them, while the lightning flew around the temple in a continuous circle.

The farmers were greatly frightened and thought that there must be a sinner among them that the lightning would strike. In order to find out who it might be, they agreed to hang their straw hats up before the door, and he whose hat was blown away was to yield himself up to his fate and go outside.

No sooner were the hats outside, than one of them was blown away, and the rest thrust the owner out without pity. But as soon as he had left the temple, the lightning ceased circling around, and struck it with a crash. The nine left there were all killed.

(Wilhelm 1921, No. 4)

The Old Gardener

Tzu-Kung had been rambling in the south in Ku, and was returning to Zin. As he passed a place on the north of the Han, he saw an old man who was going to work on his vegetable garden. He had dug his channels, gone to the well, and was bringing from it in his arms a jar of water to pour into them. Toiling away, he expended a great deal of strength, but accomplished very little.

Tzu-kung said to him, “There is a contrivance here; if you learn to use it, you may irrigate a hundred plots of ground in one day. Using very little strength, the result is still formidable. Master, wouldn’t you like to try it?”

The gardener looked up at him and asked, “How does it work?”

Tzu-kung said, “It is a lever made of wood, heavy behind, and light in front. It raises the water as quickly as you could do with your hand, or as it bubbles over from a boiler. It is called a shadoof.”

The gardener put on an angry look, laughed derisively and said, “I have heard from my teacher that where there are ingenious contrivances, there are sure to be subtle doings; and there is sure to be a scheming mind. But when there is a scheming mind in the breast, its pure simplicity is impaired. When this pure simplicity is impaired, the spirit becomes unsettled, and the unsettled spirit is not the proper residence of the Way (Tao).”

Now Tzu-kung looked blank and ashamed.

The other continued, “Aren’t you the scholar whose great learning makes you comparable to a sage? But what leisure do you have to be regulating the world?”

Tze-kung shrunk back abashed. His disciples then said, “Who was that man?”

He only said, “I perceive that they who hold fast and cleave to the Way are complete in the qualities belonging to it. Complete in those qualities, they are complete in their bodies. Complete in their bodies, they are complete in their spirits. These men will not go where their mind does not carry them, and will do nothing of which their mind does not approve. Such men may be described as possessing all the attributes of the Way.”

When he returned to Lu, Confucius said, “The man makes a pretence of cultivating the arts of the “Embryonic Age”.”

(Excerpts from James Legge, tr. The Complete Chuang Tzu, Ch. 12; section 11)

The Large Tree by the Roadside

Master Huei said to Master Chuang, “I have a large tree, called the ailanthus. Its trunk is so irregular and knotty that it cannot be measured out for planks; while its branches are so twisted that they cannot be cut out into discs or squares. It stands by the roadside, but no carpenter will look at it. Your words are like that tree – big and useless, of no concern to the world.”

“Have you never seen a wild cat,” rejoined Master Chuang, “crouching down in wait for its prey? . . . It’s big enough in all conscience . . .

Now if you have a big tree and are at a loss what to do with it, why not plant it in the Village of Nowhere . . . There it would be safe from the axe and from all other injury. … Being of no use to others, what could worry its mind?”

(Zuangzi. See Yutang 1963: “A Happy Excursion”; Cf. Watson 1968, 35)

The King of Apes and His Neighbour

There was a poor man who had had a scolding wife and little else. One day he thought he might be better off if he went into the wild woods. After some time alone there, he decided to walk home again, for he found little to feed on there, inexperienced as he was with hermit life.

His wife scolded him as soon as she saw him coming back, saying he had been away so long that she thought he might be dead.

“But that hope came to nothing when you arrived,” she said.

The husband felt deeply wounded by what she said, and turned around and left her for the wild woods again. As he one day passed from tree to tree until he entered a strange gorge. There he sat down with his legs folded under him. He was exhausted, slid slowly sideways after a while, and felt asleep.

While he was sleeping, a wandering Gibbon ape caught sight of him, and then told her tribe that she had come across their ancestor. A council of ape elders was then called around the sleeping man, and after inspecting him, they too thought he was their ancestor and also that he should be their king. They carried him to their stronghold in a wooded glen, put him on a throne in an arbour, and surrounded him with offerings of fruits and nuts.

When he woke from his sleep he liked having ape servants that brought him food.

“I might enjoy living among the apes,” he thought.

The apes kept on bringing him the best provisions they could, and even treasures they found or could lay hold on from other places they strayed to. The man noticed the apes had stowed still other and valuable articles gathered during past years at a certain place, and examined and sorted them as he pleased.

Then, one day when the apes were away, he took all the wealth he could carry and made his way out of the forest and back to his own home

His wife started to upbraid him sharply as soon as she saw him, he looked more shabby than ever. However, the husband who had lived among apes, hushed her by showing her some gold pieces, enough to live comfortably on for many years. At that very moment she became more pleasant in her ways.

However, she soon told her nearest friend that her husband had walked into the forest and came back rich, so her friend urged her husband to do likewise. He in turn begged his lucky neighbour to tell how he had become so wealthy.

“I won’t tell anyone about it, and give you a fair share in the wealth I get,” he also said.

“All right,” said the lucky neigbour and told how the apes in the wild woods had made him their king, and brought riches to him. The neighbour was also told how to get to the stronghold of the apes, and set off and sat down under the same tree as his neighbour had done, and waited for the apes to find him and come to him and make him their new king.

However, the apes had meantime come to the conclusion that a being who had left the and taken with him many of their hoarded treasures, was not better than them. So when a young ape who was searching for food. saw this second man under the same tree as the other had been lying beneath, he returned home and told the tribe of the newcomer. The outraged apes were, surrounded him and tore more than his clothes to pieces.

[Retold from Fielde, 1912, 27-28)

The Two Handsome Scholars

Once there were two scholars, Liu Tschen and Yuan Dschau. Both were young and handsome. One spring day they went together into the hills of Tian Tai to gather healing herbs. There they came to a little valley where peach-trees blossomed lavishly on either side. In the middle of the valley was a cave where two maidens stood under the blossoming trees, one of them clad in red garments, the other in green. They were beautiful beyond all telling. They beckoned to the scholars with their hands.

“We have been waiting for you!” they said, led them into the cave and served them with tea and wine.

“I am meant for Liu,” said the maiden in the red gown, “and my sister is for Yuan!”

Soon they were married. Every day the two scholars gazed at the flowers or played chess and forgot the mundane world completely. They only noticed that at times the peach-blossoms on the trees before the cave opened, and at others that they fell from the boughs. And, at times, unexpectedly, they felt cold or warm, and had to change the clothing they were wearing. And they marvelled that it should be so.

Then, one day, they were overcome by homesickness. Their wives were already aware of it. “When our men have been seized with home sickness, we may hold them no longer,” said they.

Next day they prepared a farewell banquet, gave the scholars magic wine to take along with them and said:

“We will meet again. Now go your way!”

The scholars bade them farewell with tears.

When they reached home the gates and doors had long since vanished, and the people of the village were all strangers to them. They crowded about the scholars and asked who they might be.

“We are Liu Tschen and Yuan Dschau. A few days ago we went into the hills to pick herbs!”

With that a servant came hastening up and looked at them with great joy and cried to Liu Tschen: “Yes, you are really my master! Since you went away and we had no news of any kind about you, some seventy years or more have passed.”

Then he drew the scholar Liu through a high gateway, ornamented with bosses and a ring in a lion’s mouth, as is the custom in the dwellings of those of high estate. And when he entered the hall, an old lady with white hair and bent back, leaning on a cane, came forward and asked: ” What man is this?”

“Our master has returned again,” replied the servant. And then, turning to Liu he added: “That is the mistress. She is nearly a hundred years old, but fortunately is still strong and in good health.”

Tears of joy and sadness filled the old lady’s eyes.

“Since you went away among the immortals, I had thought that we should never see each other again in this life,” said she. “What great good fortune that you should have returned after all!”

And before she had ended, the whole family, men and women, came streaming up and welcomed him in a great throng outside the hall. And his wife pointed out this one and that and said: “That is so and so, and this is so and so!”

When the scholar had disappeared there had been only a tiny boy in his home, but a few years old. And he was now an old man of eighty. He had served the empire in a high office, and had already retired to enjoy his old age in the ancestral gardens. There were three grand-children, all celebrated ministers. There were more than ten great-grand-children, and five of them had already passed their examinations for the doctorate. There were some twenty great-great-grandchildren, and the oldest of them had just returned home after having passed his induction examinations for the magistracy with honour. And the little ones, who were carried in their parents’ arms, were not to be counted. The grand-children, who were away, busy with their duties, all asked for leave and returned home when they heard that their ancestor had returned. And the girl grand-children, who had married into other families, also came.

This filled Liu with joy, and he had a family banquet prepared in the hall, and all his descendants, with their wives and husbands sat about him in a circle. He himself and his wife, a whitehaired, wrinkled old lady, sat in their midst at the upper end. The scholar himself still looked like a youth of twenty years, so that all the young people in the circle looked around and laughed.

Then the scholar said: “I have a means of driving away old age!”

And he drew out his magic wine and gave his wife some of it to drink. And when she had taken three glasses, her white hair gradually turned black again, her wrinkles disappeared, and she sat beside her husband, a handsome young woman. Then his son and the older grand-children came up and all asked for a drink of the wine. And whichever of them drank only so much as a drop of it was turned from an old man into a youth. The news was spread and came to the emperor’s ears. The emperor wanted to call Liu to his court, but he declined with many thanks. Yet he sent the emperor some of his magic wine as a gift. This pleased the emperor greatly, and he gave Liu a tablet of honour, with the inscription:

“The Common Home of Five Generations.”

Besides this he sent him three signs which he had written with his own imperial brush, signifying, “Joy in longevity.”

As to the other of the two scholars, Yuan Dschau, he was not so fortunate. When he came home he found that his wife and child had long since died, and his grand-children and great-grand-children were mostly useless people. So he did not remain long, but returned to the hills. Yet Liu Tschen remained for some years with his family, then taking his wife with him, went again to the Tai Hills and was seen no more.

Wilhelm 1921. The tale is placed in the reign of the Emperor Ming Di (58-75 CE). Its motive is that of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, which is often found in Chinese fairy tales.

The Jewel in the Rock

Once, far away in the Ku Mountains, a man called Pien Ho found a piece of rock that he saw contained jade inside itself. He took the rock to court and presented it to King Li. The king ordered the jewelled to examine it, and got the report back: “It is merely a stone.”

The king now thought Pien Ho tried to deceive him, and as a punishment he let his left foot be cut off.

In time King Li passed away and King Wu came to the throne. Now Pien Ho once more took his rock to court and presented it to King Wu. King Wu asked his jeweller to inspect it. Again it was said, “It is merely a stone.”

Now the king thought Pien Ho had tried to trick him, and saw to it that his right foot was cut off.

Pien Ho could do nothing but clasp his rock to his breast, and went to the foot of the Ku Mountains. There he wept for three days and nights. When all his bitter tears were cried out, he wept blood in their place. The king heard of that, and send somebody to ask him about it.

“Many people have had their feet amputated – so why do you weep so grievously over it?” the man asked.

Pien Ho said, “I grieve mostly because a precious jewel is said to be a mere stone, a honest man is called a deceiver – not just because my feet are cut off. That is why I weep so terribly.”

The king next ordered the jeweller to cut and polish the rock. He found a precious jewel inside it. They named it after Pien Ho.

(Watson 1964, 80; see also p. 81)

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