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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.

The Beginning of the World

Old Chinese tales
Behind some forms of big talk there may be masked, big meanings.

Long ago there was a big, big crusty stone egg. One day the egg hatched and of the egg came the giant Pan Gu 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.

Pan Gu 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.

In this tale we are told that before the world began there was chaos shaped like a hen's egg, and that the huge Pan Gu separated this egg into yang and yin, heaven and earth. Heaven makes the male, dry and bright things, and to Earth belongs the female, wet, dark things of nature, or kun, as it is in Chinese. There could be no perfect thriving without male and female parts in harmony. Such balance is of the Way (Tao), and thriftiness can make it.

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!"

[Yutang 1963: "This Human World"; Cf. 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.

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Chinese tales, folk tales and fairy tales of China, Literature  

Watson, Burton, tr. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Yutang, Lin. The Wisdom of China. London: New English Library, 1963.

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