(1) The Journey Begins
In a rocky hamlet by the Nine Dragons River there lived an old widower who had four children: Ah Ri, the older son; Ah Yue, the older daughter; Ah Xing, the younger son; and Ah Wan, the younger daughter.
One day, when the father knew his end was near, he called his four children to his bedside.
"Listen closely, for I haven't much time left," he wheezed. "I'm afraid that though I've spent a lifetime working, I don't have much to leave to you except for a dream that came to me just a short while ago . . ."
The four children stood around and listened closely to their dying father.
"In my dream," the father continued, "it seems someone said to me, 'If you want to help your village, you must get the three jewels which are buried on East Mountain. Only the toughest person who is unafraid of hardship can find these jewels and obtain the fortune.'
"Well, my children, it's too late for me but not for you. You have the power to go out there together and to find . . . those . . . three jewels . . ."
With that, he closed his eyes and breathed no more.
After their father had been buried, the oldest child, Ah Ri, called a family meeting.
"We all heard what Father said. We must go out and get those three jewels, whatever they are," said Ah Ri.
"Let's go out and open up that mountain!" said Ah Yue.
"I'm the strongest of the four. Whatever hard work needs to be done, I'll do it," said Ah Xing.
"Brute strength is wonderful but may not be enough," said Ah Wan. "We might also need patience and wisdom to find the three jewels. In any case, patience, wisdom, strength or not, how could I ever climb a mountain with the rest of you? I'm too fat. Let me stay behind to watch over our home."
"No, you can't stay behind," said Ah Xing. "You're only fifteen. What if you run into a bandit, a hungry wolf or even a tiger? No, you can't stay home alone. We must all go together."
That settled that. The next day, the foursome, loaded with food and other supplies, set off for East Mountain.
Though they trekked for days and days, the mountain seemed no closer than before. At night, they huddled together for warmth as they slept. Soon came days and nights of hunger when all the dried food was gone. Everyone had to rely on wild berries and spring water. Then the four came to a three-way split in the road.
At this point, Ah Wan could no longer walk and refused to be carried. So everyone decided to leave her in a nearby cave and proceed. But what were they to do? The road split into three paths; a path up the mountain and two around it.
"Let's do this," said Ah Ri. "I'll take the middle road, while you, Ah Yue, take the south road. You, Ah Xing, take the north road. In three days, we'll meet back here to look on Ah Wan."
And so, after leaving Ah Wan enough berries and fruit to eat for three days, the other three headed off to the three different directions the next morning.
(2) The Tale of Ah Ri
Ah Ri walked from morning until late at night without so much as a short rest. By nightfall he had reached a hilly area, and here the road suddenly and mysteriously ended. With all his might, he tried to locate the road again but couldn't. While looking for the road, he heard a moan. He followed the moaning and groaning and soon came across an old white-bearded man pinned beneath a boulder.
"Who are you, old Grandfather?" asked Ah Ri.
"I'll tell you," the old man sighed. "When I was younger, I was a woodsman. In this very spot, I once insulted the god of the mountain. Ah, I don't even remember what I had said, but anyway, I offended him in some manner. So, he then let this rock roll down upon me and said that if no one rescued me in one hundred years, I would die."
"How long have you been here, then?"
"Ninety-nine years, three hundred sixty-four days."
"Aiyo!" cried Ah Ri. "Then let me get this rock off you right away!"
Try as he might, Ah Ri could not roll the boulder off the old man. He pushed and pulled the boulder, but it still would not budge. He then found a fist-sized rock nearby and picked it up. He attacked the boulder with this smaller rock in his hand, hacking away with it all through the night until the great boulder finally cracked and splintered into smaller rocks. By the time the first rays of the morning loomed over the horizon, Ah Ri was able to pull a now much smaller and slimmer boulder off the old man with his bruised and bloodied hands.
All rocks--big and little--had now been cleared away, but where was the old man? All Ah Ri found underneath the dirt and rocks was a shiny hoe. And beneath the it was a flat stone with an inscription which stated: "Behold the Golden Hoe. It is a gift to you. Take it and use it."
The Golden Hoe, thought Ah Ri. The legendary hoe of every gardener's and farmer's dreams!
Indeed it was. With this hoe, Ah Ri could create a road by merely tapping the ground. All rocks, boulders, logs, swamps, and rivers would be tossed away like pebbles for the new road that could be laid in any direction. He took the hoe and headed back to his younger sister and, eventually, a reunion with his brother and other sister.
(3) The Tale of Ah Yue
Ah Yue too had started out walking furiously all day and way into the evening when the south road she was on suddenly ended at the swamp lands. While looking for a path around the swamps, she heard moaning coming from a nearby area. Looking closer, she saw many fishes and shrimp bobbing on the surface of the murky water. Looking closer still, she saw a large carp swim up to her.
"This had once been a deep lake," said the carp, weeping as it spoke, "and the water had been pristine. Then one day a monstrous toad came and sat over the spring which was the source of our water, blocking all the water. Now the lake is as you see it--muddy, foul, poisonous for us all."
"Then I shall go to the spring and remove the toad for you!" said Ah Yue.
"It is not so easy. You need to cross the swamp, and there is no road or bridge. You'll need to cross over on a bamboo pole you'll find in that direction," said the carp, pointing the direction with its nose. "Take care not to fall in!"
She soon spotted the bamboo pole suspended over the bog. On the other side of this very long pole, atop a large hill, sat the toad, as big as a small house. Ah Yue started to slide across the pole on her stomach. She herself was hungry and tired, but she continued across the pole, determined to help the sick and dying creatures of the lake. She continued inching along the pole.
When she was very close to the other side, the toad opened its mouth, whipped out its long tongue and scooped up Ah Yue before swallowing her. While in the creature's mouth, quick-thinking Ah Yue took out her short knife, and just as the toad was about to swallow her for good, she cut away, making a hole in what was the monstrous toad's throat. The toad spat her out, and she dashed to safety. The huge toad thrashed about in agony and rolled down the hill to its final resting spot somewhere in the swamp that it itself had created.
Ah Yue climbed to the top of the hill where the toad had been sitting. There she found a metal pot in the shape of a squatting toad. On the pot was an inscription: "The Free-Flowing Pot." She opened its lid, and immediately clear, cool fresh water bubbled up and then flowed out of the pot, cleansing all that lay in its path and ending up in the stagnant lake of sick and dying fish and shrimp. Soon the lake was once again free of that which had been strangling it. Her job done there, Ah Yue turned around to leave.
"Take the pot with you!" cried the carp. "Our lake has been restored to us; we're all right now. You need the pot to restore other places. Take it!"
And so, thanking the carp and closing the lid of the pot, Ah Yue picked the pot back up, crossed back over the bamboo pole, and headed back on the path that had brought her to this formerly sad place.
(4) The Tale of Ah Xing
And what of Ah Xing? Like his older brother and sister, he had stayed on his chosen road--the northern road--all day and way into the night without rest. He soon passed a grass hut. Outside, a very old lady was watering an old stick and what appeared under the moonlight to be stringy weeds.
"Grandma, why are you watering these dead things?" he asked.
"Aii," she shook her head and sighed, "you just don't know what I've been through. When I was young, my father had me engaged to an old man, and I refused to go along with it. He then punished me, cursed me, by making me water these weeds and this stick until flowers bloomed upon them. So all day and night, I am out here waiting, waiting, waiting to see something, anything, bloom, but it never does."
"If you water them for ninety-nine years, they'll never bloom!"
"Ninety-nine years? I'm destined to do this for one hundred years! I've got two more days to go, but I don't believe anything will come of it."
"Please let me help you," said Ah Xing.
Though he was exhausted and hungry, he got to work. He took the bucket from her withered, gnarled hands and started watering the stick and the weeds.
"Aren't you needed elsewhere?" she asked. "You were in such a hurry when you were on the road."
"Don't worry, Grandma," Ah Xing said. "There is always time to help another person."
For the next two days, he tended to this pitiful garden, sleeping in the little hut at night.
Brother and Sister must have succeeded or perished by now, he thought. Here I am, trying to accomplish the impossible. Well, I might as well finish what I have started and help this poor old woman, as I promised to do.
Exactly two days passed.
On the morning of the third day, Ah Xing got up early to water the stick and weeds. Looking closely, he saw that the stick was now sprouting little buds, and there was fruit growing on what had been mere weeds. Before his eyes, flowers bloomed on the other former weeds.
He called for the old woman to come out. She did so, bent down and retrieved a fist full of seeds from the blooming flowers. She handed him the seeds, saying, "These are for you and your village. You've already tarried here long enough. Your brother and sisters are waiting for you at the crossroads. Now quickly, be on your way!"
Ah Xing was astounded that she knew about his brother and sisters. He thanked her and, with his seeds, he headed back on the road. When he turned around to wave goodbye, the old woman, her hut and her garden were gone.
(5) Home Again
Back home the two brothers and two sisters cultivated the land with the magic seeds, using the Golden Hoe. The free-flowing pot irrigated their garden and provided unlimited pure spring water for all. In time the seeds produced nourishing, delicious oranges that people for many miles around enjoyed. They say that this orange grove is in Huafeng Village, Hua'an County, Fujian Province, and that it still produces wonderful oranges even to this day.
from Chen & Wang, pp. 455-461.
In China, there are two different metaphorical and metaphysical interpretations for "three jewels" or "three treasures" (Mandarin: sanbao), either or both of which may be of interest and related to this story. In Taoism, the Three Treasures are mercy, frugality, and selflessness. In Buddhism, they are the Buddha, the (Buddhist) Law, and the Sangha (the Buddhist community of monks) (Chen Yixiao). Both interpretations are , thus, descriptions of the proper religious life. Toads, not surprisingly, are associated with wells and water. It is said that the severed leg of a toad can, upon scratching the dirt, cause spring water to flow from that spot (Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 292). Another tale tells how the hero Liu Hai lured a poisonous toad out of a well (Ong Hean-Tatt, 256). I strongly suspect that the present folktale, if it ever was a true folktale, has been severely revised to include contemporary ecological motifs and concerns that are more in keeping with modern didactic children's literature. The irony that Ah Wan's siblings think that she would be safe in a cave but not in her own home might humor the reader. Motif: J154, "Wise words of a dying father."