Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Two-Headed Phoenix (Dai)

There were once two friends whose love for each other put the closest brothers to shame. These two men shared everything; each made sure the other was never without what he himself had. They had been friends for many, many years and no doubt expected to enjoy many more years of friendship and brotherhood. One day, though, one of the two, the elder, fell ill. He grew worse and worse daily until, alas, he passed away. The younger of the pair was inconsolable. He carried on for a while without his lifelong friend, but it was very difficult for him. One day, not surprisingly, he too fell ill and, before long, he too was gone. Not long after they they left this existence, they were both reborn as one animal--a two-headed phoenix. It had one body and tail and a pair of wings like any other bird. It also had a pair of heads. This creature behaved just the same selfless way as the two friends had in life. Both heads cared for each other; both heads helped each other find food. And this phoenix flew only to places both heads wanted to visit. One day a hunter spotted the phoenix in the woods. Instinctively, he raised his hunting rifle. He stopped in his tracks and He did a double take. Yes, he, thought to himself, it's a phoenix; not only that, it is a double-headed one! One head was feeding the other head. He lowered his rifle. He didn't have the heart to kill the phoenix because he was so moved by the way the two heads had obviously so much affection for each other. The hunter left the forest and returned to his village. He told everyone there about the fabulous creature he had seen in the forest. "Oh?" asked his friends and neighbors. "Tell us more." Each of those villagers made sure he/she told everyone else he/she knew. Before long, well, the king himself heard of the two-headed phoenix. The king was fascinated. He sent his chief game warden into that part of the forest with orders to capture this creature. Now this game warden was himself a very canny hunter. He too spied the double-headed phoenix on the high branch of a tree. He raised his rifle, but before he could shoot, the phoenix had flown off to another tree. The game warden again tracked it down. Once again he raised his rifle, but once again the phoenix, as if guided by some hidden awareness, flew away to safety before the game warden could shoot it! The game warden continued to track the phoenix but had to give up the hunt at dusk. Disappointed, his head downcast, the game warden returned to the royal palace to give his report to the king. The king, of course, was not happy to see the game warden return empty handed. "I promise I'll catch that phoenix, Your Majesty," the game warden told the king. "Rest assured I'll bring it to you alive!" "Very well," the king replied. "See that you do--soon." The game warden went to his workshop and started to work on a number of traps just for the two-headed phoenix. He finished building them early in the morning, when the sky is at its blackest. With the help of a small caravan, he then took the traps into the forest to capture his prey. He had the traps spread out beneath fruit trees all through the forest. The game warden then hunkered down in the dark forest to wait and to watch, no matter how long it would take . . . Then, at daybreak, he received the news he had been waiting for from one his men--the two-headed phoenix had been caught! He rushed over to that particular trap; sure enough, the phoenix was inside, its two heads looking all around, no doubt trying to figure out how to get themselves out of this trap. "No escape for you!" The game warded laughed, loading the trap onto a mule. "Prepare to meet the king!" Before long, the caged phoenix with two heads sat before the king. "They are all yours, Your Majesty! Any further instructions for your humble servant?" asked the game warden. "No. I want to be alone with my phoenix. You are dismissed." Now in the throne room, it was just the king and his phoenix. The king had heard about how unselfish and loving this creature was, so he decided to do some experiments. He fed one of the two heads but not the other. The head that received food stopped eating after the full mouthful, when it became clear the other head would be receiving no food. When the king tried to feed the head that had eaten a morsel a little more, it took the food and gave it to the other head. It did this over and over. If the king prevented the first head from giving the second head food, the first head just didn't eat. No matter what the king did, he couldn't force this head to eat or prevent it from feeding its brother. The king was angry; he wasn't used to being disobeyed. He summoned his top councillors. "All right, men," said the king, "I have a task for you. See the two-headed phoenix here in this cage?" The men all nodded. "I need you to find a way so that I can split this creature into two living phoenixes--two, not one. Whoever can do this will receive a full half of my kingdom! Do you understand?" The men looked at each other and then nodded again. "Well, step forward, whoever among you can accomplish this task!" Finally, one councillor did manage to step forward. "Your Majesty, if I succeed in splitting this phoenix into two living phoenixes, I shall receive half your kingdom? Did I understand you correctly?" "Yes." "Well, Your Majesty, I am willing to try, but I must request you allow me to take the two-headed phoenix home with me for at least a full month. Do I have your permission?" "Permission granted!" "And you do promise me, Your Majesty, to give me half of your kingdom if I succeed?" "You heard me the first time! Do not ask me again! Now get to it!" The councillor then took the caged two-headed phoenix home. He suspended the cage from the main beam of his ceiling. He then set about finding a way to split the phoenix into two birds. Everyday he watched over the bird, noticing its every movement, as he fed the two heads. He wanted to take over half of the kingdom, so he devoted every available moment to observing the bird and to devising a way to split the bird into two. Many days into his project, he discovered something: during periods of the day, the two birds' heads would turn in totally opposite directions. This happened randomly throughout the day. I'll split you two yet, thought the councillor as he looked at the two-headed phoenix. Yes, you shall see. You'll shall be two birds and I, the ruler of half a kingdom before the week's done. He waited for the next time one of the two heads would turn totally away from its partner and brother. When the head on the right did so, the councillor immediately stood beside the bird's head and whispered this to him: "Xu xu xu xu xu xu . . . " The councillor then stepped back, turned around and left the room. As soon as he was gone, the head on the left turned to the one on the right and asked, "What did he just say to you?" "Nothing!" "Really? Come on, now. What did he really say?" "Nothing I tell you! Just some nonsense. That's all!" "All right . . . " After a while, the councillor reenterred the room and waited for the right head to turn his way again. Once it did, the councillor whispered to it: "Xu xu xu xu xu . . . " He then left the room. "That man just whispered something to you again this time! I know he did!" said the head on the left. "Now what did he say this time?" The head on the right sighed and said, "Nothing! Just something ridiculous, meaningless!" "Now don't you tell me he said nothing! I know he said something!" "He didn't say anything that made sense!" "Uh huh . . . " The next day, the councillor whispered the same nonsense to the head on the right and then left the two heads alone. "Let me see," said the head on the left. "He said 'absolutely nothing at all.' Is that what you're going to tell me?" "I have no idea what he said, Brother! It made no sense! It never makes sense!" "Of course . . . of course . . . " "He doesn't really say anything!" "Yes, yes. I believe you." "You do?" "No. You're a terrible liar!" The two heads, belonging to, in another life, two sworn brothers and lifelong friends, began to quarrel; the quarreling turned to vicious pecking. The fighting grew more intense, as the two heads pecked and scratched at each other's head. They squawked, screeched and grunted; feathers flew and the cage rocked violently back and forth. Finally, with great effort from both heads, the phoenix split right down the middle, becoming, at last, two complete birds! "Ha, ha!" The councillor leaped into the room, grabbed the cage and ran off for the royal palace. He presented the king with what were now two phoenixes instead of one. "Here you are, Your Majesty! Two phoenixes, not one! And all done within a month's time!" The councillor beamed from ear to ear. "Now I believe we had a deal . . . " "A deal? Oh, yes," replied the king, admiring the birds. "Discuss it with me later." Here our tale ends. The king ended up with what he had wanted: two phoenixes instead of one. The councillor, however, ended up with nothing. The king refused to admit he had had a deal with the councillor. The poor councillor! He had never dreamt his words to the king would be just as intelligible as all the "xu xu xu" he had spoken to the phoenix's right head! Notes from (1) Minhua ji (A collection of popular tales), Qiu Meidai, ed. Taipei: Yongan Chubanshe, 1978. pp. 39-44. (2) Zhongguo minjian gushixuan, vol. one. pp. 451-453. Note an interesting anachronism: the mention of hunting guns. The Dai of Southwest China is an umbrella term for tribes containing some who are ethnically related to the majority group of Thailand. For another (though more sardonic) tale of "divide and conquer," see the Mongol story "The Tiger, the Yak and the Fox" (7/25/07). A note to Sarah Probasco: Sarah, I'm not sure if you received my email note so I'll print my response below. I was asked to recommend some English translations of classical Chinese literature. I'd recommend the titles below: Cyril Birch: (1) Anthology of Chinese Literature, vols. 1 & 2. (2) Stories From a Ming Collection David Kherdian: Monkey: A Journey to the West (You also might enjoy Arthur Waley's translation of Monkey as well.) Pu Songling: Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio. (This is the famed Liaozhai. There are various translations. Among the best is the one by Herbert Wade-Giles, famed sinologist of the previous century.) Pearl Buck: All Men Are Brothers (This is Miss Buck's translation of The Water Margin, or Shuihu zhuan, the famous Yuan dynasty action novel by Shi Naian.


  1. I am a high school English teacher and am trying to find ancient Chinese literature to teach - any ideas?
    Sarah Probasco

  2. I am a high school English teacher and am trying to find some ancient Chinese literature to teach. Any suggestions on some good folktales?
    Sarah Probasco

  3. Hello!

    I had a very pleasant (and busy) 11 days in 2007 visiting 17 schools in Guongzhou (working for the British council).

    I'm delighted to find your tales, and wish you well.

    Bob Wilkins,