Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Ox That Knew a Thing Or Two (Zhuang)

This happened long ago, when people and animals still understood each other's language . . .

One day a farmer led an ox into a muddy paddy to do some plowing. The ox found himself up to his belly in the mire and felt most miserable. He raised a leg here and raised a leg there, moving very slowly. After what seemed like all day, the farmer discovered he had plowed an area probably not bigger than a banana leaf.

The farmer was furious and took a stick to the ox, beating him and scolding him.

"Oh, was there ever a beast more stupid and slower than you?" the farmer asked. "All day long we've been here, and just look at the ridiculously small patch you've managed to plow! Not all animals are as stupid and slow as you, though! No, indeed. Look at the tiger. He is both clever and fast. You ought to be more like him, as if you could!"

"Just wait a moment!" replied the ox, unable to hold his feelings in any longer. "I am better than any tiger when it comes to having any abilities!"

"Oh, is that a fact?" The farmer snorted. "I just bet . . ."

"You don't believe me?" asked the ox. "Fine. Tomorrow take me to see the tiger. I'll show you who is smarter, who is more able!"

"It's a deal," said the farmer. "Now let's get some more work done here!"

The next day the farmer led the ox to the tiger's lair, a cave. Long before the ox arrived, the tiger had already smelled the scent of approaching beef, so he bared his fangs, crouched and waited for the ox to arrive.

When the ox did show up, he lowered his horns and pointed them at the approaching tiger.

"Tiger! Tiger!" shouted the ox. The tiger halted. "Listen to me, Tiger. I did not come here today to fight you to the death. That can wait. No, I came here to tell you that your fangs are dull, as dull as spoons. So I'll suggest something to you. I'll return here in three days' time. During the next three days, I suggest you sharpen your fangs. I'll sharpen my own horns a bit too. Then we shall see who can beat whom. What do you say?"

"I'll be waiting, Ox." The tiger snarled and skulked back inside his cave.

So for the next three days, the tiger went about sharpening his fangs until they were as finely honed as razors.

The ox, meanwhile, sharpened his own horns but only for a day. For the next two days, he gathered all kinds of long, thick stalks and grasses and bound them to his body by wrapping them here and stuffing them there until they made up many layers. Next, he rolled himself in the mud until he was covered with mud from head to tail. When the mud dried, he repeated the process, and then, when that layer was dried, he rolled upon the ground until everything was good and plastered to his body. He then waited until the whole thing dried and hardened.

With the way he looked now, one would not be able to tell that beneath the mud was was layer upon layer of grass and stalks!

Finally the day of the duel to the death arrived. The ox arrived at the appointed place. As expected, the tiger was waiting. Off to the distance stood the farmer to witness the event.

"Why did you show up all covered with mud?" asked the tiger.

"Are you ever dumb!" replied the ox. "Is it not summertime? All day long I plow under the hot sun. Everyone knows oxen like me have to cool ourselves off by getting ourselves nice and muddy!"

"Oh. Well, anyway, Ox, you certainly look . . . beefier, fatter, juicier. I'm really going to enjoy ripping into your flesh!"

"Not so fast, Tiger. I'm not some weak goat or fat hog you can just kill without worry. You'll have your chance."

"You bet I'll have my chance. My fangs were a bit dull a few days ago, but they're more than able now to shred you!"

"Is that so, Tiger? I'll tell you what. I'll give you the first shot. I'll lie down on the ground and let you bite into me three times. If after that, I'm still alive, you must lie down on the ground and let me gore you three times. What do you say?"

"Fine by me!"

The ox nonchalantly lay down on the ground as if to rest.

"Well, come on . . . "

The tiger then immediately sprang upon the ox and sank his fangs into the ox's back, thigh, and then ribs--all without any effect on the ox, all without drawing so much as a drop of blood from the big beast busily switching his tail.

"All right, Tiger. You had your three chances. Now it's my turn . . ."

The tiger lay down, now shaking, now not quite as cocky as before.

The ox then raised himself up and attacked the ox. He gored the tiger's stomach, back and ribs. Blood flowed profusely . . . the tiger never knew what hit him . . . he lay dead in his own pool of blood.

From that day on, the farmer showed the ox newly found respect; he never again scolded or laid a finger on the ox.

To this day, you can ask any farmer about his own ox. He will tell you that, no, an ox is not a graceful, beautiful animal, but, yes, it certainly does know a thing or two!


from Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Zhongguo minjian gushixuan (A selection of Chinese folktales.) pp. 369-370.

Motifs: B264.3, "Duel of tiger and buffalo"; H1122, "Task: Preparing large quantities of grains."

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