Friday, August 13, 2010

Three Contemporary Chinese Fables

(1) The Master Builder

A master builder had worked many years building houses for his employee, Mr. Li. He and his wife had talked about his retiring one day, so today he would notify Mr. Li that he would no longer be working for him or for anyone else, for that matter."

"Oh, Shifu (i.e., master, maestro), you can't be serious?" asked Mr. Li. "Is there any way I convince you to stay on, at least for one more project?"

"No, Mr. Li, my mind's made up. I've worked for you for many years, and, while I appreciate working for you and the good salary you've paid me, the time has come for me to retire. I now want to spend more time with my wife and grandchildren."

"Listen, I have just one more project coming up for you, and I really need your help! This house will be the biggest, grandest, most opulent house of all, built with only the finest redwood and marble. How could I possibly have it constructed with anyone else but you overseeing the job? Please, Shifu, don't desert me at this time!"

"Well . . . "

"No, I must really beg you to reconsider!"

The master builder sighed. "Well, all right . . . but just this one house and that's it!"

"Thank you, Shifu!"

The master builder went home to tell his wife that he would work on yet one more construction project for Mr. Li, a house which when completed would be a masterpiece.

"Oh, you foolish man!" his wife said. "You're such a walkover for others. Since you agreed, just quickly get the thing done."

"But it is to be built with the finest of materials . . . "

"Who cares! Just hurry up and build it!"

So the master builder got started on this new job which was to be his last, and, yes, he had his crew do a rather slapdash job. He was more interested in getting the job done than in doing the job well. The result--a house with many shortcomings, most of which were not immediately noticeable.

When the house was completed, Mr. Li showed up, bearing a piece of paper and some keys, which he thrust into the hands of the startled master builder.

"What's . . . all . . . this, Mr. Li?" the master builder asked.

"Surprise! These are the deed and keys to your house, Shifu! This is my gift to you and your wife upon your retirement and for your many, many years of exemplary work. May you live for many years in total comfort in this house you yourself have built!"

(2) Dogfight

A young hoodlum swaggered through a neighborhood with a large dog he had trained to be vicious. If he encountered anyone taking a dog for a walk, he'd challenge the other dog owner to let both their animals fight.

Of course one look at his snarling and snapping dog was enough to make others turn around with their own dogs and head quickly away.

So this young thug strutted through the neighborhood, acting as if he owned the place, intimidating others into keeping their dogs indoors.

Now one day he walked his dog over to a park on the edge of the neighborhood. There, he saw an old man and his dog up on a knoll, sitting under a tree. The dog under the tree was the ugliest, weirdest-looking mutt he had ever seen, with a very thick snout, surely no match for his own killer dog.

"Hey, you!" the young hoodlum cried.

The old man looked up.

"Yeah, you! Let your dog and mine fight and see which is tougher. I'll wager you my dog'll rip yours apart!"

"Let them fight, eh?"

"Yeah! C'mon!"

The old man scratched his scrawny beard. He looked at the young tough's dog, then at his own pet, and then back at the young man.

"Very well, if you want . . ."

He untied the leash from the collar of his dog as the young hoodlum did the same. Then the old man gently pushed his dog in the direction of the snarling dog now bounding up the knoll towards them.

The strange-looking dog and the hoodlum's dog crashed into each other.

It was all over in a matter of seconds.

It wasn't even close.

The young hoodlum's vicious dog had been shredded, ripped apart to its very bones. What remained of the poor dog lay in a sickening, bloody heap.

The hoodlum was shaken and dumbstruck. "Wha- . . . Wha- . . . What happened? Your dog . . . what kind of dog is that?"

The old man just shook his head as his animal came back to him and allowed itself to have its leash reattached to its collar. "I guess I can't blame you for not knowing, seeing as how I have his fur all shaved off. He's actually what you call a 'lion.' That might answer your question."

(3) Old Wang and Old Chen

Old Wang and old Chen were two neighbors in adjoining apartment units. Now the Wangs were a noisy lot, always quarreling late into the night, while the Chens were very quiet, with nary a peep ever coming from out of the walls.

None of this was lost on old Wang, who was very embarrassed at how noisily he and his wife argued. He desperately wanted to apologize to old Chen but could never seem to find the chance.

One day he spotted old Chen waiting at the elevator. He jumped at the chance to make amends and rushed to join him while waiting for the elevator car to appear.

"Mr. Chen, my old friend, I really have to apologize for the way my wife and I argue! I know we must be very noisy and have probably kept you and Mrs. Chen up late on more than one occasion. We ought to be like you and Mrs. Chen--as quiet as the grass!"

"Don't worry about it, my friend," said old Chen. "All that arguing you and your wife do only proves one thing."

"What's that?"

"That you two are good people!"

"What?! Don't you mean that you and your wife are good people?"

"No, we're not good people; we're bad."

"Oh? How so?" Now Mr. Wang was mystified.

"Well," said Chen, "it's like this. What did you say the other day when your wife sat down on your reading glasses? 'What are you, woman, blind?'" Old Wang had to wince at that. "Then," continued Chen, "what did your wife say when you spilled tea all over the carpet? 'You clumsy old fool! Are your hands made of rubber?' Do you remember that?"

"Yes," said Wang, "of course I do."

"You must both be good people because each time you scold each other, which you both frequently do, you do so as the hero, while the other is the villain, the bad person!"

"Oh . . . "

"Now my wife and I, " continued Chen, sighing, "on the other hand must be bad! We're both constantly apologizing to each other for the slightest thing! And we do many, many bad things! Why, just this morning, my wife said she was sorry for accidentally shrinking my favorite shirt in the laundry! I quickly forgave her with a smile, of course. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had to apologize because I had forgotten to bring in the laundry! Whew, I shudder when I think about how rotten my wife and I really are!"

"Ah . . . I see . . . "

"Oh," said Mr. Chen, "the elevator's finally here. Oh, my goodness! I'm awfully sorry! After you, please!"


Special thanks to my mentors and dear friends Sue Lau, Sally Zhang, and Joseph Tu for relating these examples of modern Chinese tales to me. For more examples of contemporary Chinese legends, this time, ghost stories, see 6/15/07.

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