Here are two Chinese fables you may have slept through (if you’re like me) in world history class.

In the first fable, a throng of artists gathered to see who could draw a snake the fastest. This was pre-Crayola, so they used the earth as their canvas and sticks as their brushes. The artist who finished first gleefully claimed the prize wine. Then, chugging the wine as he waited for the others to finish, he added feet to his snake to make it prettier. The villagers saw this and confiscated the rest of his drink, telling him that he hadn’t drawn a snake, was extremely arrogant, and probably underage anyway. To this day, accusing somebody of adding feet to a snake—huashe tianzu—is a pointed criticism suggesting that the person has embellished a story. (A Chinese reader, for example, looking at my rendition of these fables, might suggest that I’ve turned a snake into a millipede.)

In the second story, there was an old man, Yu, who lived in craggy terrain that made the wagon trip to and from his home uncomfortable. To lessen the black and blue toll on rear end, Yu set himself and his sons to work with shovels to move the mountain in front of his house. The resident wise man was already rolling on the floor: “How can you move a mountain!” Yu replied that his sons would have sons and grandsons, and that through the cumulative effort of successive generations the mountains could eventually be moved. God was swayed by Yu’s persistence and moved the mountains Himself. That story gave rise to a well-known and admiring expression— yugong yishan, or “foolish man who moved a mountain”—for someone who accomplishes a great goal through persistence.

The moral of the first story is partly that we shouldn’t add to perfection, but to me it also suggests that the most capable and intelligent may finish last. The moral of the second is that the least rational but most persevering often finish first. God vindicates not the wise person who (tartly) admonishes the old man against an impossible task, but rather the old man who begins the impossible task because he doesn’t know any better.

Before I arrived in China, I was brushing up on my long division so that I wouldn’t stick out like a prime number in the land of towering IQs (didn’t work). Though I have met people who probably could calculate the standard deviation of my misapprehensions, most of my Chinese friends aren’t geniuses but simply extremely hard workers. I sometimes think back to my own high school where it was cool to study and then brag about not studying, since cruising through tests with no preparation meant you were a topflight student. But Chinese students traditionally study and then brag about studying. They admire the kids who slowly but persistently conquer their own mountains, even if in the classroom their ideas fall as silently as a spade in soft earth.

While we often stereotype young Chinese students as Einsteins in diapers, we might realize that Chinese historically hold the opposite value. The smartest person in the realm rarely snatched the golden apple. “More often,” my Chinese teacher says, “he was executed by the emperor for arrogance.”

Cross-cultural surveys have shown that in America, people think that the students who get the best grades are those who are smartest. In China (and the Confucian belt of Asia), surveys show that people think those who get the best grades are those who work the hardest. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but the notion that hard work is rewarded is certainly a useful and convenient ideology in the education world.

Americans who prize intelligence over diligence can learn from China’s education values. And although the success story of cerebrally-challenged Yu comes as a personal relief to someone like me, we should treat its lesson with care. The ethic of dogged perseverance replays itself in the rote memorization that has long been China’s blueprint for learning—and that methodology dampens the imagination. It chills the creative spirit. While Yu-like persistence can reshape the horizon, it will dull our shovels with too much use and dull our minds with too little. We’ll come to see things as they are without imagining what they could be.

I hope that God moved Yu’s mountain before the poor man croaked from repeated hernias, and I hope that the daring artist was able to get sufficiently drunk before his competitors plucked away his goblet of fun. The fact is that anyone can move a mountain. But to color outside the line? To draw feet on a snake? That takes imagination.


About gregkristof

Professional troublemaker
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2 Responses to Fables

  1. Nicholas Kristof says:

    Your comment about adding feet to the snake, and creativity, made me think: Chinese art is amazing, of course, but it is pretty much all representational. Not a lot of Chinese Mondrians, or Picassos. Maybe in their formative years they were contemptuously told by their art teachers that they were: 画蛇添足…. And so they ended up painting landscapes instead….

  2. Suzy says:

    this post is right on the money

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