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A "Daoist" presumably can be anybody who follows Daoism. But the difficulty in defining Daoism therefore also extendes to defining Daoists. In folklore many Daoists are roaming ne'er-do-wells (or seeming ne'er-do-wells) on the periphery of respectable society. Some strike us as ambulatory schizophrenics, some as prophets, some as con artists. Many, like the one in the following story, are presented as "trickster figures," whose adventures gently (or not so gently) point up the moral failings of those who cross them.
This story is from the group of "Liáozhāi" 聊斋 stories by the Pú Sōnglíng 蒲松龄 (1640-1715).
A countryman selling pears, preferably at a high price
A ragged Daoist, fond of pears, preferably at a low price
A countryman was one day selling his pears in the market. They were unusually sweet and fine flavored, and the price he asked was high. A Daoist priest in rags and tatters stopped at the barrow and begged one of them. The countryman told him to go away, but as he did not do so he began to curse and swear at him.
The priest said, "You have several hundred pears on your barrow; I ask for a single one, the loss of which, sir, you would not feel. Why then get angry?"
The lookers-on told the countryman to give him an inferior one and let him go, but this he obstinately refused to do. Thereupon the beadle of the place, finding the commotion too great, purchased a pear and handed it to the priest. The latter received it with a bow and turning to the crowd said, "We who have left our homes and given up all that is dear to us are at a loss to understand selfish conduct in others. Now I have some exquisite pears which I shall do myself the honor to put before you."
Here somebody asked, " Since you have pears yourself, why don't you eat those ? "
"Because," replied the priest, "I wanted one of these pips to grow them from."
So saying he munched up the pear; and when he had finished took a pip in his hand, unstrapped a pick from his back, and proceeded to make a hole in the ground, several inches deep, wherein he deposited the pip, filling in the earth as before. He then asked the bystanders for a little hot water to water it with, and one among them who loved a joke fetched him some boiling water from a neighboring shop. The priest poured this over the place where he had made the hole, and every eye was fixed upon him when sprouts were seen shooting up, and gradually growing larger and larger.
By-and-by, there was a tree with branches sparsely covered with leaves ; then flowers, and last of all fine, large, sweet-smelling pears hanging in great profusion. These the priest picked and handed round to the assembled crowd until all were gone, when he took his pick and hacked away for a long time at the tree, finally cutting it down. This he shouldered, leaves and all, and sauntered quietly away.
Now, from the very beginning, our friend the countryman had been amongst the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and forgetting all about his business. At the departure of the priest he turned round and discovered that every one of his pears was gone. He then knew that those the old fellow had been giving away so freely were really his own pears. Looking more closely at the barrow, he found that one of the handles was missing, evidently having been newly cut off. Boiling with rage, he set out in pursuit of the priest, and just as he turned the corner he saw the lost barrow-handle lying under the wall, being in fact the very pear-tree the priest had cut down.
But there were no traces of the priest —much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place.
The translation of this story is modified from:
- GILES, Herbert A.
- 1916 Strange stories from a Chinese studio. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh. Pp. 8-10.
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