The ancient Chinese philosophers used to distill the essence of their moral teachings into fables that ordinary folk could understand. These fables were economical, pedagogic and often humorous, offering people a kind of practical Daoism, or guide to life.

Chinese fables have been handed down the centuries through both text and the spoken word. But while they might look more beautiful block printed on fabric, I prefer to think of them passing from mouth to mouth, from one person to the next, like generational Chinese whispers.

To the modern ear these fables tend to sound quaint. Yet passing time has robbed them of none of their profundity or humour.

The Man Who Saw Nobody (with its strangely Hitchcockean title) is contained in the Lieh Tzu, a practical philosophy text of the 4th century BCE. It’s about a man who made off with a piece of gold in a busy marketplace. All and sundry saw him steel it. But he himself saw no one, only the gold he was so intent on having.

The fable is short, running to just six lines. But there are telling incidental details. The would-be criminal wears his best clothes the day he is to execute his plan. The police officer who questions him is guileless as well as incredulous. ‘why did you steal gold in front of so many people?’ he asks the man, who explains, with a hapless shrug, that he saw only the gold.

We’re also told that the witless thief hails from the state of Chi, which made me wonder whether Tang era sophisticates in Bejing looked down on their clueless cousins in Chi, much as the French mock the Belgians today, or the English, the Irish.

Many of the Lieh Tzu fables concern the mistrust that exists between neighbours —  an enmity so natural it has been with us since the beginning of society, ever since clans began to settle side by side in towns and then cities.

One of these fables, called Suspicion, is about a man who loses his axe and suspects his neighbour’s son of having stolen it. From that moment on every move the youth makes, every look and gesture, takes on the aspect of thievery: to the axe-less man the youth is tainted. However, sometime later the man finds his axe and goes out to dig in the field. There he happens to catch sight of his neighbour’s son. But now the boy looks quite unlike a thief.

Some of the fables I read to the group provoked guffaws. The one about the man whose shields are so strong they cannot be pierced and whose spears are so sharp they can pierce anything. So what happens, asks an onlooker, when one of his spears strikes one of his shields. Or take the fable about the man who wants to sell some gorgeous pearls. He commissions a casket made of rare wood, scents it with spices, inlays it with jade, and wraps it in kingfisher’s plumes. The result: no one wants his pearls, but everyone clamours to buy the casket.

The fable that stirred the most interest was written by Yin Wen Tzu in 3rd Century BCE. Called The Prince and his Bow, it tells of a certain Prince Hsuan, a keen archer who enjoyed being praised for his skill with the bow. Hsuan’s attendants knew this and, although the prince could drawn no bow heavier than 30 catties, they pretended to be unable to draw his bow. ‘This must weigh at least 90 catties’ they cried, bending the bow to just half its extent. The prince was pleased. Till the end of his life he believed his bow weighed 90 catties, when it was in fact 30. “But but for the sake of the empty name he sacrificed the truth.’

I instantly felt for plight of the attendants, forced to be less than they were in order to move freely in their social world. But someone else pointed out that the attendants knew very well their own power and were playing with the prince, mocking his virility even as they enjoyed their greater strength: they, not the prince held the trump card. But, said another, the Prince commands more power because he can get people to deny the truth. But, said another, that kind of power is ultimately empty because it commands through status and not personal virtue. And so we went on, in circles.

Even if we couldn’t be sure who was duping who, we all agreed that the fable was a masterful allegory of power, and as apt in describing class relations today as it was twenty odd centuries ago. Personally speaking, I find it a comfort that there are such profound continuities between ancients and moderns; that their literature and wisdom traditions, and philosophy, and spirit are still able to reach us largely intact. I only wish these fables were more widely known.

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