Tell Me a Story

The Foolish Old Man (A Legend From China)

Once upon a time an old, old man named Yugong lived in northern China between two enormous mountains. Taihang Mountain and Wangwu Mountain rose thousands of feet high and 70 miles wide, and they stood between Jizhou and the River Han.

Yugong was a headstrong old fellow who often complained about those mountains. One morning, just before his 100th birthday, he woke and looked out the window. Staring at Taihang, he muttered, "That mountain is blocking my view."

Then he turned his head slightly and looked at Wangwu. "How can I go anywhere when I have to walk around such a towering thing!" he said grumpily.

All that day Yugong lay in bed worrying about what those mountains blocked from his sight.

That evening he said to his wife, "I might see more beautiful vistas if those mountains weren't in my way."

She shook her head. She was accustomed to her husband's complaints.

But Yugong's complaints did not stop, and one day he summoned his entire family to his home. He had many sons and daughters, and they too had sons and daughters, and some of those grandchildren had children of their own. The house overflowed with people.

Yugong called everyone to gather around him, and when they were seated and quiet, he announced, "We must flatten the mountains."

Yugong's wife sat in the corner, shook her head and mumbled, "Those majestic beauties," but nobody heard her whispers.

Yugong went on. "I wish to walk to the River Han," he said. "I am an old, old man, and no longer do I care to walk around the mountains to reach the river. I need a direct route. We must flatten the mountains."

Everyone concurred except his wife.

Finally she stood up. "How will you flatten the mountains?" she asked. "You are so weak you cannot even pull a tuft of grass from the earth. And the rest of you?" She looked around the room. "You are foolish to think you could move something so broad and strong. Taihang and Wangwu are children of the earth."

"We'll toss them into the sea," one of the sons cried. "The earth is for people."

The others cheered. "You're fools, you are," the wife said, but when Yugong and his sons and grandsons set off for the mountains, she did not stop them.

"Go," she said. "Be fools if you must."

When the men and boys reached the foot of the mountains, they picked up their axes and began to break apart rocks and mounds of earth, tossing them into large baskets. When the baskets were full, they carried them to the sea to toss them in.

As they were walking, they passed a bend in the river where a wise old man known as Zhisou had built his home.

When Zhisou saw the parade carrying baskets of rocks and dirt, he asked what they were doing.

"We're drowning Taihang and Wangwu," they said. "We've had enough of those mountains."

Zhisou laughed. "You cannot drown earth and stone. You are fools. You'll never drown such majestic mountains." He looked at Yugong. "You're an old, old man. You can barely walk."

Yugong sighed. "I am weak and old, that is true," he said. "And it is true that one day before long I will die. But my sons live on, and they have produced grandsons who produce great-grandsons, and those grandsons will produce great-great-grandsons, and on and on, without end. Those mountains will never grow, so sooner or later we will succeed."

Zhisou did not know what to say to that.

Now as the men spoke, the god of the mountains overheard this conversation. He saw that the old man was determined, and so he reported the tale to the king of the gods.

"He will never give up," the god of the mountains said. "Forever he and his descendants will scratch and claw and dig at my feet."

The king of the gods saw this was true, and he knew he must protect the mountains. So he commanded the two sons of Kua'eshi, god of strength, to carry away the mountains. "Move them so the old man is satisfied," the king of the gods commanded.

And this they did. They put one mountain east of Shuozhou and the other south of Yongzhou, and from that time on, no mountain blocked the old man's view, and ever since that day, whenever people stand atop the Heavenly Peak of Wangwu Mountain or the hilly trails of Taihang, they tell the tale of the foolish old man.

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