The often-told story of the foolish old man
Adapted by Amy Friedman
Adapted by Amy Friedman
"The Foolish Old Man" is a legend from China.
Once upon a time an old, old man named Yugong lived in northern China between two giant mountains. Taihang Mountain and Wangwu Mountain rose thousands of feet high and 70 miles wide. They stood between Jizhou and the River Han.
Headstrong Yugong often complained about those mountains. One morning, just before his 100th birthday, he awoke 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.
That evening, he said to his wife, "I might see more beautiful vistas if those mountains weren't in my way."
One day Yugong summoned his family. He had many sons and daughters, and they had sons and daughters, and some of those grandchildren had children. When everyone was seated, he said, "We must flatten the mountains."
Yugong's wife 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 man, and no longer do I care to walk around the mountains to reach the river. 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 began to break apart rocks and mounds of earth, tossing them into large baskets. They carried the baskets to the sea to toss them in. As they walked, they passed a bend in the river where a wise old man known as Zhisou lived.
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." He looked at Yugong. "You're an old, old man. You can barely walk."
Yugong sighed. "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 on and on, without end. Those mountains will never grow, so sooner or later we will succeed."
As the men spoke, the god of the mountains overheard this conversation. He reported the tale to the king of the gods.
"He will never give up," the god of the mountains said.
The king of the gods saw this was true. So he commanded the two sons of Kua'eshi, god of strength, to carry away the mountains.
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.