Fenghan Gao was an outstanding artist of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD). He had profound wisdom and was multi-talented; he was good at writing poems and good at painting, especially landscapes and flowers. He was also good at seal carving. The famous painter Banqiao Zheng’s many seals were carved by him. However, the most remarkable accomplishment in his life was showing pity on the poor and helping them with a kind heart.

One day, Fenghan Gao was on his way somewhere when he met a blind beggar who wore ragged clothes and begged for food with a bowl in his hand. He seemed to Fenghan to be especially poor and lonely. Immediately, Fenghan felt pity in his heart and wanted to help him in some way. But, since he had not even a penny in his pocket, he didn’t know what to do. Then, he saw that the bowl in the beggar’s hand was nice looking, and he had an idea. He brought the beggar home and treated him to a good meal. After the meal, Fenghan washed the bowl very clean and carved a poem on the bowl, which illuminated the miserable situation of the blind beggar:

The day is drowned in darkness,
An endless road unfurls ahead.
I wander a world so heartless
And beg to fill the empty dread.

The beggar thanked him and went away.

At that time, Fenghan Gao was very famous so the news of his carving a poem on the beggar’s bowl circulated quickly, spreading far and wide with an air of mystery. Many people wanted to see the poem on the bowl—the words were so elegant and the calligraphy so bold and powerful. Thus, wherever, the beggar went begging with this bowl, people scrambled to give him food, just to have a chance to appreciate this great work. From then on, the beggar had enough food to eat. At the time he passed away, a kind person sold the bowl and made enough money to bury the beggar.

Not long after the beggar died, one night, Fenghan Gao had a magical dream. In the dream, the beggar came to his home looking serious and told him, “I come here for one reason: to pay you back all the help you gave me, saving me from cold and hunger in my old age.”  On that very day following the dream, one of his servants gave birth to a healthy boy. Fenghan realized that the child was a reincarnation of the beggar, so he named the boy Scoop. When Scoop grew up, he was also a servant in his family, and served Fenghan with filial piety. His dedication was far beyond that of all the other servants.

In his last days, Fenghan Gao was confined to bed and could not walk without help from others. Scoop took meticulous care of him and never left his side. He often helped him walk around, and their relationship was like that of father and son. People who knew Fenghan said, “Fenghan really did good deeds and was rewarded with such good help. Thanks to those years he helped the beggar, he had a filial son dedicated to serving him.”


From Zhengjian.org
Translated by Dora Li
Edited by Evan Mantyk

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6 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    I really like this, too. It reads like a classic fable, complete with a moral element. Very interesting story, and a well-written translation. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Sally Cook

    This wise tale addresses so many different aspects of human action, and belief. I only hope you will provide more such stories.

    Thank you, Evan.

  3. Evan

    Thank you all! There is a treasure trove of stories I’ll have to go through when I have the time. In the meantime, here is another one that also includes a poem:

    The brilliant Three Kingdoms Period statesman Cao Cao (pronounced “tsaow tsaow”) fathered three sons, each impressive in his own way. The youngest of the trio was Cao Zhi (“tsaow jhr”).
    Cao Zhi had always been dad’s favorite in spite of many shortcomings. He was a heavy drinker, had poor self-discipline, and was terribly rash. Interestingly, he also happened to be a literary genius.
    On the other hand, firstborn Cao Pi (“tsaow pea”) was greedy for power and cared little about his brother. Long aware of the possibility that he would be passed over and not inherit his father’s power, he took advantage of every situation to oust little brother from favor.
    On the eve of Cao Cao’s death, after considerable deliberation, the aged statesman finally did bequeath power to his eldest. Still jealous and insecure, Cao Pi itched to get rid of his brother for good. He couldn’t do it directly though, as that would be somewhat frowned upon. So he came up with a ploy.
    After his father passed away, the younger Cao Zhi, in true Cao Zhi fashion, drank himself tipsy, and completely missed the funeral. Seeing his chance, Cao Pi hauled his brother into court and laid down the conditions of his punishment: Compose a poem in the time you take seven strides, or pay with your life. The topic? “Brotherhood.” Oh, and you can’t mention the word brother even once in the poem. Go!
    Cao Zhi, master of metaphor, then spouted these verses:

    The beans were boiled to make a soup
    And beanstalks fed the cauldron’s flame
    The beans lamented as a group:
    You stalk, you know our root’s the same,
    So why do you to torture stoop?

    Staggered no less by sentiment than awe, Cao Pi let little bro off.
    Pithy yet potent, “Quatrain of Seven Steps” became Cao Zhi’s most famous work. In time, Cao Zhi, who had written spectacular essays at age 10 and could recite over 10,000 lines of poetry by 20, became a representative poet of his time just like his statesmen-warlord dad. Throughout the dynasties till today, some two millennia later, both have been venerated as masters of the art.


  4. Wu "Sacred Bee" Li

    Mr. Mantyk has alerted us to the painter-poet Gao Fenghan, whose right hand was disabled when he was in prison. After that he painted with his left hand—and the difference in his painting gained him some renown.

    Mr. Sale, Mr. Tessitore, Mr. Harris, and Ms. Cook have also pointed out that Mr. Mantyk has successfully brought forth fine anecdotes from Chinese literature into English prose and verse, including “Quatrain of Seven Steps.” Fortunately for Cao Zhi his brother was impressed with his poem…for a while. The following poem written upon reading Mr. Mantyk’s words has inspired the following poem.

    Quatrain of Seven Steps
    by Wu “Sacred Bee” Li
    for Evan Mantyk

    Cao Zhi was summoned to the court to face his punishment;
    he must produce a verse in seven steps, or banishment.
    Cao Pi, his brother, did not trust his brother, so he said
    he must produce a poem just to prove his innocence.
    So, Cao Zhi spoke, as if his life depended on his lines:
    “In order to boil beans, the people char the beanstalk’s vines;
    though born of the same root, inside the pot, steamed beans cry out:
    Why should we persecute each other, letting hatred sprout?”
    In the traditional five-character and quatrain style,
    Cao Zhi succeeded, and was not demoted…for a while.

    Though both of the sons were talented, it is their father Cao Cao, whose poetry has most influenced me. The northern warlord Cao Cao led an army of 800,000 to conquer the south and unify China; Zhou Yu opposed surrender. Sun Quan decided to oppose Cao Cao. Allied with Liu Bei they defeated Cao Cao at the Battle of Red Cliffs. However by 217, Cao Cao was in control. When he died in 220, Cao Pi, Cao Cao’s son, seized the throne and declared himself the emperor. Cao Cao, courtesy name Mengde, was a cruel, merciless tyrant; but he was a brilliant leader and military figure. Cao Cao was also skilled in poetry and martial arts.

    Of the following two poems from two years ago, what little value each possesses draws from Cao Cao. I think the first is the more successful, although the second attempts more. One of the hardest things to do in literature, as writers, like Mr. Harris, realize, is the impossible, but important task, to bring another culture’s literature into one’s own.

    From Tong’an, Looking at the Vast Blue Sea
    by Wu “Sacred Bee” Li

    Upon the East face of Jieshi Mountain, I, Cao Cao,
    am gazing at the vast blue sea—the waters dancing now,
    so gently down below this mountain island towering,
    lush, thick with growing trees, a hundred grasses flowering.
    I hear the rushing autumn soughs the big waves rise up to,
    within the splendid Milky Way, from which I see this view.
    As if from deep within they come, the paths of sun and moon ,
    so beautiful and new, from which I too have come, a boon.
    O, I am very lucky, very lucky, Cao Song’s son,
    to be here now and singing, singing this my wish, my song.

    After the Battle of Red Cliffs: After Cao Cao
    by Wu “Sacred Bee” Li

    The wine-lipped man, so buff and strong, how long can he live on?
    His bitter song is as ephemeral as dew at dawn.
    His generosity is matched by great indignity.
    From anger, pain and suffering, o, never is he free?
    O, beauteous, green collar, Lord—Who longs for you, o, youth?
    For you I sing this song today, Red Cliffs’ ongoing truth.
    “Yu, yu,” the deer cry out, that eat together on the plain.
    Dear guests pound on the strings and play their flutes, but you’re restrained.
    The moon shines bright, Zhou Yu, but will it e’er be grasped by men?
    O, sorrow comes from deep within. O, will it never end?
    From Salamis to Leyte Gulf; it has been a hard path.
    What kindness can there ever be in military math?
    The nearer moon outshines far stars. The birds fly to the South.
    But will they find rest in Lepanto trees, or Jutland’s mouth?
    Sun Quan and Liu Bei, Cao Cao, led their forces into death.
    The mountains don’t despise great heights, nor seas despise great depths.

    Wu “Sacred Bee” Li is a poet and literary critic of old-style Chinese literature. His strongest influences include T’ao Yüan-ming, T’ang poetry, and landscape painter/calligraphy poet Wu Li.


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