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Updated on January 3, 2011
Rats getting married
Rats getting married

By Su Tung-p'o (A.D. 1036-1101)

I was sitting up one night when suddenly a rat began to gnaw. A rap on the couch stopped the noise, which however soon began again. Calling a servant to look round with a light, we noticed an empty sack, from the inside of which came a grating sound, and I at once cried out, " Ha ! the rat has got shut in here, and can't get out." So we opened the sack, but there was apparently nothing in it, though when we came to throw in the light, there at the bottom lay a dead rat. " Oh ! " exclaimed the servant in a fright, " can the animal that was just now gnawing have died so suddenly as this? Or can it have been the rat's ghost that was making the noise? " Meanwhile, he turned the rat out on the ground, when away it went full speed, escaping before we hadtime to do anything. " 'Tis passing strange," said I, with a sigh, " the cunning of that rat. Shut up in a sack too hard for it to gnaw its way out, it nevertheless gnawed in order to attract attention by the noise; and then it pretended to be dead in order to save its life under the guise of death. Now I have always understood that in intelligence man stands first. Man can tame the dragon, subdue the mastodon, train the tortoise, and carry captive the unicorn. He makes all things subservient to his will ; and yet here he is, trapped by the guile of a rat, which combined the speed of the flying hare with the repose of a blushing girl. Wherein then lies his superior intelligence? "

Thinking over this, with my eyes closed, a voice seemed to say to me, "Your knowledge is the knowledge of books; you gaze towards the truth but see it not. You do not concentrate your mind within yourself, but allow it to be distracted by external influences. Hence it is that you are deceived by the gnawing of a rat. A man may voluntarily destroy a priceless gem, and yet be unable to restrain his feelings over a broken cooking-pot. Another will bind a fierce tiger, and yet change colour at the sting of a bee. These words are your own; have you forgotten them?" At this I bent my head and laughed; and then, opening my eyes, I bade a servant bring pen and ink and commit the episode to writing.

[About the author: Su Tung-p'o was an almost universal genius, like Ou-yang Hsiu, this writer is even a greater favourite with the Chinese literary public. Su Tung-P'o shared the fate of most Chinese statesmen of the T'ang and Sung dynasties. He was banished to a distant post. In 1235 he was honoured with a niche in the Confucian temple, but his tablet was removed in 1845. After six hundred years he might well have been left there in peace.]

[Excerpted from H. A. Giles Gems of Chinese Literature]


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