Lu Xun

Curbing the Flood

Date: November 1935
Source: Old Tales Retold, pp. 31-52; Foreign Languages Press
Online Version: Lu Xun Reference Archive, October 2010
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Mike B
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

vertical poster


This was the time when "the Great Flood brought devastation, encircling mountains and engulfing hills.'"1 Not all the subjects of Emperor Shun flocked on to the freights still above the water. Some tied themselves to tree tops, some took to rafts, on a number of which they rigged up tiny plank shelters — a thoroughly poetic sight seen from the cliffs.

News from distant parts was brought by raft. Eventually everyone knew that Lord Gun,2 who had grappled with the flood for nine years so no effect, had incurred the imperial displeasure and been exiled so the Feather Mountain. He had apparently been succeeded by his son, young Lord Wenming, whose milk name was A Yu.3

So long was the land flooded that the universities closed and there was no space even for kindergartens, with the result that the common people became rather muddle- headed. Many scholars had assembled on the Mount of Culture,4 however. Since food was brought to them by flying chariot from the Kingdom of Marvellous Artisans, they need fear no want and could pursue their studies. Yet most of them were opposed to Yu or questioned his very existence.

Once a month a whirring and chugging in mid-air grew louder and louder till the flying chariot hove in sight. The gold circle on its flag emitted a faint effulgence. Five feet from the ground, it would let down baskets the contents of which were known to none but the scholars. Conversations like this were carried on vertically:

"Good morning!"5

"How do you do?"



After this the flying chariot flew swiftly back to the Kingdom of Marvellous Artisans, there was not a sound in the sky and the scholars fell silent too — they were busy eating. All that could be heard was the pounding of breakers against the mountain boulders. Then, energy restored by a siesta, academic discussions drowned the sound of the waves.

"Yu will never succeed in curbing the flood, not if he's the son of Gun," declared a scholar who walked with a cane. "I have collected the genealogies of many kings, dukes, ministers and rich families. Long and careful study has led me to this conclusion: all the descendants of the rich are rich, all those of the wicked are wicked this is known as 'heredity.' It follows that, if Gun was unsuccessful, Yu will inevitably be unsuccessful too; for fools cannot give birth to wise men!"

"O.K.," agreed a scholar without a cane.

"But think of His Majesty's father!" put in another scholar without a cane."

"He may have been a little 'dull,' but he has improved."

"Your true fool can never improve..."


"Th-that's all n-n-nonsense!" stuttered another scholar, his nose promptly turning red. "You've been led astray by rumours. As a matter of fact, there is no such person as Yu. Yu is a reptile. Can a r-reptile curb the flood? Gun doesn't exist either. Gun is a fish. Can a f-fish curb the fl-fl-flood?" He stamped both feet vehemently.

"There's no question of Gun's existence. Seven years ago I saw him with my own eyes when he went to the foot of Mount Kunlun to enjoy the plum blossom."

"In that case, there must be some mistake over the name. He should be called Man, not Gun. As for Yu, I assure you he's a reptile. I have copious evidence to prove his non-existence. You may judge for yourselves..."

He rose boldly to his feet, produced a knife and started peeling the bark from five great pines. Making a paste of some left-over bread-crumbs and water, he mixed this with charcoal to write on the trees in minute tadpole-shaped characters his arguments proving that Yu had never existed. He wrote for three times nine — twenty- seven — whole days. All who wanted to read this thesis had to pay ten succulent elm leaves or, if they lived on rafts, a shellful of fresh duckweed.

Water was everywhere, making it impossible to hunt or farm. The survivors had so much time on their hands that many came to read. After a crowd had milled round the pines for three days, sighs of admiration and exhaustion could be heard on all sides. But on the fourth day at noon, when the scholar was eating fried noodles, a peasant spoke up:

"There are men called Yu. And Yu doesn't mean 'reptile.' It's our country fashion of writing the 'Yu' for ape."

"Are there men c-called Ape...?" roared the scholar, leaping to his feet and gulping down a half-chewed mouthful of noodles. His nose had turned a bright purple.

"Of course there are. Why, I know some called Dog and Cat too!"

"Don't argue with him. Mr. Bird-Head," interposed the scholar with the cane, putting down his bread. "All these country folk are fools. Bring me your genealogy!" he shouted at the villager. "I shall prove beyond a doubt that all your forbears were fools..."

"I've never had a genealogy..."

"Bah! It's disgusting types like this who make accuracy impossible in my researches!"

"But for this you don't need a gen-genealogy. My theory can't be wrong." Mr. Bird-Head sounded even more outraged. "Many scholars have written to me expressing approval. I've got all their letters here..."

"No, no, we ought to refer to his genealogy..."

"But I haven't any genealogy," said the "fool." "And in troubled times like these, cut off as we arc, to get proof in the form of letters of approval from your friends will be more difficult than performing a religious service in a snail-shell. The proof is here before us: your name is Mr. Bird-Head. Are you really a bird's head instead of a man?"

"Confound it!" Mr. Bird-Head flushed purple to the ears with fury. "How dare you insult me! Insinuating that I'm not a man! Let's go to Lord Gao Yao6 and settle our difference by law! If I'm not a man, I'll gladly undergo capital punishment — in other words, I'll have my inhead cut off. Understand? If not, you'll be punished instead. Just you wait! Don't move till I've finished my noodles."

"Sir," replied the villager stolidly, "as a learned man you ought to know that it is after noon now and other people are hungry too. The trouble is that fools have the same stomach as wise men — they get hungry just the same. I'm very sorry, but I must go and fish for duckweed. I'll come to court when you've filed your complaint." With that he jumped on to his raft, picked up his net and drifted off to gather water weeds. One by one, the other spectators scattered too, leaving Mr. Bird-Head with a scarlet nose and ears to make a fresh start on his noodles, while the scholar with the cane shook his head. But was Yu really a reptile or a man? This major issue remained unsettled.


Yu did seem to be a reptile after all.

Over half a year had passed, the flying chariot from the Kingdom of Marvellous Artisans had come eight times, and nine out of ten of the raft-dwellers who had read the writing on the pines had beriberi; but there was still no word of the new official charged with curbing the flood. Not till the flying chariot had paid its tenth visit did it become known that there was indeed a man named Yu, that he was indeed the son of Gun and the imperially appointed Minister of Water Conservancy, that he had left Jichou7 three years earlier and might arrive at any time.

Though mildly excited, all remained cool and sceptical. They had heard so many unreliable rumours of the sort before that they tended to turn a deaf ear to all such talk.

This time, though, the news did seem to be well-founded. A fortnight later, everybody was saying that the minister would arrive very soon. For a man out collecting floating weeds had seen the official boats. Indeed he could show a black and blue bump on his head which he explained had been caused by a stone thrown by a guard when he did not get out of the way quickly enough. Here was palpable evidence of the minister's arrival. This man promptly became exceedingly famous and busy. Everyone rushed to look at the bump on his head, nearly swamping his raft in the process. Then the scholars summoned him and decided after serious research that his bump was a genuine bump. This forced Mr. Bird-Head 'to relinquish his views and he made over historical studies to others while he vent off to collect folk ballads.

A flotilla of large boats, each made from a single tree, arrived about twenty days after the bump was raised. On each boat twenty guards were pulling at the oars, thirty guards were holding lances. At both stem and stern were flags. As soon as this fleet reached the mountain top, it received a respectful welcome from a band of local gentry and scholars on the bank. After some time, from the largest vessel emerged two middle-aged, corpulent officials, escorted by a score or so of soldiers in tiger skins. They made their way, with those who had welcomed them, to the stone building on the highest peak.

On dry land as well as on the water, folk craned their necks to catch what was being said and learned that these were two government inspectors, not Yu himself. The officials seated themselves in the centre of the building and, after eating some bread, began their investigation.

"The situation is not too desperate. There is just about enough to eat." A specialist in the Miao dialect was spokesman for the scholars. "Bread is dropped once a month from mid-air and there is no lack of fish which, though inevitably tasting of mud, is very fat, Your Honours. As for the lower orders, they have plenty of elm leaves and seaweed. They 'eat all day without exerting their minds' — in other words, since they do not have to use their heads what they have is quite enough. We've tasted their food and it is not unpleasant, with quite a distinctive flavour...

"Besides," put in another scholar, an expert on the Materia Medica of Emperor Shen Nong,8 "there is Vitamin W in elm leaves, and iodine which cures scrofula in seaweed — both thoroughly nutritious."

"O.K.," said another scholar. The officials stared at him in surprise.

"As for drink, they have all they want," went on the expert. "More than enough to last ten thousand generations. Unfortunately it is mixed with a little mud so that distillation is necessary before drinking. But though I have pointed this out time and again, they are too pigheaded to carry out instructions; hence countless are ill .

"Aren't they to blame for the flood too?" interposed a gentleman in a long dark brown gown, his beard clipped to five points. "Before the flood came, they were too lazy to repair the dykes. When the flood came, they were too lazy to drain it off...

"That's what's called the loss of spiritual values," chuckled an essayist in the style of the time of Fu Xi,9 a man with pointed moustaches who was seated in the back row. "When I climbed the Pamir the winds of heaven were blowing, the plum was in flower, white clouds were sailing past, the price of gold was mounting, the rats were sleeping. I saw a youth with a cigar in his mouth and on his face the mist of Chi You10...Ha, ha, ha! It can't be helped...


Talk in this vein went on for hours. The officials, having listened attentively, finally told them to draw up a joint report, preferably with detailed proposals for rehabilitation. With this, the officials boarded their boat again.

The next day, on the pretext of exhaustion from the voyage, they transacted no business and received no visitors. The third day, the scholars invited them to see the umbrella-shaped old pine on the highest peak, while in the afternoon they went to fish for yellow eels behind the mountain, enjoying themselves till dusk. The fourth day, on the pretext of exhaustion from inspection, they transacted no business and received no visitors. On the fifth day, after noon, they sent for the spokesman of the lower orders.

The lower orders had started choosing a spokesman four days previously, but nobody would undertake the task, all pleading their complete ignorance of officials. Thereupon the man with the bump on his head was elected by a majority, since he had some knowledge of the official world. At this his bump, which had subsided, started twinging as if being pricked by a needle. With tears in his eyes he swore: 'Death is better than being a spokesman!" The others crowded round day and night to urge upon him his moral obligations. They accused him of neglecting the public interest, of being a selfish individualist who should not be suffered to remain in China. The more impassioned shook their fists in his face, holding him responsible for the flood. Nearly dropping with fatigue, he decided that to sacrifice himself for the common good would be better than being hounded to death on the raft. Making supreme effort of will, on the fourth day he agreed.

He was acclaimed by the crowd. But by then a few bold spirits felt a twinge of envy.

At dawn on the fifth day, the others dragged him to the river bank to wait for a summons. Sure enough, the officials summoned him. His legs shook beneath him, but once more he made a supreme effort of will. Then, after two great yawns, with puffy eyes, feeling as if he had left the ground and were treading on air, he boarded the official boat.

Strange to relate, neither the guards with lances nor the warriors in tiger skins beat him or swore at him — they let him pass into the central cabin. There bear-skins and leopard-skins strewed the floor, bows and arrows hung from the walls, and the vases and pots on all sides quite dazzled his eyes. Pulling himself together, he saw seated in the place of honour opposite two corpulent officials. He dared not look too closely at their faces.

"Are you the spokesman of the common people?" asked one of the officials.

"They sent me here." His eyes were fixed on the spots like mugwort leaves on the leopard-skins on the floor.

"How are things with you?"

Not understanding, he made no reply.

"Are you doing all right?"

"Yes, thanks to Your Honours' goodness . After a moment's thought, he added softly: "We make do. . We're muddling through...

"What are you eating?"

"Leaves, water-weed...

"Can you eat such things?"

"Oh yes, we're used to anything. We can eat anything. Only some young scamps make a song and dance about it. The human heart is growing evil, devil take it! But we give them a good thrashing!"

The officials laughed and one said to the other: "An honest fellow!"

This praise went to the fellow's head, emboldening him to give vent to a torrent of words:

"We can always think of some way out. Water-weed, now, is best made into Slippery Emerald Soup, while elm leaves make good First-at-Court Gruel. We don't strip all the bark from the trees, but leave some so that next spring there'll be new leaves on the boughs for us to pick. If, thanks to Your Honours' kindness, we could catch eels...

The officials seemed to have lost interest, however, for one of them gave two huge yawns one after another, then put in sharply: "Draw up a joint report, preferably with detailed proposals for rehabilitation."

"But none of us can write!" he said timidly.

"Are you all illiterate? This is really very backward of you! In that case, bring us one sample of everything you eat."

Having left fearfully yet jubilantly, rubbing his bump, he lost no time in transmitting the officials' orders to the dwellers on the shore, the trees and the rafts. Moreover he ordered them loudly: "This is for the higher-ups! All must be done cleanly, carefully and handsomely..."

Together the common people set to work to wash leaves, cut bark and collect water-weed — all was bustle and confusion. He himself planed wood for a casket in which to present their offerings. Having polished two planks of wood till they shone, he hurried that same night to the top of the mountain to beg the scholars to inscribe them. He wanted written on the lid of the casket: "Longevity enduring as the mountain, Happiness deep as the sea." On the other plank, designed for a tablet for his raft to commemorate the honours he had received, he wanted inscribed: "Home of the Honest Fellow." But the scholars would write only the first.


By the time these two officials regained the capital, most of the other inspectors had come back one by one. Only Yu was still away. After resting at home for a few days, they were invited by their colleagues of the Water Conservancy Bureau to a great banquet to celebrate their return. Contributions towards the banquet were divided into three categories, Happiness, Honour, and Longevity, and the lowest charge was fifty big cowrie shells.11 That (lay saw a veritable stream of fine horses and carriages, and before dusk fell hosts and guests had all assembled. Torches were lit in the courtyard, the appetizing smell of he beef in the tripods carried to the sentries outside and made their mouths water. When wine had been poured three times, the officials began to describe the scenery of the flooded areas they had visited, the reed flowers white as snow, muddied water gleaming like gold, fat, succulent eels, slippery duckweed...As the wine went to their heads, they produced the specimens of food they had collected, packed in neat wooden caskets on the cover of which were inscriptions in the style of Fu Xi's trigrams and Cang Ji's12 "sobbing ghost" characters. First everyone admired the calligraphy and, after disputing till they nearly came to blows, decided that the first place should be given to the inscription: "The state is prosperous, the people at peace." For not only was the calligraphy so ancient as to be almost undecipherable, with a rude antique flavour about it, but the sentiments were thoroughly appropriate, worthy to be recorded by imperial historians.

After this evaluation of an art which was a Chinese speciality, cultural problems were set aside while they investigated the contents of the caskets. The delicate shapes of the cakes aroused general admiration. But, perhaps because too much wine had been drunk, a note of discord crept in. One took a bite of pine-bark cake and was loud in his praise of its fresh flavour, declaring that the flex day he would resign to live in retirement and enjoy this pure happiness. Another, who had tried a cypress-leaf bun pronounced it coarse in texture and bitter to the taste; it had hurt his tongue; and this sharing in the sufferings of the common people showed that not only had the sovereign a hard lot — it was far from easy to be a minister. Others rushed forward to snatch the cakes and buns away from them, because there was soon to be a fund-raising exhibition at which these should be displayed — it would look bad if there were bites out of them all.

Meanwhile a tumult had arisen outside. A crowd of rough, beggarly-looking fellows with black faces and ragged clothes had broken through the barriers and were rushing the bureau. The sentries, with a great shout, thrust their gleaming lances one across the other to block the way.

"What's this? — Use your eyes!" shouted the tall, thin hulk of a man with huge hands and feet who was leading the way, after a recond's stupefaction.

The guards strained their eyes in the fading light, then stood respectfully to attention, presenting arms, to let the band pass. They stopped only a woman in a dark blue homespun gown with a child in her arms, who came panting up after the others.

"Here! Don't you know me?" she demanded in surprise, wiping the perspiration from her forehead with one clenched fist.

"Of course we know you, Mrs. Yu!"

"Why don't you let me in, then?"

"These are difficult times, ma'am. This year, to rectify public morality and reform men's hearts, there is segregation of the sexes. Not a yamen nowadays will admit a woman. That applies not only here, not only to you. These are orders from above, we're not to blame."

After a moment's bewilderment, Mrs. Yu turned away raising her eyebrows and cried:

"May you be hacked into a thousand pieces! Whose funeral are you rushing to? You passed your own home without so much as looking inside, rushing along as if your parents were dead! You're an official, an official! What's the use of being an official? Remember how your old man was sent into exile and fell into the lake to change into a huge tortoise! May they hack you into a thousand pieces, you heartless wretch! .

By now there was a fine commotion in the great hall of the bureau too. When the feasters saw this troop of rough fellows rush in, their first thought was of flight. But when no weapons were brandished, they took courage and looked again at the new arrivals who were coming closer. Though the man in front was black and gaunt, from his manner they recognized Yu. The others, it goes without saying, were his followers.

This shock sobered them up. With a rustling of robes they retreated from their seats. Yu walked straight to the feast and took the place of honour. Either because he was lacking in politeness or because he had gout, he did not sit cross-legged but with legs outstretched, his big feet pointing at the officials. He had no socks and the soles of his feet were covered with calluses the size of chestnuts. His followers sat on either side of him.

"Did Your Honour get back to the capital today?" respectfully inquired one official bolder than the rest, edging forward on his knees.

"Sit a bit nearer, all of you!" cried Yu, ignoring this question. "How did your investigations go?"

Advancing on their knees, the officials exchanged uneasy glances. They sat themselves down by the ruins of the feast, looking at the bitten pine-bark cakes and the ox-bones gnawed clean. Yet for all their embarrassment, they dared not order the cooks to clear away.

"May it please Your Honour," said an official at last, "things are not too bad — our impression was most favourable. Pine bark and water-weeds are quite plentiful; as for drink, they have a great abundance. The common people, good simple souls, are used to the life. As Your Honour must know, their powers of endurance are famed throughout the world."

"Your humble servant has drafted a plan for raising funds," said another. "We propose to hold an Exhibition of Curious Food, also inviting Miss Nü Wei to give a mannequin display. Tickets will be sold, but to draw larger crowds it will be announced that no collection will be taken at the exhibition."

"Very good." Yu nodded.

"The most urgent matter, however," declared a third, "is to send a squadron of large rafts forthwith to fetch the scholars to the higher ground. At the same time an envoy should be sent to the Kingdom of the Marvellous Artisans to let them know that we respect culture and that their relief should be delivered here each month. We have quite a good report here from the scholars, which affirms that culture is the life blood of a nation and scholars the soul of culture. So long as culture exists, China will exist. All the rest is secondary...

"They consider the population of China too large," said the first official. "A reduction would be the best means of securing peace.13 In any case, the people are simpletons whose pleasure and anger, pain and joy are by no means is subtle as the fancies of the wise. To know men and judge events, the first thing is to be subjective. Take the ease of Shakespeare...

"Rubbish!" thought Yu. But he raised his voice to say:

"My investigations have shown me that the old method of damming was quite wrong. In future we must use channels. What do you gentlemen think?"

Silence like that of the tomb! A deathly look stole over the faces of the officials; many of whom felt unwell — tomorrow they would have to ask for sick leave.

"That was Chi You's method!" objected a bold young official, speaking angrily to himself. "In my humble opinion, Your Honour had better withdraw that decision!" An official with a white beard and hair, convinced that the fate of the empire hung from his lips, screwed up his courage to risk his life on a firm protest. "Damming was the method of your late respected father. 'He is a filial son who for three years does not change his father's way.14 It is not yet three years since your father went up to heaven."

Yu made not a sound.

"And think how much trouble your late respected father went to!" said an official with a grey beard and hair, adopted son of Yu's maternal uncle. "He borrowed the Xirang15 from the Heavenly Emperor to dam the flood and although he incurred the divine displeasure, the level of the water did sink a little. I think we should continue using his methods."

Yu made not a sound.

"You should finish the task which your father failed to accomplish, Your Honour," said a fat official sarcastically. But though he imagined from Yu's silence that he was on the verge of being convinced, the sweat stood out on his face. "Restore the family name by the old family method. Your Honour probably has no idea what they are saying about your late respected father...

"In short, the merits of damming have been proved throughout the world," hastily interposed the old white- haired official to prevent a gaffe on the part of his fat colleague. "All other methods are 'modern' — that was the error into which Chi You fell."

Yu smiled faintly. "I know. Some people say my father has changed into a brown bear, others into a three- legged tortoise; yet others accuse me of being out for fame or profit. Let them talk. I want you to know that I have charted the mountains and lakes, asked the opinions of the people, seen the question in its true light and reached a decision. Come what may, we must use channels. My colleagues here are all of the same opinion."

He raised a hand to point from one side to the other. The officials with the white beard and hair, grey beard and hair, small white face, fat and sweaty, fat but not sweaty, looked in the direction indicated. They could see nothing but two rows of black, gaunt, beggarly-looking figures which neither moved, spoke nor smiled, as if cast in iron.


Time passed quickly after Yu left. Imperceptibly from day to day the capital took on a more prosperous look. First some of the wealthy started wearing pongee; then oranges and pomeloes came on sale in the big fruit-shops while new materials hung in the silk shops, and good soya-bean sauce, shark-fin soup and sea-slugs in vinegar appeared on the tables of the well-to-do. Later still men had bear-skin rugs and jackets lined with fox skin, while their wives took to wearing gold earrings and silver bracelets.

One had only to stand at one's gate to see fresh sights. One day a cartful of bamboo arrows would pass, the next a load of pine boards; sometimes grotesque rocks to make artificial mountains were carried past, or live fish to be sliced to make porridge. You could even see cartloads of tortoises one foot two inches long, their heads tucked into their shells, being taken in bamboo cages to the capital.

"Mummy! Look at the big tortoises!" the children would shout, running out to surround the carts.

"Get out of the way, you scamps! These treasures belong to the emperor. Do you want to lose your heads?"

As more precious objects were brought to the capital, there came further news of Yu. Under cottage eaves, in the shade of roadside trees, many tales were told of him. The most popular was the one about how he changed into a brown bear at night, how with his mouth and paws he dredged the nine rivers, how he summoned the heavenly troops and heavenly generals to catch Wu Zhj Qi, the monster who had started the flood, and imprisoned him under Tortoise Mountain. There was no more talk of the feats of Emperor Shun; at most reference was made to the worthlessness of the crown prince Danzhu.

As word had long since spread of Yu's return to the capital, every day a crowd would gather in front of the pass to watch for his cortege. But it never came. News of him, however, coming thick and fast, began to sound more and more authentic. And at last on a morning neither cloudy nor clear he entered the imperial city in Jizhou through a milling crowd of thousands. He was preceded by no regal insignia, only by a great band of beggarly-looking followers. He came last, a hulk of a man with huge hands and feet, a swarthy face and brownish beard. Rather bow-legged, he was carrying in both hands a great dark stone pointed at one end — the Xuan Gui16 bestowed on him by Emperor Shun. Calling out repeatedly: "Make way there, please!" he pressed through the crowd to the imperial palace.

At the palace gates, the acclamations and comments of the people sounded like the roar of the waves of the River Zhe.

Emperor Shun on his dragon throne was getting on in years, and now a faint alarm mingled with his fatigue. He made haste to rise politely at Yu's entry. After an exchange of greetings, the minister Gao Yao made a few polite remarks. Then the emperor said:

"Speak words of wisdom to me."

"What is there to say?" replied Yu bluntly. "My one thought has been to keep hard at it every day!"

"Keep hard at it — what does that mean?" inquired Gao Yao.

"When the Great Flood swept the land, encircling mountains and engulfing hills, the people were swallowed up in the water," said Yu. "I went by carriage on land, by boat on the water, by sledge through the mud, by sedan-chair through the mountains. On each mountain I felled trees, and with the help of Yi saw that everyone had rice and meat to eat. I let the water in the fields into the rivers, the water in the rivers into the sea; and with the help of Ji distributed sorely needed supplies to the people. Wherever there was a shortage, I made it good from districts with something to spare. And I moved the inhabitants. So at last everyone has settled down in peace everywhere and order reigns."

"Good! These are words of wisdom," approved Gao Yao.

"Ah!" said Yu, "to rule, one must be prudunt and calm. Keep faith with Heaven, and Heaven will deal kindly with you as of old."

Emperor Shun, with a sigh, entrusted affairs of state to him, bidding Yu speak his mind freely to his face and not criticize him behind his back. When Yu had agreed to this, the emperor said with another sigh: "Don't disobey me like Danzhu, who cares for nothing but dissipation, boats on dry land and makes such trouble at home that life is becoming impossible. He is quite insufferable!"

"I left home four days after my marriage," said Yu. "I have a son A Qi, but have never been a proper father to him. That is how I was able to curb the flood, divide the empire into five regions, each five thousand Ii square, with twelve provinces which extend to the sea. I have set up five governors, all good men except that of the Miao — you must keep an eye on him!"

"It is thanks entirely to your feats that my empire is in good shape again," approved the emperor.

Then Gao Yao and Emperor Shun, overcome by respect, together bowed their heads. And after the court was dismissed the emperor lost no time in issuing a special edict ordering everyone to follow the example of Yu or they would suffer the penalty.

That threw the merchants into a panic at first. But fortunately after his return to the capital Yu's attitude underwent a little change. Though he ate and drank simply at home, when it came to sacrifices or public occasions he made a great display. And though he dressed plainly in general, to go to court or return calls he put on splendid robes. So business was not affected, and before long the merchants were saying that Yu's ways were an excellent example to all, and Gao Yao's new laws were not bad. Then such peace reigned throughout the world that even wild beasts danced and phoenixes flew down to join in the fun.


1. A quotation from the Book of History, a collection from the early dynasties

2. Lord Gun failed to curb the flood and was killed in the Feather Mountain

3. Yu was supposed to be Gun's son. because he was successful in curbing the flood, he succeeded Shun as emperor.

4. This interlude about the scholars assembled on the Mount of Culture is a satire on some cultural figures and a few reactionary scholars at the time of the Second Revolutionary Civil War. The name "Mount of Culture" is an allusion to what had happened in October 1932 when more than thirty cultural figures in Beijing including Jiang Han, Liu Fu, Xu Bingchang and Ma Heng petitioned the Kuomintang government to declare Beijing a "city of culture." At that time the Japanese imperialists had occupied the northeastern provinces, and north China was in a precarious position. The Kuomintang government, following a policy of surrendering and selling the country to the enemy, was preparing to withdraw from the north and to move ancient relics which could be sold from Beijing to Nanjing. Jiang Han and the others tried to stop the removal of these ancient cultural treasures, but they claimed that Beijing had no political nor military importance and made the fantastic proposal that the government should stop defending Beijing, declaring it a cultural zone. So they requested "the government to declare Beijing a city of culture, moving all military institutions to Baoding." It is very clear that thin proposal was not only fallacious, but that it coincided with the plot of Japanese imperialism at that time and also echoed the "argument" of the Kuomintang government with its policy of capitulation. Though the Kuomintang government did not declare Beijing a "city of culture," it did eventually surrender Beijing to the Japanese imperialists, while most of the cultural relics were taken to Nanjing early in 5933. Lu Xun from the time of the Japanese imperialists' occupation of Shenyang on September 18, 1931 to his death, wrote many articles exposing the Kuomintaisg government's betrayal of the nation and in one of his essays he attacked this proposal for a "city of culture." Here he is ridiculing the fallacious arguments used by Jiang Han and the others in their petition; while some of the "scholars" are clearly modelled on contemporary figures who held reactionary views.

5. This dialogue is given in English in the original to parody certain Westernized pseudo-scholars.

6. Legendary minister of justice in ancient China, under the sage Emperor Shan.

7. One of the nine ancient Chinese provinces. According to legend, the curbing of the flood began in Jichou.

8. The most ancient Chinese book on medical herbs. The date of its compiation is uncertain, but it is probably written in the Han or Wei Dynasty and attributed to Shen Nong.

9. A legendary emperor in ancient China said to have invented the trigtams.

10. Chi You according to ancient legend was the chief of the Jiuli tribe in the north.

11. Used as money in ancient China.

12. According to legend, Cang Ji was an imperial chronicler who invented the Chinese written language.

13. One of the arguments often put forward by the pseudo-scholars and officials of that time dealt with 'reducing the population." For instance, Chen Yuan in "Idle Chat" in the Modern Review, Vol. 3, No. 73 (May 1, 1926) strongly advocated birth control on the fallacious grounds that "not only is there no need to increase our population; even cutting it down by half would do no harm." There was a great deal of such talk at the time.

14. A quotation from The Analects of Confucius.

15. Some legendary earth which kept growing and never diminished.

16. Gui is a piece of jade with a pointed top which the barons held in court ceremonies and sacrifices. Xuan means black.

Lu Xun Internet Archive
Back to Reference Archive