February, 2018

One day Master Bao and Ping were resting in the shade of an oak tree, along the banks of the Huang River, in the kingdom of Yee. From the road came the sound of several horses' hooves and the jingle of many harnesses. A palanquin covered by gold and purple cloth, carried by eight chair-bearers came into sight, followed by twelve soldiers on horseback. In front of the procession, two men ran with placards that announced an Imperial Messenger was approaching and to make way.

Ping immediately dropped to his knees and placed his forehead on the ground, for an Imperial Messenger was the representative of the king and therefore was due the respect of all the subjects. Master Bao, on the other hand, continued to sit comfortably in the shade, ignoring the parade.

An order from inside the palanquin brought the procession to a halt, and the chair bearers placed the covered box on the ground.  A Captain jumped off his horse and ran to the side of the tumbrel and helped a large man to step out onto the side of the road.
Ping trembled in fright, for disrespect for the crown was a beheading offence, and his Master was appearing not to be interested in the rules.

The large man, dressed in robes of gold and crimson and accompanied by the Captain and two soldiers approached Master Bao.

“Are you Master Bao?” the man inquired in a steady voice.

Master Bao looked up from where he sat. “Yes. I am called ‘Master Bao’.”

The heavy man immediately clasped his hands together and raised them as he bowed to Master Bao. “I am Yuen Hsi, the messenger from his Highness King Yee. The King will have you come to live in the palace and share your wisdom with his Imperial self. You be greatly honored, dressed in fine silks, eat wonderful food, and speak to only the most educated ministers with whom you will depart your knowledge and philosophy.”

Master Bao stood and bowed to the Imperial Messenger. “Please thank the king for his generous offer, but I prefer to live as I have, traveling and teaching.”

“But why would you not wish to be honored?”

“In the great hall of the palace is a gold box containing the shell of a turtle used for divination. Is this not so?”

“Yes,” Yuen Hsi said. “The cracks in the shell are examined by the greatest soothsayers in the kingdom to tell the ministers and the king the future.”

“This turtle was sitting in the mud one day when he was captured and put to death so his shell may be honored every day. Is this not so?”

“Yes, that is true. He was greatly honored above all other turtles.”

“Do you think this turtle would rather have been left in the mud?”

The Imperial Messenger slowly nodded. “Yes, I think he would.”

“Then please, let me rest in my mud hole, for that is what I desire.”

Yuen Hsi was taken aback. “As you wish Master Bao. The King will be very disappointed, but I cannot force you to come with me.”

When the procession had returned the way it had come, Ping bowed deeply before his Master. “Please explain to this ignorant pupil why you would refuse such a great honor.”

“Do you recall the three curses of our Chinese People, Ping?”

“Yes, Master. One. May you live in interesting times. Two. May all your wishes be granted.”

“And what is the third, Ping?”

Ping smiled. “May you come to the attention of important people.”

“Yes, Ping. Come, it is time to move on.”


Thanks to Zhuang Zhou (370 – 287 BCE) for the idea.

Master Bao and the Lessons of the Turtle


Tom Hanratty