October 23, 2017

The Road to Chou

A timely tale from an ancient Chinese legend

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, China passed through an unstable century known as the period of the Warring States, during which it was divided into a number of independent countries often at war with each other. Foremost among these was the Kingdom of Wei, which for a long time was run by a powerful king who called himself the “Emperor” Tsao Tsao, for he claimed to hold sway over the whole of China. His Prime Minister, Ki Leang, was a wise and good man bent above all on preserving peace and on bestowing its benefits on a civilized community.

One day he went off on a journey, but he was not gone more than a few days before a messenger informed him that the Emperor had suddenly decided to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Han Tan. Ki Leang immediately hastened to the capital by the quickest possible route. When he was ushered into the Emperor’s presence, he told the following story:

“Your Majesty, today, as I reached the city walls, I saw a coach taking the North road towards Min-Li. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful coach I have ever seen, made of ebony and studded with semi-precious stones that were wrought into patterns of a delicacy that only our master craftsmen are capable of achieving. It shone in the glow of the rising sun like some strange apparition from the world of spirits. But as impressive as the coach, Your Majesty, were the horses to which it was harnessed: six magnificent white stallions, tall and elegant animals with beautifully moulded bodies. And I stopped short in my tracks, entranced by this magnificent spectacle, when all of a sudden the coach drew to a halt.

“Its occupant was a man of distinction who spoke as one accustomed to being regarded with the utmost respect. He leaned out of the window and asked me the distance to the City of Chou. I replied. ‘The City of Chou is 200 miles to the South, but you are heading in the opposite direction.’ The traveller did not seem in the least bit perturbed by this and said, ‘That is of no importance—you see, I have the finest horses in all China.’ I repeated ‘But Chou is to the South, and you are heading Northwards.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the traveller, still unperturbed, ‘but my coachman is the most skilful in all the Kingdom of Wei.’ ‘I have no doubt,’ I answered, ‘but you are still heading in the opposite direction.’ ‘Ah,’ answered the traveller with the same lack of concern, ‘But I have unlimited supplies for the longest possible journey.’ ‘The finer be your horses,’ I replied, ‘the more skilful be your coachmen and the more abundant be your supplies, by taking the North Road, they can only serve to widen the distance between you and the City of Chou, which is to the South.’ “

Then turning to the Emperor Tsao-Tsao, he said,

“Your Majesty, since the beginning of your reign, your only goal has been to further the happiness and welfare of the Chinese people. If you decide to go to war with the people of Han Tan, the greater the army that you mobilize for this purpose, the more brilliant your Generals, the more abundant your supplies, the further will you be from your goal. It is like going to Chou by the North road.”

*     *     *

There is a moral to this tale. The whole of our civilization is geared to the achievement of “progress”. Is it not possible that our notion of “progress” is totally false, and that all the scientific ingenuity, technical skills, and human effort that are going into this undertaking might be misdirected? Might we not be going to Chou by the North road?


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