Chinese Folktales

16. Lao-Tse

IN point of fact, Lao-tse is older than heaven and earth. He is the Old Yellow Man who, with the other four, created the world. But he appeared on earth at various times under different names. His most famous incarnation is that as the ‘Old child’ (Lao-tse) under the name of Plum (Li). This is how it happened. His mother conceived him in a supernatural way and bore him for years. When he was born he emerged from her left armpit. Moreover, he was able to talk. Since he had no human father he pointed to a plum tree under which he had been born and said: ‘That shall be my name!’

He attained great magic skill and with it prolonged his life. One day he hired a servant to work for him. He agreed with him that he would pay him a hundred copper pieces a day; however, he did not pay the man’s wages and eventually owed him seven million two hundred thousand copper pieces. He then mounted a black bull and rode off to the west. He wanted to take his servant with him. But when they arrived at the Han Gu pass the servant refused to go any further and demanded his pay. But Lao-tse did not give him anything.

As they approached the house of the guardian of the pass red clouds appeared in the sky. The guardian of the pass understood the sign and knew that a saint was approaching. He walked ahead to meet him and welcomed him to his house. He asked him for some secret wisdom, but Lao-tse stuck out his tongue and said nothing. Nevertheless the guardian of the pass most respectfully invited him to his home. Lao-tse’s servant told the guardian’s servant that his master owed him a great deal of money and asked him to put in a good word for him. When the servant heard of the large sum he felt tempted to acquire so rich a man for a son-in-law and therefore gave him his daughter for a wife. In the end the guardian of the pass discovered what was going on and, together with the servant, confronted Lao-tse. Then Lao-tse said to his servant: ‘You rogue of a servant! You would have long been dead. I hired you, and because I was poor and unable to pay you gave you a spell of life to eat. That is why you are alive this day. I said to you: If you follow me to the west, to the land of blissful peace, I will pay your wages in yellow gold. But this you did not want!’ With these words he slapped the servant’s back. The man opened his mouth and out spat the spell of life on to the ground. Upon it one could still read the characters, written with cinnabar, bright as new. But the servant instantly collapsed and turned into a heap of dry bones. guardian of the pass threw himself to the ground and asked for mercy for the man. He promised to pay the man’s wages which Lao-tse owed him and begged him to return the servant to life. Thereupon Lao-tse placed the spell under the bones and instantly the servant revived. The guardian of the pass paid the servant’s wages and dismissed him. From then on the revered Lao-tse as his master and Lao-tse imparted to him the secrets of eternal life and left him his teachings in five thousand words which the guardian of the pass wrote down. The book thus written is the book of Meaning and Life. After this, Lao-tse vanished from the eyes of men, but the guardian of the pass followed his teachings and was raised among the immortals.