Chinese Folktales

1. The Roc and the Millet

Once there were two brothers who shared the same house. The tall one always listened to his wife and this led to a quarrel with his brother. Summer had come and it was time to sow the tall millet. But the short one had no grain and he therefore asked the tall one if he would lend him some. The tall one commanded his wife to do so. But the wife took the grain, put it in a large pot and boiled it. Then she gave it to the short one. The short one unknowingly went out and sowed the grain on his field. But as the grain had been boiled no shoots sprouted forth. Only one single seed had escaped being cooked entirely; and so a single shoot sprouted up. The short one was hard-working and conscientious by nature and he therefore watered and hoed the shoot all day long. And so it grew up into a mighty tree and it bore a spike as large as a canopy, shading half an acre of land. In autumn it ripened. Then the short one took an axe and chopped down the spike. But no sooner had the spike dropped to the ground than a gigantic roc arrived with a rushing of wings, picked it up in its beak and flew off. The short one ran after it all the way to the edge of the sea.

The bird turned round and addressed him in a human voice: ‘Do not harm me. Surely one spike is not worth much to you. East of the sea lies the island of gold and silver. I will carry you there. There you can take as much as you like and become exceedingly rich.’

The short one agreed and climbed on the bird’s back. The Bird told him to close his eyes. All he could hear was the rushing of the air past his ears, as though he was travelling through a mighty wind, and below him he could hear the roaring and raging of billowing waves. Presently the bird landed on an island. ‘We have arrived,’ it said.

Then the short one opened his eyes and looked around him. Everything gleamed and glittered, all was yellow and white. He picked up about a dozen of the smaller lumps and placed them inside his shirt.

‘Is that enough?’ the roc asked.

‘Yes, I have enough,’ he replied.

‘Well done,’ said the bird. ‘Moderation will guard you against harm.’

Then the bird took him on its back again and carried him over the sea.

After his return the short one bought himself a good patch of land and became fairly prosperous.

His brother, however, grew envious and taunted him: ‘Where did you steal that money?’

The short one told him the whole truth. Then the tall one went home and consulted with his wife.

‘Nothing easier,’ said the wife. ‘I will simply boil the grain again and keep on grain back so it does not get cooked. You will then sow that grain and we shall see what will happen.’

No sooner said than done: sure enough, a single shoot grew up and that shoot bore a single spike, and when harvest time came the roc again appeared and carried it off in its beak. The tall one was delighted and ran after it and the roc again spoke the same words as before and carried the tall one to the island. There he saw mountains of gold and silver all round him. The largest lumps were like mountains, the smaller ones were like bricks and the very small ones like grains of sand. His eyes were blinded by the glitter. He wished that he knew how to move mountains. So he bent down and picked up whatever lumps he could.

The roc said: ‘That is enough now! The load is getting too heavy for you.’

‘Be patient a little longer,’ said the tall one. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry! I must have a few more pieces.’

And so the time passed.

The roc again urged him to hurry. ‘The sun will be up presently,’ it said, ‘and then all human beings are scorched by its fierce heat.’

‘Give me just a little longer,’ said the tall one.

But at that instant a red wheel arose mightily. The roc flew into the sea, spread out both its wings and beat the water with them so as to escape the heat. But the tall one was consumed by the sun.