Friday, March 20, 2009

Foolish Grandpa Moves a Mountain

Another story that affected me deeply was the story of the foolish grandfather moving the mountain. When we first studied it, I just scoffed it off as trivial, but after my marriage, I realized how deeply this philosophy is embedded in the psyche of my husband’s relatives, especially in my father-in-law. Once again, I will translate the text from Chinese Moral Tales, while providing the Chinese original with its illustration.

There was a large mountain in front of Foolish Grandpa’s home, just across from his front gate. He had more than thirty people in his household, and whenever they went out of their home, they had to go all the way around the mountain; it was very inconvenient.

At the time of this story, Foolish Grandpa was already more than ninety years old, and he was living at home in his retirement. He decided to do something meaningful in the autumn years of his life: he would move the mountain. Therefore, he led all the members of his household, both young and old, and they began the work of moving the mountain. They took the earth and stones from the mountain, and little by little, they moved them away. But the mountain was so very big, and their strength truly had its limits, so their work progressed terribly slowly.

A certain Wise Grandfather lived near their home, and he felt that Foolish Grandpa’s actions in this matter were ridiculous. He exhorted Foolish Grandpa: “This is an impossible task. In my opinion, old friend, you should give up this crazy idea. Did you never consider that you are already more than ninety, and that even if you were twenty years old this year and could spend your entire life on this project, you would still not be able to move one ten thousandth of the mountain?”

Foolish Grandpa said: “Perhaps things are not as difficult as you make them out to be. If I cannot finish moving the mountain in my lifetime, then after I am dead, my sons and grandsons will still work on the project. After my sons and grandsons are dead, their sons and grandsons will still be there to work on it. We can continue this project generation after generation. This mountain is dead. It will never grow bigger. As long as we work without stopping, the day will come when we will finish moving the mountain.”

When the god of the mountain heard this news, he became very worried because he knew that Foolish Grandpa had made a firm decision, which he would never change. In order to save the mountain from destruction, the god of the mountain immediately moved it to another place.

This story was difficult to accept in a number of ways. First, the sense of time is so much longer than the average American attention span. I was used to expecting to finish things immediately if not sooner. I had thought I could thoroughly learn Chinese in nine months, but I was very wrong about that. My longest range plans were all less than five years. It never occurred to me to consider projects that might stretch on for generations. Within my first few months in Taipei, I had to stop wearing a watch because the Chinese sense of time drove me crazy. I was used to arriving for events fifteen minutes early, and I expected meetings or appointments to end at their stated time. Most of the Chinese people I knew would arrive thirty minutes to an hour late, and meetings, appointments, or meals would stretch on interminably. It was better for me if I did not know what time it was.

The second difficulty for me was the sense of family duty. My American family is close and supportive in its American way, but we do not really have multi-generational family projects beyond the education of the youngest generation. Everyone contributes to education, but once a young person is educated, he or she is free to choose a path and make the best of it. There are no expectations placed on him or her beyond using the education given to carve out a successful life. The traditional Chinese family had family projects and a multi-generational economy. When my husband was born, his parents lived in a three-sided traditional farmhouse with his grandparents, his grandfather’s brothers, their wives, and all eleven of the male cousins in my father-in-law’s generation plus their families. My father-in-law was the youngest of the eleven cousins, so his family had a loft under a tin roof over a storeroom in the far corner of the compound. My mother-in-law had to climb a ladder to get up to her room to give birth to her first three babies. Each “small family” had its own activities, but the entire clan worked together on other projects. Sometimes, they would join forces with the “upper branch” of the family, who lived in another three-sided farm house up the road. The “upper branch” had split off in the days of my father-in-law’s great-grandfather. When my mother-in-law was pregnant with child number four, Joshua’s “small family” moved out of the clan compound, but they did not entirely lose the sense of working as a family. Whenever anyone in the family has a need, everyone pitches in to solve the problem. They attack problems in swarms, buzzing at full volume, but they do get things done. I had three babies in the space of fourteen months, and then six months later, I had a bone graft in my left knee after a motorcycle accident. If we had not been living in a multigenerational household with a strong sense of family duty, I do not know how I would have made it through those situations.

In mainland China this tale has taken on a different significance because Mao Tse-tung wrote an essay about it. Mao’s main point was that as long as all the people in the country worked together, they could move mountains. He used this strategy to organize peasants to fight the Japanese with guerilla tactics during World War II. He used it again against the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, and it was the basis of his thinking in the Great Leap Forward and in many of his other projects. Of course, in Taiwan in the 1980’s the only thing that could be said about Mao Tse-tung Thought was that it was evil and terrible. I found out about his changing the parable many years after returning to the US. Nevertheless, both the Nationalist and the Communist interpretations of the moral tale emphasize the importance of community over the individual. And that is a difficult concept for a ruggedly individualistic American to accept; however, in the light of recent current political and economic situations here in the US, I sometimes wonder what would happen if all of us "little people" banded together to fight for one goal. Could we solve our present problems?


Linda McLaughlin said...

Very interesting fable, one I'd never heard before. In previous centuries, I think Americans had more of a sense of community. In pioneer days, everyone would get together for a barn raising, for instance. It wasn't just family, though, it was the whole community, maybe because we are a nation of immigrants who, in the old days at least, had to cut ties with their families and communities in the Old World. We've lost that sense of community to some extent, but that doesn't mean we can't re-discover it.

Teresa said...

I hope you're right, Linda. My Grandma (Ryder) and I had numerous conversations about her experiences during the Great Depression, and she said that what got her family through was help from family and neighbors. Everyone shared and helped each other out whenever they could, knowing that the next time they might be on the receiving end of a neighbor's help. I think we've lost that spirit to a great extent. It seems that more and more, our society lives by the creed of "every man for himself".

Barrie said...

Teresa, this post was fascinating. I like the idea of thinking in multi-generational (if that's even a word!) terms. So much more of a big picture. I have several Korean children's books. The fables are similar.

Teresa said...

Hi Barrie,

There are a lot of terms from Chinese thought that are hard to express in English. They have specific words and phrases describing exactly how many generations living under one roof.

Korean, Japanese, and northern Vietnamese culture were all heavily influenced by the Chinese empire at different points in their history. All these cultures absorbed a lot of the Confucian ideals about family relationships, and they exchanged stories.

murat11 said...

At age 55, my sense of time has changed considerably: I've seen situations work themselves out only with the "luxury" of extended time, far beyond my younger sense of what time might bring (or not bring).

What I love most about this tale is the god of the mountain's concern for Foolish Grandpa. What did Teacher make of this part of the story?

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Teacher didn't go into that much, expect to say that earnest, determined people can move the will of the heavens. She was more interested in impressing us individualistic Westerners with a sense of family.


murat11 said...

Teresa: I like that a lot: that earnest, determined people can move the will of the heavens. It's quite radical and compelling - the collaboration of gods and worlds. We collaborate, through our "foolish" determinations, in the redesign of the structure of the worlds.

Teresa said...

Deep, Murat. I like that, too.