Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sai Weng Lost his Horse

My American family’s culture believed in absolutes. Certain things were absolutely good, and we were expected to strive as hard as we could to attain them; other things were absolutely wrong, and we had to strive equally hard to avoid them. The story “Sai Weng Lost his Horse” was one of the first major disruptions to my worldview. I am just going to translate the story from my first intermediate Chinese reader: Chinese Moral Tales. I have posted pictures of the Chinese text and its illustration for those of you who want to practice your Chinese (or your English).

Sai Weng was a philosophical person. He believed that in this world there is no such thing as an absolute calamity or an absolute blessing. Every situation had to be measured by the objective state of affairs. Hence, when he encountered misfortune, he did not get worried; when he met with great luck, he did not rejoice overmuch. In all matters, he took the stance that he should wait and see how things progressed.

One day, one of his horses wandered away. After his friends heard of the situation, they all came to console him. He said: “Thank you, but I am not sad about this matter, and I am not going to go out looking for the horse. Losing a horse might not be such a bad thing after all.”

After a few days, the horse returned of its own accord, and it brought with it another more valuable horse. When his friends came to congratulate him, he said: “This is not something worth celebrating. Obtaining a horse may be a stroke of bad luck.”

Sai Weng’s son loved the new, valuable horse; he always rode the horse out for recreation. That horse galloped swiftly, and one day Sai Weng’s son fell off the horse’s back, breaking his leg. When their friends heard this bad news, they all come to console Sai Weng. Sai Weng serenely said to them: “It is still hard to say if this broken leg is calamity or good fortune.”

Later, China went to war with the northern barbarians, and all the young men were drafted into the army by order of the government. They were sent off to protect the country’s borders. The war dragged on for years, and many young men were killed in battle. Only Sai Weng’s son was exempted from military duty because of his broken leg. He remained at home living a peaceful life.

When I first studied this story it bothered me terribly. I could not accept the fact that Sai Weng would just sit there and say, “Who knows, this might not be so bad (or so good) after all.” I thought he should take things into his own hands to make his own luck by finding the horse or getting a better doctor for his son. Our teacher spent much time using stories from her own personal experiences and those of her friends to prove to us that there are many things in life beyond our control. She believed that some of the greatest shortcomings in Western culture were its insistence that its way is right and its refusal to accept situations as they arise. She kept exhorting our class (especially me) to learn from the bamboo and bend with the wind in the face of storms. She told me that if I did not learn to go more with the flow, I would snap in two during one of life’s very big storms. If I learned to accept things and go with them, I would be able to bend almost to the ground like bamboo in a typhoon; then when the storm was over, I would spring back up unharmed.

Teacher made some very good points that I could not refute, but even so, it was excruciatingly difficult for me to accept her thinking. I walked back and forth to school arguing with myself about whether or not I should fight the windmills of life and dream impossible dreams or learn to just go with the flow. In the end, I think that I came to a point somewhere in the middle. I tend to fight with fate more than the members of my husband’s family do, but I tolerate life’s disruptions of my plans more than most members of my American family.


Linda McLaughlin said...

What an interesting story. There are definite advantages to being able to bend in the wind. It took me a long time to accept that there are some things I can't control, like whether or not someone will buy my books. Being in the middle of both Eastern and Western philosophies is probably a good place most of the time. I think you've handled the recent disruptions in your life very well and with great wisdom.

Teresa said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'm not sure about the latest round of madness that I got hit with in Saturday's mail, but I guess we'll get through it.

Barrie said...

Very interesting. your posts always make me think. I would've driven your teacher crazy. I definitely have to learn to go more with the flow. So much easier said than done!

Teresa said...

I don't think you would have driven her crazy, Barrie. By the time I knew her, she had been teaching for 20 years, and she knew that she would never be able to totally change her students into model Chinese. She did try to help us see her point of view.

In the West, we're trained to fight windmills, and I think there is a time and a place for such a spirit. My teacher understood Western culture and just tried to help us see that there is always a different way to look at things.

Anonymous said...

One of the most beautiful and philosophical fables of all times.