Many years ago, in a tiny farming village in ancient China, there lived a widow and her only child, a son, named Ah Po. Sometimes, Ah Po thought his name was Ai Ya Ah Po, because his mother was always addressing him that way (“Ai ya!” was the local phrase for “Oy Vey!” or “Oh, dear!”). “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she would groan, rolling her eyes. For as much as she loved her son, the poor lad never seemed to be able to do anything right.
It wasn’t that he meant to do wrong, oh no! And it wasn’t that the lad wasn’t clever; he was able to add and subtract sums and he remembered everything he was told. And that was the problem – he remembered everything he was told. Desperately trying to do the right thing, he would remember some piece of advice his mother gave him, and then – well…
The real trouble all started on a hot summer day. After he’d tipped over the very last but one water jug in the house, Ah Po’s mother sent him with two of the least breakable jugs to the river to collect more, suggesting that he could take his time.
By the time he got to the river, Ah Po was drenched in sweat, so he stripped off his clothes and jumped into the chilly water. While he was splashing around cooling himself off, a thief came along and stole the water jugs and his clothes. Before Ah Po could reach the shore, the thief had disappeared.
As Ah Po stood wondering what to do, he heard a dreadful racket coming down the road in the opposite direction: cymbals clanged, and drums boomed over the sound of wails of grief. Then, around the bend came the source of the noise: a funeral procession, with the relatives of the deceased dressed in white, and a white silk cloth draped over the casket upon the shoulders of the pall-bearers. From the finery of the trappings, he could tell that this was the funeral of a very rich man indeed.
Remembering something he had heard his mother say about dressing well to impress people of high status, he tried to cover his nakedness, and, looking around for something suitable, dove forward and grabbed the white silk off the top of the casket, wrapping it around himself before turning to address the funeral party.
He only got as far as “I…” before some of the larger members of the group chased him away with blows and curses.
He arrived at his mother’s doorstep a half hour later, bruised and battered. While she patched him up, he related his tale, and she shook her head sadly. “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she sighed. “Those people would not have cared that you were naked; you should have shown your respect by offering your deepest sympathies to them.”
Ah Po nodded wisely. “I should have offered my sympathies. I’ll be sure to remember,” he groaned, rubbing the lump on his head.
The next week, there was a wedding in the village, and Ah Po stopped on his errands to see the spectacle: the people in all their finery, and the bridal party clad in scarlet and gold. He managed to see the bride and the groom very closely indeed, for the pillar he was leaning against was right at front of the temple. As the bridal couple reached the threshold, they looked straight at him, and Ah Po felt he ought to say something. He remembered his mother’s advice.
He bowed solemnly. “May I offer you both my deepest sympathies,” he intoned.
Half an hour later, he was stumbling back to his mother, who nursed his wounds and clucked her tongue as she heard his tale of woe. “Ai ya, Ah Po!” she cried bitterly. “That was a wedding! They had all their family and friends gathered round – you should have said ‘congratulations’, or even ‘good luck!’ Ah, well, my son. Go to bed; tomorrow is another day.”
Tomorrow, indeed, saw a change of fortune in the village: at some point during the nuptial revels, an intoxicated guest had set off a firework that had fallen on dry thatch, and several houses had caught fire. All the friends and family of the new couple were gathered together in the square, organizing a bucket chain to douse the flames. Ah Po, seeing them, remembered what his mother had said.
“Congratulations!” he shouted at them, waving excitedly. He jumped up and down, smiling cheerfully. “The best of luck to you!”
Once the flames were extinguished, several of the wedding guests looked as if they were going to extinguish Ah Po too – he made a run for it, but it was a close call, and he arrived home short of breath and trembling in fear.
“AI YA, Ah Po!” his mother groaned. “What did you expect? They were about to lose their possessions, and someone might have been hurt, or even died! That’s no time to stand back wishing them luck – you should have helped throw water on the fire!”
Ah Po nodded wisely, tucking this latest bit of advice away for later. However, the next day, by the time he had tried this tactic at the baker’s, the rotisserie, and the blacksmith’s shop, he barely escaped with his skin intact.
His mother, hearing of this latest mishap, shook her head. “Those fires were under control and part of those peoples’ work!” she told him sternly. “Instead of just diving in, stop and watch – see what the others are doing, and then do as they do.”
“That makes sense,” he mumbled faintly; that blacksmith had been particularly angry, and Ah Po’s poor head was still spinning as he went to bed.
The next morning, he chanced upon a group of younger boys, who were having a brawl, kicking and punching each other. Ah Po watched them, carefully, to see what they were doing…
“Ai ya, Ah Po!” his mother howled, after bailing him out of jail the next morning. “Beating up seven little boys! How could you?!?”
“But they –”
“Enough, Ah Po! Could you not see they were hurting each other?”
“Well, yes, but you said –”
“NO, Ah Po! You should have gotten in between them, stopped them from their – oh, it doesn’t matter! I think you should stay away from the village. Just don’t go near any people, and maybe, just maybe, we can keep you out of trouble.”
So, the next day, Ah Po walked far away from the village, out to the meadow where the farmers kept their young bulls. Two of the larger ones were fighting: lowering their heads, they stampeded towards each other, banging their skulls together with a sickening THUD, then, stumbling, retreating, and repeating the whole thing again. And again.
Ah Po watched. They were clearly hurting each other…. Coming to a decision, he approached the center of the field, directly between the contenders. The next time they prepared for a stampede, he stood right in their path, his arms outstretched, prepared to prevent them from colliding.
“STOP!!!!” he shouted. And then they slammed into him.
Ah Po’s spirit flew out of his body, and flitted away upon the wind. To this day he blows around the world, mussing peoples’ hair, tipping peoples’ hats off their heads, and tearing important pieces of paper away from the people they are important to. Even as a ghost, Ah Po could never do the right thing at the right time.
This Chinese folktale, usually retold for its humorous notes, also holds a deeply meaningful message: we can absorb as much wisdom as we like, but unless we are able to think for ourselves and understand not only what to do, but why we do it, then we are helpless when circumstances shift and the very action that would have saved us yesterday would only destroy us today. Many dangerous, high-control groups have a “cookie-cutter” approach to the problems of life – do these courses, follow this scripture, or recite this chant, and everything will be better. No matter what happens, all you have to do is follow the instructions.
The bottom line is that the panacea – the cure-all – is a myth. It is only when our minds are open to all possibilities – that we can assess a situation and find the best course of action for that circumstance – or, at least, the course of action that won’t result in the rest of your village getting angry at you. Autonomy means being able to understand a situation and make your own decision.
What do you think about this fable? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about only one “right answer” that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!