A Story From: China
Read Time: 16 to 20 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 14yrs.
OVER TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO in China there was a time called the “Period of the Warring States” when seven kings, representing seven different states, fiercely warred with each other in a scramble for power and land. From time to time the states grew tired of war and sent envoys to negotiate periods of peace. Such times of peace always felt uneasy for the people, for they knew war could break out at any time. The weakest of the seven states was Chao, and the strongest one was Tsin.
One day a court official who served at Chao’s palace purchased a beautiful piece of jade from a stranger. When the court official took it to have it appraised, the jade expert said, “This is no ordinary piece of jade that you brought to me. This is none other than the legendary Jade Treasure! Don’t you see its exquisite color? There’s no piece of jade in all the carved vases, bowls, or ornaments of any palace of any king that compares to this stone. And the magnificent Jade Treasure has other virtues. It shines in the dark. It can keep a room warm in winter and cool in summer. It even repels insects. You must always guard it – indeed, this is a magnificent, priceless treasure!”
News travels fast, and the king of Chao heard of the wonderful Jade Treasure that had been obtained by one of his court officials, and sent word that he wanted to see it. The court official was worried. Surely the King of Chao would find a way to take it away from him. Perhaps he should escape with the jade treasure before the day he was supposed to go see the king?
“That would not be wise, sir,” said one of his houseguests, a young man named Gan. “The king will surely hunt you down. You will lose the stone and your life, too. Instead, I suggest you offer the Jade Treasure outright to the king as a gift.”
So the court official offered the King of Chao the wonderful Jade Treasure. The king was delighted with the magnificent stone and promoted the court official to chamberlain.
Soon the King of Tsin, whose land was the strongest of the seven states, heard that the King of Chao had in his possession the legendary Jade Treasure.
“Forbear!” exclaimed the King of Tsin. “We are the strongest state – we should have this matchless stone for our own! Send a message at once to the King of Chao that he must sell it to me for the price of fifteen cities.”
“Fifteen cities?” said one of his mandarins in surprise. “That’s a generous price to pay!”
“Not at all,” said the King of Tsin, smiling and stroking his beard. “The envoy from Chao will bring us the jade. Once we have it, who will remember if we ever said anything about fifteen cities? And if we do nothing, what can Chao do about it?”
“Ah, yes!” said the mandarin. He hastened to do the king’s bidding.
Now when the King of Chao received the message from the King of Tsin with the demand to sell the stone for fifteen cities, he was worried. Certainly fifteen cities was a good price, but what if the King of Tsin simply kept the precious stone and didn’t deliver the cities as promised? What choice would that leave Chao? If he protested that the King of Tsin had broken his word, that could easily be a pretext for the King of Tsin to invade Chao, and that’s a war Chao could not win against the mighty Tsin. On the other hand, was he to give up his wonderful new national treasure without a struggle?
As he was debating the pros and cons of the troubling situation, his new chamberlain suggested, “Sir, my houseguest Gan has proved in the past to be wise beyond his years. Allow me to summon him and let’s hear his advice.”
So Gan was summoned.
“My glorious King,” answered Gan, “the stone must be surrendered for the good of your subjects. Otherwise the King of Tsin will invade us and destroy us. Yet we need not despair. Let me be your envoy. Entrust the Jade Treasure to my care. May my life be forfeited if I do not return the jewel to you if the King of Tsin refuses to keep his word.”
To send Gan with the most favorable prospects, the entire court fasted for three days and at the end hosted a grand feast to launch his journey to the kingdom of Chao. Gan, with great reverence, wrapped the Jade Treasure in an embroidered silk covering, tucked it inside an even richer silk pouch, and placed the silk pouch in another pocket inside his robe. Accompanied by a noble train of attendants, he set out on his journey. When he arrived at the kingdom of Tsin, the King welcomed him and his entourage, and they were entertained and feasted with all honor.
When the time came for Gan to present the Jade Treasure to the King of Tsin, the young man approached the throne, took out the richly embroidered silk covering, unwrapped the priceless Jade Treasure and offered it to the King of Tsin to examine. The stone gleaned and shone with mesmerizing radiance. After admiring the Jade Treasure, the King of Tsin passed it onto his officials who immediately congratulated him for securing such a priceless gem. The King of Tsin ordered his servant to take the Jade Treasure to his other court attendants and show it to them.
Lin waited for a long time. He waited and he waited. But the Jade Treasure was not returned to the king’s table. No mention had been made of the fifteen cities.
The King of Tsin intends to keep the Jade Treasure.
He has no intention of delivering 15 cities to the king of Chao.
If you were Gan, what would you do?
The King of Tsin quickly ordered his servant to bring the jade back to Gan.
Once the stone was safely in Gan’s hands, he took several steps backward until he was next to a pillar. “We came in good faith because you offered Chao fifteen cities. My king fasted for three days and set me off with a grand ceremony to take the Jade Treasure to you. If you are acting in good faith, you, too, will fast for three days and arrange a grand ceremony for me to hand over this Jade Treasure to you before all your court. If not, I will smash this pillar with the stone right now. I will be destroyed, so will you, and so will the Jade Treasure!”
The King rushed forward, “What is this rash talk? Of course we were planning a ceremony just as the one you describe. We are going to fast for three days, then have the ceremony.”
Each morning for the next three days, the King of Tsin sent a servant to check that Gan still held the Jade Treasure. In the meantime, Gan sent one of his attendants in disguise to see what was really going on in the palace. He found out that there was no fast at all, but a mad scrambling to make preparations for the hastily arranged ceremony. On the morning of the event, after the servant checked that Gan still had the Jade Treasure, Gan sent his most trusted servant back to Chao with the stone.
At the event, when it came time for Gan to hand over the wonderful Jade Treasure, he said, “O king, surely you must understand our hesitation when we came in good faith with the wonderful Jade Treasure and you did not even talk about the fifteen cities as promised. Your state is strong; ours is weak. I had no choice but to send my attendant back to Chao with the Jade Treasure. No doubt he is already halfway back home.”
All gasped. “This is an outrage!” cried the King of Tsin, jumping up. “We fasted for three days and planned this event just as you said. Now you tell us you are not keeping your side of the bargain!”
“Kill me if you wish,” said Gan. “My life is in your hands. Only know that I am the only one who knows the route my attendant has taken and can direct you to him if you chose. If you want to bring with you the deeds to the fifteen cities I will accompany you to my attendant now. He will give you the Jade Treasure and you can deliver the deeds to the cities at the same time. If this is not agreeable to you, pour me into a cauldron of boiling oil if you wish. Let the other states decide who was right and who was wrong when they hear you have executed the messenger from the kingdom of Chao.”
The King of Tsin knew that killing Gan could inflame the other states to team up and make to war against him. Though his state was strongest of the seven and would surely defeat the small kingdom of Chao in battle, if several other states joined in a combined effort against him, who could tell what the result would be? Besides, he didn’t have the fifteen deeds of the cities ready because, as he had never intended to deliver them, they had never been prepared.
Thinking quickly, the King of Tsin laughed and said, “Ah, you must know that I planned this entire gesture as a test to see how your state would react. I had no intention of killing you, only to see the quality of how Chao handles negotiations. You have performed honorably! Stay for our banquet – we have a fine feast prepared in any event – and return in peace to your homeland tomorrow.”
The royal court thought the King of Tsin very clever for staging this test on Chao, not realizing that the king had been caught short and had thought of the test on the spot. But that was not as clever as the King of Chao thought Gan, when his attendant returned safely with the Jade Treasure and when, days later, Gan returned safely as well. The King of Chao quickly promoted Gan to the rank of highest court official, where he served with distinction for the rest of his days.
The King of Chao never received the fifteen cities that were promised by the King of Tsin. And so of course the King of Tsin never received the magnificent Jade Treasure.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
"The Most Wonderful Jade Treasure" from Wonder Tales from China Seas by Frances Jenkins Olcott (Longmans, Green & Col, Toronto, 1925), pp.131-135.
"The Wonderful Jade Treasure" from The Ch'lin-lin Purse: A Collection of Ancient Chinese Sories, retold by Linda Fang (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1995), pp. 101-113.
The Period of the Warring States ran from about 475-221 BCE. It was a time of violence and chaos during which the philosopher Sun-Tzu lived. Six states engaged in more or less constant warfare with each other and a seventh, Yen, remained mostly out of the fray. In 223-221 the ruler of Tsin, Cheng Wang, succeeded in conquering his rivals and established a unified Chinese empire. The basis of his success were the introduction of cavalry into Chinese warfare and the replacement of bronze weapons by iron ones. The state was centralized. Cheng Wang became known as the Book Burner because of an early decree to burn books. He is also credited with constructing the Great Wall of China.
In China there is an expression "The entire jade returns to Chao" that comes from this story and is often used to promise that a borrowed item will be returned in its original condition.