Adapted from The Empty Pot by Demi (New York: Henry Holt, 1990); permission pending.
Long, long ago, the Emperor of an ancient land was old and dying. He loved children but had none of his own. So the Emperor decided to choose one of the children of his land to be the next Emperor.
The Emperor also loved plants, and of these, he had many. So nobody was surprised by the test he offered the children of the land.
The Emperor called all the children to his palace. He said, “I will give one seed to each of you. Come back in one year. When I see what you have grown from your seeds, I will choose the next Emperor.”
The children ran from the palace smiling. All they had to do was grow a seed and they would be Emperor. But a year is a long time. Most of the children decided to wait a while to do their planting, and as the year went by, many children forgot their seeds.
But one child, a boy named Chen, took care of his seed right away. Just like the Emperor himself, Chen loved plants. Chen carefully carried the Emperor's seed home, sealing it securely in his hands so it wouldn't fall, but not so tightly that it might crush.
As soon as he got home, Chen found a clay pot made by his Grandfather. He thought that pot would be just right to grow his seed. He washed the pot and dried it carefully. Next Chen found rich, black soil that had many worms in it to make it nourishing. Chen filled the pot with the soil. Then he planted his seed, carefully covering it with the soil.
Chen set the pot in the sun. Each day, he lightly sprinkled water on the seed. But nothing grew from the seed. Nothing at all.
Some weeks went by. The other children boasted to each other of the wonderful large plants they had grown, but Chen’s seed did not grow. He tried moving the pot to another window. He tried watering his plant more, and even singing to his plant. But no matter what Chen did, his seed did not grow.
Then, a year had passed. It was time to return to the Emperor. Chen was ashamed that his seed had not grown.
His wise Grandfather said, “You did your best, Chen. You were caring and patient. Be honest with the Emperor and explain that you did your best. It will be enough.”
So Chen returned to the palace with his empty pot held carefully in his arms. The children lined up to present their plants. The first child had a large plant with thick leaves, a ginseng plant that could be used to make paper and medicine. The next child had a eucalyptus plant, a healthy, strong plant that soon would become a tree big enough to produce food for many animals. By the time Chen’s turn came, he was so sad about his empty pot.
Feeling very embarrassed, Chen held his empty pot up for the Emperor to see. Chen explained how he had lovingly cared for his seed. Chen talked about his love for his Grandfather who had made the pot. He told the Emperor everything he had done to care for the seed, and how sad he felt that the seed would not grow.
The Emperor smiled and spoke. “There is only one among you who is honest enough to be the Emperor,” he said. “The seeds that I gave you had been boiled so they would never grow. These wonderful plants some children have shown me did not come from the seeds I gave them.”
Now some of the other children looked ashamed, because they had not been honest. And the Emperor knew it. “Only one child cared for the seed even when it did not grow,” the Emperor said. “Only Chen gave the seed all it needed and asked for nothing. Only Chen was honest enough to show me an empty pot. Chen will be the new Emperor.”
Chen moved to the Emperor’s palace with his Grandfather. The old Emperor taught him many things, about gardening and much more. And when the Emperor died, he was smiling, because he knew that Chen would care for his land with love and honesty.