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The Picture On The Kitchen Wall
A story from China. Sophia Lyon Fahs, From Long Ago and Many Lands. Permission pending.
Read or tell the story.
Long, long ago in the land of China there lived a very old grandfather, named Chang Kung, who had a very large family. First, there were Chang Kung's own sons. When his sons grew up they all married and their wives came to live in Chang Kung's house. Then grandchildren were born. When these grandsons grew up, they also married and their wives were added to Chang Kung's family. Then came the great-grandchildren. So Chang Kung's family grew and grew until there were several hundred people in it — all living together. There were old people and young people, middle-sized people and children. Always there were a number of babies.
Besides all this, Chang Kung's family was very fond of pet animals, especially dogs. It is said that at one time one hundred pet dogs belonged to the household.
As Chang Kung's family grew larger and larger, his house had to grow bigger and bigger too, until it became a collection of houses standing side by side around a large open courtyard. A high stone wall stood like a fence around all the houses, and that made all the houses together seem like one big home.
The larger his family grew, the happier old Chang Kung became. He liked to eat at one of the big long tables with his big and little children beside him. He enjoyed sitting in the sunny courtyard where he could watch his great-grandchildren play.
But Chang Kung's family is not remembered after these many years simply because it was such a large family. Many people of China have large families. Chang Kung is still remembered because, it is said, the members of his family never quarreled. At least so the story goes. The children never quarreled in their play. The old people never quarreled with each other and never scolded the children. Nobody — big or little — ever said a cross word. Nobody ever did a mean thing. Some said jokingly that even the dogs did not quarrel or bite. When they were brought their bones they would not even bark, but all would wag their tails and wait their turns.
Stories about this remarkable household spread far and wide over the country just as the breezes blow far and wide in the spring. Finally news of Chang Kung's happy family reached the ears of the Emperor.
Now it so happened that the Emperor was about to make a journey to the Western Hills, to a place not far from the home of Chang Kung. So he decided to visit this wonderful household on his way back, and to see for himself whether or not the rumors he had heard were true.
What a sight it was the day the Emperor arrived outside the village gate. First in the royal procession came the very tall guards dressed in blue and red, carrying long bows and arrows in their hands.
Then came the mandarins, those important men in the Emperor's court. Their long silk gowns were beautifully embroidered with figures of colored birds. Blue and green peacock feathers waved from their round hats. Other attendants followed, playing flutes and harps as the procession marched down the street.
At last came the Emperor himself in his richly adorned sedan chair, carried on the shoulders of four men in red. When the Emperor entered the gate of Chang Kung's home, the old man himself was there, to bow many times and to greet his Emperor with very polite words.
"Very excellent and very aged Sir," said the Emperor, "it is said that inside your walls no cross words are ever spoken. Can this be true?"
"Lord of ten thousand years," said Chang Kung, "you do my poor house far too much honor. It is true that my family does not quarrel, but it would please us greatly if you would consent to walk about our humble courts and judge for yourself."
So the Emperor made his way from one house to another and from one room to another. He talked with everyone he met. In the great Hall of Politeness, he was served delicious food and drink. As he sipped his tea from a dainty cup, he said to Chang Kung: "You must have a golden secret in order to keep so many people living together in such order and peace. I, too, should like to know your secret. "
Then old Chang Kung called his servants to bring a tablet of smooth bamboo. (In those long-ago days there was no paper. All writing was done on wood or on stone.)
Chang Kung asked also for his brush and ink, and the ink stone with its little well of water. He took the brush in his hand and, dipping it into the water and then on the ink, he wrote one word on the tablet. He wrote the word a second time and a third time. He wrote the word over and over until he had written it one hundred times. Then with a low bow, he placed the tablet in the hands of the Emperor.
"You have written many words," said the Emperor, "but at the same time you have written only one word."
"Ai, ai," said Chang Kung, "but that one word is the golden secret, 0 Son of Heaven. It is KINDNESS over and over without any ending." Chang Kung nodded his gray head as he spoke.
The Emperor was so pleased with the golden secret that he, too, called for a bamboo tablet. Taking the brush that Chang Kung had used, the Emperor wrote these words on his tablet: "Let all the families of China learn the golden secret of Chang Kung and his family."
When the Emperor had finished writing, he said: "Let this tablet be fastened to the outside of the gate where everyone passing may read it."
Not many years after the Emperor's visit Chang Kung died, but the story of his happy household has never been forgotten. People asked the Emperor to have pictures of the old man painted and sold so that families might hang his picture on the wall above their kitchen stoves to remind them to keep the golden secret that Chang Kung and his family had learned.
That is why, after these many, many years, in thousands of homes in China , at the New Year season, a fresh bright picture of Chang Kung is pasted on the wall behind the kitchen stove. Many Chinese will tell you it is a picture of a god, but you should know that Chang Kung was once just a very kind and good man who helped the members of his family to learn to live happily together without quarreling. Since so many people think that God is perhaps much like the very best person that can be imagined, such a good person as Chang Kung seems to them to be like God himself.
To look at the picture of Chang Kung over the kitchen stove every morning helps to remind many thousands of people in China to speak kindly to one another. They feel as if Chang Kung were watching them and listening as they go about their work. They can sometimes imagine they hear him speak that golden word — KINDNESS.
Once a year on the night before New Year's, the picture of Chang Kung is taken down and burned. As the flames and smoke go upward, the people think: "Chang Kung is flying back to heaven to tell the great God of all the people just how well everyone has behaved during the past year."
Three days later, they will paste new pictures of Chang Kung on the walls over their kitchen stoves and they will say: "He has now come back again to the earth to keep watch over us for another year."