China Folktale: An Empty Pot for The Emperor and What Ping Wanted to Teach Us

There was a China folktale, where an old soon-to-die childless emperor was looking out for his heir. He was so fond of gardening, so he called upon the boys from his territory and gave out flower seeds to them.

He issued a decree that whoever grew the best plant would be granted the privilege of succeeding to his throne.

Ping was among the boys who chose to seize the opportunity. He was well-known locally for his fresh and sweet bok choy, sweet peas and melons sold at the market. He took the seed home and planted it in a pot with the best soil he had.

Despite watering the seed daily and taking a great care of the seed, to his surprise, the seed did not grow at all. As for the other boys, all of their seeds sprouted into healthy plants with beautiful flowers.

Ping became confused and worried. Even worse, the other boys taunted him and laughed at him. Ping replaced the pot with even better soil, but nothing happened.

The day of judgement has finally arrived. Ping was despondent, but he still brought the empty pot to the emperor anyway. The emperor showed an upset face to him.

“How dare of you to bring me an empty pot!”

“I am sorry, I tried and tried to grow the seed you gave me, but nothing came up. It was the best I could do,” Ping responded in despair.

We all know how the story ends. All of the seeds were in fact boiled seeds: the emperor wanted to test the boys for honesty. And Ping – how lucky is him – won the lottery.

Just like all the other tales and bedtime stories, folklore teaches us about universal values, to teach the new generation, for a better world.

This story was indeed interesting: the good values was implied at both the levels of the ruler and the society. Whilst the emperor was portrayed as a good character, the society was divided.

Is it really that an honest person is only one in a million in the society, as the story depicts?

(Also, watch our video on why our kids tend to be dishonest here!)

Corrupted society does affect honesty

In a study by Simon Gächter and Jonathan F. Schulz from the University of Nottingham, people who live in the society with higher levels of corruption tend to be more dishonest.

The study finding implies that the bad institutions and cultural legacies would not just have an adverse impact on the economy, but would affect the society at large.

The justification for being honest, according to Gächter and Schulz, depends on what is justifiable in the society and their surroundings. People tend to maintain a positive public image, by ‘cheating a little bit’ to their advantage, in order to maintain a good image.

In other words, the acceptable level of honesty is determined by the societal practice: if you live in a society which breaks the rule all the times, then it would seem okay to do so.

Well, since society exerts a strong influence on the honesty of individuals, Ping seems to go against the society then!

(Also, watch our video here about honesty in this digital age: how much does it affect us individually?)

“It is impractical to being honest all the time, sometimes we need white lies!”

Let’s dig deeper into the tale of Ping. For a common person to be able to inherit the throne and the wealth of the emperor, white lies would seem to be appropriate and required here, wouldn’t it?

Or at least that would be what all the boys but Ping thought of.

They replaced the seed given by the emperor with the new seed, growing it successfully in order to gain acceptance of the emperor and a bright future.

That is where the wisdom from the simple tale comes in. The boys in the story – as adults nowadays – are regularly facing a dilemma, to choose between being virtuously and principally honest, or putting in ‘small, forgivable lies’ to survive, especially when the living cost is so high nowadays.

The opportunity and demand for white lies are surprisingly everywhere: when filling the forms for our pay increments; when finishing the report on our KPIs; when persuading our kids to stop having a tantrum; and even when facing a critical situation in our relationship!

There Ping came to the rescue! Ping taught us, as what our older generation wanted us to firmly believe in, that honesty is truly the best policy.

To prove that, Ping was the one who was granted the throne at the end of the story, not those ‘creative’ boys that managed to find another way out of the problem through white lies!

What about the other boys?

What hasn’t been told in the story is whether the boys learnt their lessons and became honest people afterwards.

Truth is, we would never know that since it was not there in the story.

And it did not have to be there in the first place. Why? When the story ended at Ping, we should have known that we are the one who was being addressed by the story.

It did not matter that the non-growing seed would seem to indicate failure and bad luck for themselves, which the boys might be pressured to think so.

It does not matter what the society thinks or what is justifiable within the current society, be the society is corrupted or not.

It is about Ping, about his stand and action alone. It is about us: to be honest and hold firm with it regardless of what people are saying.

So if you’re insisting: do the other boys finally change? Firstly, we have to answer this: have we became Ping, so that we would influence our society for good?

Answer it honestly to ourselves, don’t lie. We know ourselves the most, whether the answer is yes or no.

And if we are even being dishonest in answering that to ourselves, do know that in nowadays reality even, the secret to succeeding both in life and in career, especially business, is being honest to ourselves.

Voila! Ping and his story have survived the thousand years of human civilization.

Or rather being said, the power of good values in actual are staying relevant even as the time changes: hats off to them!

“Forget about the unicorn, tonight I will tell you a bedtime story about fluffy Ping and the empty pot,” says Gru to the girls. Would Agnes buy his word? Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment.

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