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Child Prodigies of Ancient Eras

Four ancient tales of brilliant kids that are still used as parables today


Child Prodigies of Ancient Eras

Four ancient tales of brilliant kids that are still used as parables today


Reality shows such as “Daddy, where are we going?” are a modern way through which children sometimes achieve instant fame. But according to the history books, child-celebrity status is actually a fairly ancient phenomenon.

Kids who just shared their pears, weighed an elephant or broke a vat have been immortalized for thousands of years as good examples for every single Chinese kid. Even today, they are held up as paragons of moral virtue and used as lessons for children to aspire to.

Image courtesy of huisou.com.

Image courtesy of  huisou.com.

Kong Rong Gives away Bigger Pears (孔融让梨)

Kong Rong (孔融) was a famous scholar during the Eastern Han Dynasty. One day when he was four years old, his father brought home some pears and asked him to distribute them to all of his brothers. Kong then gave the bigger ones to his five elder brothers and a younger brother, and kept the smallest for himself. His father felt curious and asked why he would do such a thing.

Kong answered, “I am younger than my elder brothers, I should respect them; And I am older than my little brother, I should take care of him.”

This story then widely spread. The concept of brotherhood was one of the most important societal values, like the parent-child relationship,  and represented a key pillar of the feudal system. Kong became a model of respecting and loving your brothers and sisters.

But ironically, without many Chinese knowing, Kong is believed to have voiced many opinions against traditional ethical principles years later. According to The Book of the Later Han, written sometime between 432 and 445 AD and which recorded history from a few centuries earlier, he said, “Why should a son be grateful to his father? What a father does is all out of erotic lust”, and “Does love really exist between mothers and children? It’s just like a container and things inside. Once the thing in it comes out, there is no relationship between them.”

That of course, doesn’t seem to get in the way of a good, and more importantly, a moral story. Even today, almost everyone in China knows the story of how he distributed those pears, but few people care about anything else he may have said in his later years.

Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant (曹冲称象)

Image courtesy of douban.com

Image via douban.com

Cao Chong (曹冲) probably had the most influential family during the Eastern Han Dynasty, with his father Cao Cao the founder of the Kingdom Wei, his brother Cao Pi the first emperor of Wei, and another brother Cao Zhi the most brilliant poet at that time. But Cao Chong was still outstanding. When he was 7, his father received an elephant as a tribute from another kingdom. The elephant was so extremely huge that his father was desperate to learn its weight.

First, an official proposed making a scale and having people lift the elephant, but it’s pretty easy to see the flaws in that idea. Another official suggested cutting the elephant into pieces and weighing each of them, but this idea was hardly any better—it required killing the elephant.

It was Cao Chong who figured out the problem. He asked people to load the elephant onto a big boat in the water and marked the waterline against the side of the boat, then put stones on it instead of the elephant, until the boat sank to the same line. So the elephant’s weight was able to be calculated by adding the weights of the stones together.

This story is usually used to teach kids to be creative and think from different angles when encountering difficult problems. But just because a story stars a child doesn’t mean it has a happy ending. Cao Chong’s genius didn’t save him when he died from disease at the age of 13.

Maybe just like the old saying goes, Cao was “so talented that he incurred jealousy of God”.

Sima Guang Smashes a Vat(司马光砸缸)

Sima Guang smashed the vat, by Guo Muxi

Sima Guang smashes the vat, by Guo Muxi.

Sima Guang (司马光), a politician, historian and literary powerhouse during the Song Dynasty, might never have imagined that the vat he broke in his childhood would remain almost as famous as his marvelous book in Chinese history and politics, the Zizhi Tongjian (literally, the Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance) hundreds of years later.

When he was a little boy, one day he played a “hide and seek” game with his friends in the yard. One of the kids climbed up the rocks and accidentally fell into a vat full of water. None of the kids were tall enough to pull their friend out and the vat was too heavy to be pushed over. All of the kids began to panic, except for Sima. He found a large stone and threw it at the vat. It broke, the water drained away, and his friend was saved.

Even today, almost all the Chinese parents still tell this story repeatedly to their children in attempt to stress the importance of keeping calm and making quick responses in an emergency.

The Pity of Zhongyong(伤仲永)

Image courtesy of Sogou Baike.

Image via Sogou Baike.

As with many child celebrities today, fame in early life doesn’t always translate to fame later. Fang Zhongyong (方仲永), a character in the essay “The Pity of Zhongyong” by Song dynasty (960 – 1279) politician Wang Anshi (王安石), was born in a farming family and never approached writing materials until one day he cried out for some at the age of 5. His father felt curious and borrowed some for him. Fang immediately wrote a poem and signed on the page. Since then, his fame spread around the neighborhood and people even paid this child prodigy to write poems, which were all instant hits. His father was glad to have such a convenient way of making some cash, and thus took Fang to brag to their neighbors every day and stopped teaching him.

As a result of the lack of further education, when Fang became a teenager, he became mediocre and his talent drained away. This tale was passed down over hundreds years, and Zhongyong has become a byword for “has-been child prodigies”.

Master image courtesy of Guo Muxi and depicts Kong Rong giving away pears.