Taoist Folktales

The Axe Thief

A man couldn't find his axe, and suspected that his neighbor's son stole it. As the man inspected the boy--the way he moved, the look on his face, and the way he spoke--everything seemed to point to the boy's guilt. "He stole my axe!" the man thought to himself. However, not long afterwards, he came across his missing axe while digging in a dell. The next day, he looked at his neighbor's son again. This time, he couldn't spot all those cues that made the boy seem guilty the previous day.


Duke Mu of Ch'in said to the horse expert Po Lo, "Who can I hire to replace you after you retire?"

Po Lo replied, "Well. My sons can identify a good horse. But they can't identify an exceptional one, the way I can. That is something evasive and fleeting, elusive as thin air. I only know one person who can pick horses of that sort. He's a merchant by the name of Chiu-fang Kao."

Duke Mu hired Chiu-fang Kao--and months later, the latter said he had tracked down an exceptional horse. When the Duke asked what kind of horse it was, the response was, "Oh, it's a brown mare." But when someone was sent to go get it, the animal turned out to be a black stallion!

Much displeased, the Duke told Po Lo, "Your friend can't even distinguish between a male and female horse or a dark and light horse. How could he possibly distinguish between a good horse an an exceptional one?"

Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. "He must have advanced to a level beyond mine. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details. Intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees only what ought to be examined. His skill in judging horses is so great, it shows that he is capable of doing much more than selecting horses."

The horse turned out to be exceptional.

The Practical Joke

A certain man was raised in Ch'u but born in Yen. In his later years, he set out to visit his native country. On the way there, a fellow traveler played a practical joke on him. Although they were in Chin, he said, "This is the capital of the Yen." The old man flushed with excitement. Then the other pointed to a shrine. "This is your own village altar." The old man heaved a deep sigh. He was then shown a home. "This is where your ancestors lived." Tears welled up into the old man's eyes. Finally, a mound was pointed out to him. "This is the tomb where your ancestors lay buried." The old man could control himself no longer, and wept aloud.

At that point, the other man began laughing uproariously. "I have been hoaxing you," he said. "This is Chin."

His victim was greatly mortified--and when he arrived at his journey's end and really did see Yen, with its altars and homes and the the tombs of his ancestors, his emotion was much less acute.


A young man in Ch'i State had a burning lust for gold. One morning, he got up early and went to the marketplace--and as soon as he saw some gold at a moneychanger's stand, he grabbed it and ran. The police caught him, and, quite puzzled, they asked why he committed the theft in plain view of so many people. "When I was taking the gold," the young man explained, "I didn't see anybody at all. I only saw the gold, and nothing but the gold."


The Duke of Pai was obsessed with getting revenge on the men of Cheng who killed his father. One day, he leaned on his horse-prodding stick without realizing that it was upside down. Though blood started dripping from his cheek, he did not even notice what had happened. The men of Cheng heard about the incident and remarked, "He's unaware of his own face. Who knows what else he's unaware of?"

The Switch

Kung Hu of Lu and Ch'i Ying of Chao were both ill, and got examined by Doctor Pien Ch'iao. The doctor cured them, explaining that he used herbs to cure an external disease, but that they also has an untreated internal disease. He told Kung Hu, "You have strong mental power and make plans copiously, but your willpower is weak and you lack resolve." He then told Ch'i Ying, "Your willpower is strong--but your mental powers are weak, making you narrow-minded and lacking of forethought." He then proceeded to switch their hearts in order to balance the goodness in each individual. This involved making them unconscious by administering a strong potion, and then cutting open their chests, taking out the hearts, placing each heart in the other man's body, and then closing up their chests and sealing them with the use of herbs. When the two men regained consciousness, they looked exactly the same as before. They both returned home--only Kung Hu went to Ch'i Ying's house and vice versa, prompting their wives to end up in court in order to resolve the issue. Doctor Pien Ch'iao was brought in--and upon his explaining the matter, peace was once more restored.

The Artificial Man

The craftsman Yen Shih and another man entered the court of King Mu of Chou. The King inquired about the second man, wanting to know who he was. "He is my own creation," was Yen Shih's reply. The King watched in astonishment as the figure walked just like a person, and, under Yen Shih's control, sang and performed a variety of movements.

Later, the man began flirting with the King's concubines, which angered the King so much that he was ready to execute Yen Shih. The latter, in mortal terror, instantly pulled the cyborg to pieces, revealing that it was made of leather, wood, glue and paint. The King examined it, finding a liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines, as well as muscles, bones, limbs, and joints, along with skin, teeth, and hair. Everything was expertly crafted. And when the figure was reassembled, he looked the same as before.

The King conducted some experiments. He removed the heart, and found that the mouth would no longer utter a sound; he took away the liver, and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys, and the legs could not walk anymore.

The King drew a deep breath and delighted in how advanced human skill could be.

Prior to this, the craftsman Pan Shu had created a ladder that could climb up to the clouds, and Mo Ti had invented a wooden kite that could fly continuously for three days. The two of them thought that they had reached the limits of human achievement. But upon learning of Yen Shih's cyborg, the two men refrained from boasting of their mechanical skill, and in fact, they went so far as to quit inventing altogether.

Two Sons

Mr. Shih of Lu had two sons: one was a successful scholar who tutored princes in Ch'i, and another was a successful soldier who headed the military in Ch'u. Mr. Meng also had one son who was a scholar, and another who was a soldier. They, however, were poor. Mr. Meng asked Mr. Chih's sons how they attained their success, and they readily gave him the desired information. Then Mr. Meng's son the scholar attempted to find employment with the governor of another state. The governor was offended, saying, "We constantly face the threat of war in my state--and now you want me to focus on promoting benevolence and righteousness, instead of maintaining a strong military!" He punished the man severely for his suggestion. Meanwhile, Mr. Meng's son the soldier offered his services in another state. the leader there told him, "I run a small state surrounded by powerful ones. We can only survive by serving the larger states. If I build up an army here, we will surely be destroyed by a more powerful army. And when you leave here, you might join their military and attack me." He was also punished severely for the suggestion.

Lieh Tzu

Lieh Tzu was traveling to Ch'i State, but turned back part way into his journey. He then encountered Po Hun Wu Jen, who asked why he turned back. "Something scared me," was the reply. "I ate at ten inns. And at five of them, the innkeepers treated me like a VIP. This is despite the fact that they are common folk who are just trying to make a living and have nothing to gain from me. So just think how I'll be treated when I get to Ch'i. The government will be sure to employ me. My inner spirit is not solid--and this is making people perceive me a certain way, and give me a type of credit that can lead to problems." Po Hun Wu Jen replied, "Even if you avoid Ch'i, there will be others who'll treat you the same way."

Months later, Po Hun Wu Jen went to visit Lieh Tzu, and noticed visitors' shoes near his home's entrance. He stood there, and then left without saying a word. When someone informed Lieh Tzu about what had happened, Lieh Tzu immediately ran barefoot after Po Hun Wu Jen and caught up to him. "Master," Lieh Tzu said. "After coming all the way down here, why did you leave without saying anything to me?" "Ah!" replied the other. "I told you earlier that people will treat you this way. They come because you can't stop them. If you continue with this, your inner self will be wobbled, your dealings with them will be useless, and neither you nor they will be aware that this is the case."

Another time, Lieh Tzu was living in extreme poverty in Cheng. This prompted a stranger to tell Governor, "Lieh Tzu is a scholar who posses the Way, and yet he lives dirt poor in your state. This will make people get the impression that you don't value scholars." Upon hearing this, the Governor sent Lieh Tzu an official allowance of grain. Lieh Tzu, however, bowed to the messengers and declined the gift. This prompted his wife to complain. "I thought the wife and family of a man of the Way are supposed to live a life of ease and pleasure. And yet here you are, hungry, and declining grain sent by the Governor. I suppose that is what you consider to be 'Destiny!'" Lieh Tzu smiled and replied, "The Governor sent me grain because of someone else's suggestion. He himself knows nothing about me. He could've just as easily punished me because of someone else's suggestion." Later, the people of Cheng rebelled against Governor Yang, killing him and most of his associates in the state.

Yang Chu and Lao Tzu

As Yang Chu traveled south to P'ei, he heard that Lao Tzu was traveling west towards Ch'in, and caught up with him near the town of Liang.

Lao Tzu, however, simply stood in the middle of the road, looked up at the sky, and with a sigh, remarked, "I used to think you were teachable, but now I'm sensing that you aren't."

Yang Chu didn't respond. He followed Lao Tzu to an inn, and humbly approached him, saying, "Master. Earlier, I wanted to ask you what you meant--but you walked on without providing me an opportunity. I waited out of respect. Now that you are available, I venture to ask what I've been doing wrong."

Lao Tzu said, "You're arrogant and unapproachable. ‘The purest white is thought smirched, the fullest virtue seems less than enough.'"

Yang Chu then asked for Lao Tzu's instruction, and put it into practice.

Formerly, whenever Yang Chu arrived somewhere, an innkeeper would welcome him upon arrival and be there at his departure, the owner would present him a mat while the owner's wife would give him a towel and comb, and the other lodgers would give him their spot.

But afterwards, other people at the inn would go go great lengths just so they could sit by him.