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The fooling of
King Alexander

Colin Gibson reflects on an old story

space Alexander was a very great king.   He conquered Stamboul,  Mesopotamia,  Bombay,  and Singapore,  and when he had conquered all these he thought he had conquered all the world;  but one day he met an old woman washing rice in a river,  and he spoke to her about it.   "No,"  said the old woman,  "there is still one country left to conquer.   You have not conquered China."

"Where is this China?"  asked Alexander.

"It lies beyond the great snow mountains,  the deserts of sliding sands,  the land of two-headed men,  beyond the jungle of knives and scissors,  the land where geese grow on trees,  the land of legless people who go about on wheels,  the country of tongueless women,  and the ocean of flying whales."

"And how far is that?"  asked Alexander.

"Just how far that is,  my lord,"  said the old woman,  "nobody knows."

"However far away it is,"  said Alexander,  "I will conquer it."   And he ordered all his army to be got together.   It was a very great army.   For many days King Alexander marched,  and at last he came to Temasek,  which is not far from China.

Now,  when the Emperor of China heard that King Alexander was coming to take his country from him with this great army,  he was frightened.   Calling all his wisest men together,  he asked what was the best thing to be done.   Some said one thing and some said another,  and they all talked at once and made a great noise;  but none of them could tell the Emperor how he could stop King Alexander and his soldiers from taking China.   At last,  when they had all got tired of talking,  the little boy who carried the Emperor's snuff-box stood out and said he knew a way to stop King Alexander.   The wise men laughed,  but the Emperor said,  "Let the boy speak!   A small stone can sometimes break a large jar!"

So the little boy asked the Emperor to give him the oldest and rottenest junk that he had in his navy;  and he had it filled right up to the decks with small and rusty needles.   Then he took a kesma tree and a jujube tree that were in fruit and planted them in tubs on the deck.   Then he asked the Emperor to give him for his crew six old men whose teeth had dropped out,  and six old women whose backs were bent like water-wheels,  to keep them company.   These were put on board the junk,  the small boy took the tiller,  and the junk set out towards Temasek.

The wise men laughed when they saw the junk go;  but the Emperor said,  "Wait and see:  beards sometimes grow before eyebrows."

After a few days the junk came to Temasek,  and when King Alexander's army saw it they ran to the King,  crying that a junk had arrived that had come from China.

"Go,  fools,"  said King Alexander,  "and ask the crew of the junk how far they have come and how far it is to China."

"Alas,"  said the crew of the junk,  "the day that we set sail from China we were all young men and beautiful women,  twelve years was the age of the oldest of us.   These fruit-bearing trees,  we planted them as seeds.   Now,  alas!  we are old,  and our teeth have fallen out,  and our backs have become bent like water-wheels,  and the seeds have grown into great trees,  and at last we have come to this place."

And they showed their cargo of needles to King Alexander's men,  and said,  "As big and round as our arms  were these bars of iron when we left China;  see how they have rusted to the size of needles;  that is how long our journey has been so that we forget the number of years of it;  and if the small boy who steers had not been born to us ten years ago there would have been none left strong enough to sail the vessel."

So King Alexander's people went to King Alexander and told him all that the crew of the junk had told them.

"If,  as these Chinese say,  this country of China is so far away that boys grow into old men on the journey,  how should I ever be able to reach it since I am already an old man?"  said King Alexander.

"True,  O King!"  cried all his people.   "Let us return!"   And so King Alexander and all his army returned to their own country.   And when they came to the river from whence they had started,  the old woman was still washing rice in it.

As for the boy,  the one who had carried the snuff-box of the Emperor and sailed the junk to Temasek,  he sailed back to China.   And when the Emperor heard what had been done,  he was well satisfied.   "Truly,"  he said,  "wisdom is not always with the wise.   Come boy,  there is much yet for you to do."



  You have been reading an old folk tale;  a very old folk tale.   Like most such tales it is a 'wisdom' story  --  that is,  it offers us a thoughtful reflection on life as well as an entertaining story.   Many stories are like that;  in fact,  making up stories and passing them around is one of the ways we communicate and share with others the things we have learned about life.   Sometimes such shared stories come complete with a moral;  sometimes they don't.   But we are trained from very young childhood to look for the wisdom in stories,  to bite into the flesh of the story and chew its delicious pulp,  till we find the kernel or nut at the heart of the story.   Whenever we ask,  "But what does it mean?"   we are looking for the nut at the heart of the story.

Christians are particularly used to doing this because we give special importance to one of the largest collections of stories and narratives that have survived from ancient times.   We privilege the stories in the Bible above all other stories;  we say they contain ultimate truth,  that they are the Word of God.   Some say that they provide the only wisdom that we need to live well.

Well,  have you been sitting on the sofa or lying on the beach this summer,  reading the stories in the Bible?   I doubt it.   We may look forward to having a good book to read during the holidays,  but as you and I know,  it's not likely to be the good book.   In real life,  whether we're church-going people or not,  we seldom have much contact with the Bible  (except on Sunday mornings),  but most of us do enjoy a good read.   There are many kinds of wisdom available to us all,  through the books and stories we read  --  or watch on a million TV sets or movie screens.

That's OK.   Religious people sometimes need to broaden their reading,  to break out of a narrow or exclusive focus on the Holy Scriptures.   They need to learn to expect wisdom about the spiritual life and the practicalities of daily living,  communicated through what we are pleased to call  "fiction".   On the other hand,  unreligious people would do well to broaden their reading and pass on to their children some of the wisdom of the past,  some of the ancient insights found in the books of the Bible.



Before I begin to explore our story with you,  I should say that folk stories often wrap themselves around famous people or events in history  --  real people,  real events.   This story wraps itself around Alexander the Great,  the Greek King of our story.    This man was one of the greatest military conquerors in human history.   In thirty-three short years he overthrew the huge Persian empire,  took possession of Egypt,  the Middle East,  and southern Russia,  then marched all the way to Afghanistan and India.   His name and fame are still remembered:  in the names given to children,  in the names of cities throughout Central Asia,  in the legends still told by story-tellers in the markets of modern Turkey,  Egypt and India.

But Alexander never reached China  (he probably didn't know of its existence)  and this story in its own imaginative way explains why.   He was persuaded it was still too far off to go any further,  when he had actually reached its borders.

Well,  what wisdom does the story offer?

Yes,  that brains will overcome brawn;  that the greatest power humans have lies not in their armies or their superior military technology but in their intelligence.   One clever little child can halt even a great King in his tracks.   It is a message of hope for the poor and the weak and the oppressed.   It is a serious warning to the rich,  the powerful,  and the aggressive.   Remember that smart little boy working for the salvation of his kingdom,  and think of Jesus,  bamboozling his critics,  jinking his way out of their traps,  astonishing his society with his unconventional behaviour,  using his formidable intelligence as well as his unconquerable love to bring God's kingdom into being.

This story balances the child's brilliant success against a great King's dismal failure.   Deceived by false appearances,  turning back on the very brink of final success,  King Alexander,  as he is presented in this tale,  offers a familiar lesson in human frailty.   His mighty power is useless to him,  he is becoming aware of his own age,  and despair overwhelms him.   He and his troops end the story tired and defeated men,  turning back to their last refuge  --  home and their own country.   It is wisdom to acknowledge these sad truths too,  that even the greatest fail,  that none of us can escape the limits of our own mortality.   "China",  the last,  the ultimate conquest,  lies forever beyond our reach.

The little boy's most terrifying weapon is the familiar evidence of old age:  rotting timber,  rusting needles,  old men whose teeth have dropped out,  old women whose backs have bent like water-wheels.   The story-teller knew that almost all of us carry deep within our hearts fear and anxiety about the changes that bring us closer to our own deaths.   The little boy taps into that fear and stops a mighty force dead in its tracks.



But did you notice the old woman,  busy washing rice in the river,  at the beginning and the end of the story?   Washing rice as the huge army marches by to conquer China,  washing rice as it returns home,  having failed to conquer China.   To her,  armies and kings and power struggles mean nothing.   Patient,  enduring,  she prepares food so that life can continue.   She has the wisdom of immemorial experience;  she expects and works for nothing more  --  and nothing less  --  than survival,  she has the courage to believe in life,  and the energy to nourish it.

In a recent National Geographic magazine I came across an article about life in the Gobi Desert,  one of the remotest places in the world.  The reporter came across a solitary old Mongol woman who said to him:  "See?  I have everything.   I don't understand the outside world.   I know only eating,  drinking,  tending animals.   This is what my parents did.   And their parents.   The young people today,  once they leave this place,  never return.   I don't blame them.   The old life of herding animals is coming to an end.   Work in cities is the future.   But for me,  I will live in this place till I die."

She sounds exactly like the old woman in the story.   I think she is a good image for faith,  that old woman;  holding on day by day patiently washing rice in the river,  day by day finding and preparing food for herself and her family.

Did you recognise the Emperor of China's own wisdom?   Faced with hopeless confusion among his expert councillors,  he accepts the bright idea of a little boy,  observing,  "A small stone can sometimes break a large jar".   When the old men laugh at the boy's strange expeditionary force,  he comments,  "Wait and see:  beards sometimes grow before eyebrows".   At the end of the story he draws his own conclusion about wisdom:  "Truly,  wisdom is not always with the wise.   Come boy,  there is much yet for you to do."   This ruler is himself a wise man.   When he can see a challenge beyond the expertise of his old councillors he is willing to venture outside what has worked in the past,  ready to trust the very survival of his kingdom to the risky,  outside-the-square ideas of a bright young person,  and he intends to go on doing so after the crisis is over.

Let me finish with words given to a simple peasant woman in Luke's Gospel,  words in which she expresses her new vision of a world in God's hands,  now that she knows she is going to bring a precious child to birth.   Can this be your vision,  your steadfast hope and your defence too,  against our legitimate fears of future failure and human mortality?   Set this joyous song  --  of hope for liberation and of trust  --  against the story of the fooling of King Alexander.

"My spirit rejoices in God my saviour for he has shown consideration for the lowly status of his servant.   His mercy will come to generation after generation of those who respect him.   He has shown the strength of his arm,  he has put the proud and arrogant to flight,  he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones and exalted the lowly,  he has sent the rich away empty.   He has come to the aid of his servant people,  Israel,  remembering his mercy,  as he did for our ancestors,  for Abraham,  and has continued to do for his descendants and will go on doing for ever."

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