The Emporer, the Master, and the Fish 


The Chinese Warlord was not a barbarian. He admired and collected many works of art from the territories that he conquered. While his rule was brutal and his law absolute, he generally treated artists with favor.

While on a military drive through the Southern mountains he learned of a Master who painted carp so lifelike that they seemed to swim on the rice paper. All the more remarkable, was that the fish was painted with very few lines, but just the right lines, in just the right places.

He made a visit to the Master and told him that he would return for his carp painting in a few weeks, as soon as he had finished his tour of the Southern ranges. The Master was a little frightened of the large company of men that traveled with the Warlord, but agreed that in two weeks the painting would be ready.

Two weeks passed and the Warlord did not return. In fact, the Warlord found much resistance in the Southern mountains and found himself fighting there for five years. At the end of that time he was no longer the Warlord, but Emperor of all China. Some five years later he was on a tour of his lands when he came close to the Master’s home. He remembered the carp painting that he had ordered. He had remembered it several times over the years but this was the first time that he was in the area.

The Master was again a little frightened of the retinue, particularly now that the Warlord was an Emperor. The Emperor was announced with great fanfare, and he had the Master brought to him to ask about the carp painting. The Master nodded and immediately went to his drawing table, readied his inkwell, dipped his brush, and then painted the most beautiful carp the Emperor had ever seen. Within minutes and it was done. With only the rice paper and the brush strokes of black ink, the Master caused the carp to roll and swim with such grace that the Emperor was brought to tears.

Within minutes the Emperor’s soft eyes grew hard with rage. The Emperor was a proud man and used to his hard rule. “I ordered this fish ten years ago, and you have the audacity to paint it now, ten years later. Was I so insignificant ten years ago? Did you expect me to die in battle? Certainly you did not think that I would return as your Emperor or you would have cared about my request. Tell me one reason that I should spare your life, because surely by the sun’s setting you will meet my executioner.”

The Master said not a word at first, but went to the cabinets that lined his walls. He opened the wall to ceiling doors, and out spilled roll after roll of beautiful carp paintings. Cabinets on all four walls were filled to over flowing with thousands of paintings, and then the Master said, “My Warlord, My Emperor, I did care about your painting. I cared each and every day since you gave me the order.”

“It took several months to understand the muscles in the fish, which ones contracted, which ones relaxed. It was at least a full year in understanding the rice paper, how the ink flowed and penetrated. It was a full decade before I had the skills to put all this together. Although I had agreed to take only a week, I would have failed completely. Thank you for giving me the time to succeed.”