Bamboo And The Turtle
: A Chinese Wonder Book
A party of visitors had been seeing the sights at Hsi Ling. They had
just passed down the Holy Way between the huge stone animals when
Bamboo, a little boy of twelve, son of a keeper, rushed out from his
father's house to see the mandarins go by. Such a parade of great men
he had never seen before, even on the feast days. There were ten sedan
chairs, with bearers dressed in flaming colours, ten long-handled, red
as, each carried far in front of its proud owner, and a long line
When this gay procession had filed past, Bamboo was almost ready to cry
because he could not run after the sightseers as they went from temple
to temple and from tomb to tomb. But, alas! his father had ordered him
never to follow tourists. "If you do, they will take you for a beggar,
Bamboo," he had said shrewdly, "and if you're a beggar, then your
daddy's one too. Now they don't want any beggars around the royal
tombs." So Bamboo had never known the pleasure of pursuing the rich.
Many times he had turned back to the little mud house, almost
broken-hearted at seeing his playmates running, full of glee, after the
great men's chairs.
On the day when this story opens, just as the last horseman had passed
out of sight among the cedars, Bamboo chanced to look up toward one of
the smaller temple buildings of which his father was the keeper. It was
the house through which the visitors had just been shown. Could his eyes
be deceiving him? No, the great iron doors had been forgotten in the
hurry of the moment, and there they stood wide open, as if inviting him
In great excitement he scurried toward the temple. How often he had
pressed his head against the bars and looked into the dark room, wishing
and hoping that some day he might go in. And yet, not once had he been
granted this favour. Almost every day since babyhood he had gazed at the
high stone shaft, or tablet, covered with Chinese writing, that stood
in the centre of the lofty room, reaching almost to the roof. But
with still greater surprise his eyes had feasted on the giant turtle
underneath, on whose back the column rested. There are many such tablets
to be seen in China, many such turtles patiently bearing their loads of
stone, but this was the only sight of the kind that Bamboo had seen. He
had never been outside the Hsi Ling forest, and, of course, knew very
little of the great world beyond.
It is no wonder then that the turtle and the tablet had always
astonished him. He had asked his father to explain the mystery. "Why
do they have a turtle? Why not a lion or an elephant?" For he had seen
stone figures of these animals in the park and had thought them much
better able than his friend, the turtle, to carry loads on their backs.
"Why it's just the custom," his father had replied--the answer always
given when Bamboo asked a question, "just the custom." The boy had tried
to imagine it all for himself, but had never been quite sure that he
was right, and now, joy of all joys, he was about to enter the very
turtle-room itself. Surely, once inside, he could find some answer
to this puzzle of his childhood.
Breathless, he dashed through the doorway, fearing every minute that
some one would notice the open gates and close them before he could
enter. Just in front of the giant turtle he fell in a little heap on the
floor, which was covered inch-deep with dust. His face was streaked, his
clothes were a sight to behold; but Bamboo cared nothing for such
trifles. He lay there for a few moments, not daring to move. Then,
hearing a noise outside, he crawled under the ugly stone beast and
crouched in his narrow hiding-place, as still as a mouse.
"There, there!" said a deep voice. "See what you are doing, stirring up
such a dust! Why, you will strangle me if you are not careful."
It was the turtle speaking, and yet Bamboo's father had often told him
that it was not alive. The boy lay trembling for a minute, too much
frightened to get up and run.
"No use in shaking so, my lad," the voice continued, a little more
kindly. "I suppose all boys are alike--good for nothing but kicking up
a dust." He finished this sentence with a hoarse chuckle, and the boy,
seeing that he was laughing, looked up with wonder at the strange
"I meant no harm in coming," said the child finally. "I only wanted to
look at you more closely."
"Oh, that was it, hey? Well, that is strange. All the others come and
stare at the tablet on my back. Sometimes they read aloud the nonsense
written there about dead emperors and their titles, but they never so
much as look at me, at me whose father was one of the great four who
made the world."
Bamboo's eyes shone with wonder. "What! your father helped make the
world?" he gasped.
"Well, not my father exactly, but one of my grandfathers, and it amounts
to the same thing, doesn't it. But, hark! I hear a voice. The keeper is
coming back. Run up and close those doors, so he won't notice that they
have not been locked. Then you may hide in the corner there until he has
passed. I have something more to tell you."
Bamboo did as he was told. It took all his strength to swing the heavy
doors into place. He felt very important to think that he was doing
something for the grandson of a maker of the world, and it would have
broken his heart if this visit had been ended just as it was beginning.
Sure enough, his father and the other keepers passed on, never dreaming
that the heavy locks were not fastened as usual. They were talking about
the great men who had just gone. They seemed very happy and were
jingling some coins in their hands.
"Now, my boy," said the stone turtle when the sound of voices had died
away and Bamboo had come out from his corner, "maybe you think I'm proud
of my job. Here I've been holding up this chunk for a hundred years, I
who am fond of travel. During all this time night and day, I have been
trying to think of some way to give up my position. Perhaps it's
honourable, but, you may well imagine, it's not very pleasant."
"I should think you would have the backache," ventured Bamboo timidly.
"Backache! well, I think so; back, neck, legs, eyes, everything I have
is aching, aching for freedom. But, you see, even if I had kicked up
my heels and overthrown this monument, I had no way of getting through
those iron bars," and he nodded toward the gate.
"Yes, I understand," agreed Bamboo, beginning to feel sorry for his old
"But, now that you are here, I have a plan, and a good one it is, too, I
think. The watchmen have forgotten to lock the gate. What is to prevent
my getting my freedom this very night? You open the gate, I walk out,
and no one the wiser."
"But my father will lose his head if they find that he has failed to do
his duty and you have escaped."
"Oh, no; not at all. You can slip his keys to-night, lock the gates
after I am gone, and no one will know just what has happened. Why it
will make this building famous. It won't hurt your father, but will do
him good. So many travellers will be anxious to see the spot from which
I vanished. I am too heavy for a thief to carry off, and they will be
sure that it is another miracle of the gods. Oh, I shall have a good
time out in the big world."
Just here Bamboo began to cry.
"Now what is the silly boy blubbering about?" sneered the turtle. "Is he
nothing but a cry-baby?"
"No, but I don't want you to go."
"Don't want me to go, eh? Just like all the others. You're a fine
fellow! What reason have you for wanting to see me weighed down here all
the rest of my life with a mountain on my back? Why, I thought you were
sorry for me, and it turns out that you are as mean as anybody else."
"It is so lonely here, and I have no playmates. You are the only friend
The tortoise laughed loudly. "Ho, ho! so it's because I make you a
good playmate, eh? Now, if that's your reason, that's another story
altogether. What do you say to going with me then? I, too, need a
friend, and if you help me to escape, why, you are the very friend
"But how shall you get the tablet off your back?" questioned Bamboo
doubtfully. "It's very heavy."
"That's easy, just walk out of the door. The tablet is too tall to go
through. It will slide off and sit on the floor instead of on my shell."
Bamboo, wild with delight at the thought of going on a journey with the
turtle, promised to obey the other's commands. After supper, when all
were asleep in the little house of the keeper, he slipped from his bed,
took down the heavy key from its peg, and ran pell-mell to the temple.
"Well, you didn't forget me, did you?" asked the turtle when Bamboo
swung the iron gates open.
"Oh, no, I would not break a promise. Are you ready?"
"Yes, quite ready." So saying, the turtle took a step. The tablet swayed
backward and forward, but did not fall. On walked the turtle until
finally he stuck his ugly head through the doorway. "Oh, how good it
looks outside," he said. "How pleasant the fresh air feels! Is that the
moon rising over yonder? It's the first time I've seen it for an age.
My word! just look at the trees! How they have grown since they set that
tombstone on my back! There's a regular forest outside now."
Bamboo was delighted when he saw the turtle's glee at escaping. "Be
careful," he cried, "not to let the tablet fall hard enough to break
Even as he spoke, the awkward beast waddled through the door. The upper
end of the monument struck against the wall, toppled off, and fell with
a great crash to the floor. Bamboo shivered with fear. Would his father
come and find out what had happened?
"Don't be afraid, my boy. No one will come at this hour of the night to
spy on us."
Bamboo quickly locked the gates, ran back to the house, and hung the
key on its peg. He took a long look at his sleeping parents, and then
returned to his friend. After all, he would not be gone long and his
father would surely forgive him.
Soon the comrades were walking down the broad road, very slowly, for the
tortoise is not swift of foot and Bamboo's legs were none too long.
"Where are you going?" said the boy at last, after he had begun to feel
more at home with the turtle.
"Going? Where should you think I would want to go after my century in
prison? Why, back to the first home of my father, back to the very spot
where the great god, P'anku, and his three helpers hewed out the world."
"And is it far?" faltered the boy, beginning to feel just the least bit
"At this rate, yes, but, bless my life, you didn't think we could travel
all the way at this snail's pace, I hope. Jump on my back, and I'll show
you how to go. Before morning we shall be at the end of the world, or
rather, the beginning."
"Where is the beginning of the world?" asked Bamboo. "I have never
"We must cross China, then Thibet, and at last in the mountains just
beyond we shall reach the spot which P'anku made the centre of his
At that moment Bamboo felt himself being lifted from the ground. At
first he thought he would slip off the turtle's rounded shell, and he
cried out in fright.
"Never fear," said his friend. "Only sit quietly, and there will be no
They had now risen far into the air, and Bamboo could look down over the
great forest of Hsi Ling all bathed in moonlight. There were the broad
white roads leading up to the royal tombs, the beautiful temples, the
buildings where oxen and sheep were prepared for sacrifice, the lofty
towers, and the high tree-covered hills under which the emperors were
buried. Until that night Bamboo had not known the size of this royal
graveyard. Could it be that the turtle would carry him beyond the
forest? Even as he asked himself this question he saw that they had
reached a mountain, and the turtle was ascending higher, still higher,
to cross the mighty wall of stone.
Bamboo grew dizzy as the turtle rose farther into the sky. He felt as he
sometimes did when he played whirling games with his little friends, and
got so dizzy that he tumbled over upon the ground. However, this time
he knew that he must keep his head and not fall, for it must have been
almost a mile to the ground below him. At last they had passed over the
mountain and were flying above a great plain. Far below Bamboo could see
sleeping villages and little streams of water that looked like silver
in the moonlight. Now, directly beneath them was a city. A few feeble
lights could be seen in the dark narrow streets, and Bamboo thought he
could hear the faint cries of peddlers crying their midnight wares.
"That's the capital of Shan-shi just below us," said the turtle,
breaking his long silence. "It is almost two hundred miles from here to
your father's house, and we have taken less than half an hour. Beyond
that is the Province of the Western Valleys. In one hour we shall be
On they whizzed at lightning speed. If it had not been hot summer time
Bamboo would have been almost frozen. As it was, his hands and feet were
cold and stiff. The turtle, as if knowing how chilly he was, flew nearer
to the ground where it was warmer. How pleasant for Bamboo! He was so
tired that he could keep his eyes open no longer and he was soon soaring
in the land of dreams.
When he waked up it was morning. He was lying on the ground in a wild,
rocky region. Not far away burned a great wood fire, and the turtle was
watching some food that was cooking in a pot.
"Ho, ho, my lad! so you have at last waked up after your long ride. You
see we are a little early. No matter if the dragon does think he can fly
faster, I beat him, didn't I? Why, even the phoenix laughs at me and
says I am slow, but the phoenix has not come yet either. Yes, I have
clearly broken the record for speed, and I had a load to carry too,
which neither of the others had, I am sure."
"Where are we?" questioned Bamboo.
"In the land of the beginning," said the other wisely. "We flew over
Thibet, and then went northwest for two hours. If you haven't studied
geography you won't know the name of the country. But, here we are, and
that is enough, isn't it, enough for any one? And to-day is the yearly
feast-day in honour of the making of the world. It was very fortunate
for me that the gates were left open yesterday. I am afraid my old
friends, the dragon and the phoenix, have almost forgotten what I look
like. It is so long since they saw me. Lucky beasts they are, not to be
loaded down under an emperor's tablet. Hello! I hear the dragon coming
now, if I am not mistaken. Yes, here he is. How glad I am to see him!"
Bamboo heard a great noise like the whirr of enormous wings, and then,
looking up, saw a huge dragon just in front of him. He knew it was a
dragon from the pictures he had seen and the carvings in the temples.
The dragon and the turtle had no sooner greeted each other, both very
happy at the meeting, than they were joined by a queer-looking bird,
unlike any that Bamboo had ever seen, but which he knew was the
phoenix. This phoenix looked somewhat like a wild swan, but it had
the bill of a cock, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish and the
stripes of a dragon. Its feathers were of five colours.
When the three friends had chatted merrily for a few minutes, the turtle
told them how Bamboo had helped him to escape from the temple.
"A clever boy," said the dragon, patting Bamboo gently on the back.
"Yes, yes, a clever boy indeed," echoed the phoenix.
"Ah," sighed the turtle, "if only the good god, P'anku, were here,
shouldn't we be happy! But, I fear he will never come to this
meeting-place. No doubt he is off in some distant spot, cutting out
another world. If I could only see him once more, I feel that I should
die in peace."
"Just listen!" laughed the dragon. "As if one of us could die! Why, you
talk like a mere mortal."
All day long the three friends chatted, feasted, and had a good time
looking round at the places where they had lived so happily when P'anku
had been cutting out the world. They were good to Bamboo also and showed
him many wonderful things of which he had never dreamed.
"You are not half so mean-looking and so fierce as they paint you on the
flags," said Bamboo in a friendly voice to the dragon just as they were
about to separate.
The three friends laughed heartily.
"Oh, no, he's a very decent sort of fellow, even if he is covered with
fish-scales," joked the phoenix.
Just before they bade each other good-bye, the phoenix gave Bamboo a
long scarlet tail-feather for a keepsake, and the dragon gave him a
large scale which turned to gold as soon as the boy took it into his
"Come, come, we must hurry," said the turtle. "I am afraid your father
will think you are lost." So Bamboo, after having spent the happiest day
of his life, mounted the turtle's back, and they rose once more above
the clouds. Back they flew even faster than they had come. Bamboo had so
many things to talk about that he did not once think of going to sleep,
for he had really seen the dragon and the phoenix, and if he never
were to see anything else in his life, he would always be happy.
Suddenly the turtle stopped short in his swift flight, and Bamboo felt
himself slipping. Too late he screamed for help, too late he tried to
save himself. Down, down from that dizzy height he tumbled, turning,
twisting, thinking of the awful death that was surely coming. Swish!
he shot through the tree tops trying vainly to clutch the friendly
branches. Then with a loud scream he struck the ground, and his long
journey was ended.
"Come out from under that turtle, boy! What are you doing inside the
temple in the dirt? Don't you know this is not the proper place for
Bamboo rubbed his eyes. Though only half awake, he knew it was his
"But didn't it kill me?" he said as his father pulled him out by the
heel from under the great stone turtle.
"What killed you, foolish boy? What can you be talking about? But I'll
half-kill you if you don't hurry out of this and come to your supper.
Really I believe you are getting too lazy to eat. The idea of sleeping
the whole afternoon under that turtle's belly!"
Bamboo, not yet fully awake, stumbled out of the tablet room, and his
father locked the iron doors.