Drawing the Dragon
by Harlynne Geisler
A Story Based on a Chinese Folktale
Many hundreds of years ago there was an emperor who lived in China. He had been born in the year of the dragon and had grown up loving dragons. He had them embroidered on his silken robes. Every year he watched the dragon dancers with delight. He had filled the forbidden city where he lived with sculptures and paintings of dragons. Yet when he looked at the dragons surrounding him, none of them seemed quite right.
He began to think and think. Finally he saw in his mind's eye a perfect picture of a dragon. It had a long curving tail, sharp claws, and a fierce expression on its scaly face. He said to himself, "Surely one of my court artists can draw this wonderful dragon just as I see it." He called for all of his court artists and described the dragon to them in deatil down to the last claw.
All of the artists tried to draw the dragon as the emperor had described it, but all of them failed. The emperor sent out a proclamation that whoever could draw the dragon whould have his weight in gold, but whoever did not succeed should have his eyes put out. There were still some painters who thought they could do it, but they soon stumbled away from the forbidden city with empty eye sockets. All of China was whispering about the emperor's demand.
Outside the walled city in a small hut lived a poor man who had been painting for many years, yet who was still learning. When he heard what the emperor wanted, the artist asked to be ushered into the emperor's presence. Once there, he said, "Son of Heaven, I think I can give you the picture you wish, but it will take me a year, and I must go far away from here."
"Whatever you like," said the emperor. "You may have exactly one year. In one year to the minute you must be here in this room and present me with the drawing or I will have your head chopped off."
If he didn't have the painting ready in time, his head was to be chopped off. If he brought it, and it wasn't exactly right, his eyes would be gone. Some could not believe that the young man left the room with a smile on his face.
No one saw him for many months. The year was almost up and the emperor was just getting ready to send out a command to find this arrogant man who thought he could succeed and who must now be too scared to return, and to chop off his head.
But, with ten minutes of the year left to spare, the young man showed up. He had beneath one arm a scroll of paper and in his hand he carried a bag with his tools.
The emperor was so eager to see this dragon that he had dreamed of for so long that he grabbed the scroll and unrolled it ... and then stood aghast to see that it was a blank piece of paper.
"Do you toy with me? Do you consider me a fool?" The emperor was so angry that he motioned to a guard, who began drawing his sword.
"No, Son of Heaven," replied the artist. "I still have ten minutes and I only need five." The artist took out his ink stick, ground part of it into his grinding stone, and mixed the powder with water in the indentation of the stone. He then dipped his bamboo brush into the ink and with a swiftness that was almost unbelievable, began to draw. At the end of the five minutes there was the most exquisite rendering of the exact beast that the emperor had been imagining.
The emperor was happy, but he was also puzzled. "I don't understand," he said. "You said it would take you a whole year, but you began and finished the picture in five minutes. Why didn't you just draw it for me a year ago?"
"Because, Son of Heaven, it took me a year to learn how to draw the dragon in five minutes," said the young man.
This is reprinted from the Story Bag Newsletter, a bimonthly publication that lists storytelling events in San Diego and throughout the U.S. For more information, send a self-addressed envelope with 55¢ postage on it to Storyteller Harlynne Geisler, Dept. JD, 5361 Javier Street, San Diego, CA 92117. You can also find more stories and information about a storytelling book and a complete list of upcoming public shows at Storyteller Harlynne Geisler.