"Camel Kuo the Gardener" by Liu Tsung-yuan

From Reilly, Kevin  Worlds of History, A Comparative Reader, Vol. 1: To 1550 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s; 2004.  Second Edition.), pp 274, article from 275-276.  Reprinted with permission from Liu Tsung-Yuan, “Camel Kuo the Gardener,” in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, ed. and trans. by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 258-259.

       Whatever name Camel Kuo may have had to begin with is not known.  But he was a hunchback and walked in his bumpy way with his face to the ground, very like a camel, and so that was what the country folk called him.  When Camel Kuo heard them he said, “Excellent.  Just the right name for me.” – And he forthwith discarded his real name and himself adopted “Camel” also.

       He lived at Feng-lo, to the west of Ch’ang-an.  Camel was a grower of trees by profession; and all the great and wealthy residents of Ch’ang-an who planted trees for their enjoyment or lived off the sale of their fruit would compete for the favour of his services.  It was a matter of observation that when Camel Kuo had planted a tree, even though it was uprooted from elsewhere, there was never a one but lived, and grew strong and glossy, and fruited early and abundantly.  Other growers, however they spied on him and tried to imitate his methods, never could achieve his success.

       Once, when questioned on the point, Camel replied, “I cannot make a tree live for ever or flourish.  What I can do is comply with the nature of the tree so that it takes the way of its kind.  When a tree is planted its roots should have room to breathe, its base should be firmed, the soil it is in should be old, and the fence around it should be close.  When you have it this way, then you must neither disturb it nor worry about it, but go away and not come back.  If you care for it like this when you plant it, and neglect it like this after you have planted it, then its nature will be fulfilled and it will take the way of its kind.  And so all I do is avoid harming its growth – I have no power to make it grow; I avoid hindering the fruiting – I have no power to bring it forward or make it more abundant.

       “With other growers it is not the same.  They coil up the roots and they use fresh soil.  They firm the base either too much or not enough.  Or if they manage to avoid these faults, then they dote too fondly and worry too anxiously.  They inspect the tree every morning and cosset it every night; they cannot walk away from it without turning back for another look.  The worst of them will even scrape off the bark to see if it is still living, or shake the roots to test whether they are holding fast.  And with all this the tree gets further every day from what a tree should be.  This is not mothering but smothering, not affection but affliction.  This is why they cannot rival my results: what other skill can I claim?”

       “Would it be possible to apply this philosophy of yours to the art of government?” asked the questioner.

       “My only art is the growing of trees,” said Camel Kuo in answer.  “Government is not my business.  But living here in the country I have seen officials who go to a lot of trouble issuing orders as though they were deeply concerned for the people; yet all they achieve is an increase of misfortune.  Morning and evening runners come yelling, “Orders from the government: plough at once!  Sow right away!  Harvest inspection!  Spin your silk!  Weave your cloth!  Raise your children!  Feed your livestock!”  Drums roll for assembly, blocks are struck to summon us.  And we the common people miss our meals to receive the officials and still cannot find the time: how then can we expect to prosper our livelihood and find peace in our lives?  This is why we are sick and weary; and in this state of affairs I suppose they may be some resemblance to my profession?”

       “Wonderful!” was the delighted cry of the man who had questioned him.  “The art I sought was of cultivating trees; the art I found was of cultivating men.  Let this be passed on as a lesson to all in office!”

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