(a Chinese folktale)
Once upon a time in a village in China, a greedy man known as Fuhua worked for the emperor as a tax collector. Fuhua so loved owning things that he sometimes changed the laws of the land to suit his whims. So if a man had no money to pay his taxes, Fuhua might take away his wagon or one of his goats or, sometimes, even his house. He did not care if he left others with nothing, and he often squirreled away some of the money he collected for himself.
Fuhua’s greed was well-known, and before long word spread from village to village, so although Fuhua’s village was beautiful, no one wanted to live there. They feared the terrible tax man would take everything from them.
Now in a neighboring village there lived a man named Minsheng who had a clever son named Liwei. The family was poor, but Minsheng dreamed his son would become important one day. He taught him to be generous and inventive, and Liwei grew up to be a fine young man.
One day as he was listening to the villagers gossip, he heard the story of Fuhua, the greedy tax collector, and Liwei decided he must find some way to expose the man and punish him. For months he pondered what he might do. He could not simply tell the emperor tales of the man. The emperor would never listen to a mere peasant. After all, this was why Fuhua could go on doing what he did.
No, Liwei would have to outsmart the tax man. And at long last he came up with a plan. At dawn, before the others in his family were awake, Liwei went into his father’s garden and dug up a small pear tree with glossy green leaves. Then he hurried toward Fuhua’s village, careful to arrive at the house on the day when Fuhua made his tax-collecting rounds.
When Liwei entered the village, he spotted the tax collector, and he approached and introduced himself. “I’ve just arrived,” he told Fuhua, “and I wonder if you could tell me how much a poor man has to pay in taxes in this little village. You see, I’m afraid I have no money at all.”
“You’ll have to pay something,” Fuhua said coldly. “What do you have?”
Liwei looked at his pear tree. “Only this magical tree,” he said. “Nothing else.”
“Magical, you say?” Fuhua liked the sound of a magical tree; perhaps this was something he might want.
“It’s a marvel,” Liwei said. “Whoever touches the leaves of this tree to his forehead becomes invisible for the next several hours.”
“Is that so?” Fuhua said, and he looked the tree and the boy up and down. “If you want to stay here, you will have to give me your tree. I cannot let you live here without paying something for the privilege.”
Before Liwei could even respond, the tax collector snatched away the tree and hurried home. There he plucked a leaf and held it to his forehead. Then he scurried to find his wife, who was in the kitchen preparing food.
“Luli, can you see me?” Fuhua asked.
Luli turned. “Of course I can,” she said. “I’m not blind.”
Fuhua hurried back to the other room, plucked another leaf and touched this to his forehead. Then he returned to the kitchen. “Now can you see me?” he asked Luli.
She turned to look again, and she began to lose her temper. “What is wrong with you? I can see you plain as day. Why shouldn’t I?”
Irritated, Fuhua ran back to the tree and plucked another leaf, touched it to his forehead and returned to the kitchen. “Now?” he asked.
Luli was tired of this game. She closed her eyes and turned to her husband. “No,” she said. “I cannot see you now!”
Fuhua was overjoyed. He immediately walked to the village square to test the magic of his brand-new tree. Everywhere he walked, people looked away or bent their heads to look at the ground, for everyone feared the tax collector, and no one wished to arouse his attention.
“I’ll test this,” Fuhua thought, and he began to lift things from the marketplace — a peach here, a rug there, a lamp, a flute, but naturally no one complained, for anyone who argued with the tax man risked his fury and further punishment.
“It works!” Fuhua cried as he walked along, dreaming of all the riches that would now be his. He walked on through the village and out onto the road, imagining the fortune that awaited him there. It so happened that he saw ahead of him the emperor and his entourage returning from a hunting adventure. Fuhua spied many fine furs and skins hanging from the back of the emperor’s carriage, and his eyes lighted up. They would bring him a fortune. He had to have them.
“I am invisible; I can take anything,” he whispered to himself, and with those words he rushed forward and reached out to take one of the pelts.
One of the emperor’s guards spotted him and cried, “Thief, stop! How dare you steal from the emperor!”
The emperor turned and saw Fuhua standing there, so startled by the shouting guard that he’d frozen in his tracks. He was holding the pelt of a leopard in his hands, there was no mistaking that. “Arrest him!” the emperor commanded.
The guards surrounded Fuhua and grabbed him by the arms.
“Wait, stop,” Fuhua said. “I can explain. A poor man gave me a magical tree. He said the leaves would make me invisible, but now I see he lied, for I should be invisible, you see …” and he held up the leaves.
“This man is a lunatic,” the guards agreed. “Whoever heard of a magical plant that makes a man invisible? He cannot be a tax collector. He’s mad!”
So the emperor took away Fuhua’s title, and Fuhua lived the rest of his life in shame and poverty.
When the villagers learned of Liwei’s cleverness, they began to tell the tale, and this story of the clever peasant boy is still told today.