The Land of the Great

From Long Ago
A curriculum for middle elementary grades by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper


You can find an alternate version of this story, “A Visit to the Land of the Great Men,” in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here. The story below is my retelling from the original source.

In the year 684, the scholar T’ang Ao and his friend Lin Chih-yang grew disgusted with the behavior of Empress Wu, ruler of their home land of China. These two friends thought the empress was both foolish and aggressive, and they also felt that under her reign anything might be bought or sold, including a person’s honor.

Empress Wu

Above: The Empress Wu, from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, 18th century. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

They decided they would travel the world and see how other nations were ruled, and so they found a guide, a man named Toh Chiu-kung who seemed to know everything and to have traveled everywhere, and then they got on board a ship and sailed over the sea.

After visiting several nations, they came at last to the Land of Great People. In fact, they almost passed by this small nation except that T’ang had heard that in the Land of the Great, no one walked but instead everyone had their own personal cloud which carried them where they wanted to go. Toh warned that they would have to leave the ship and walk a long way inland to really see this country. But T’ang must go see the Land of the Great, so they began to walk inland over some steep hills.

Soon they became lost in a maze of trails, and did not know which way to turn. They were very glad when at last they saw a small temple hidden in among bamboos. Out of the temple came an old man who looked perfectly ordinary except for two things. First, he was riding on a cloud. Second, while in their country anyone who lived in a temple would have to be a priest who shaved their head, did not eat meat, did not drink wine, and was not married — well, this old man had long hair, carried a glass of wine in one hand, a plate of meat in the other hand, and through the door they could see his wife seated at a table.

It is hard to say which shocked the two friends more — a man floating upon a cloud, or a long-haired, meat-eating, wine-drinking, married priest! However, they remained polite. The old man smiled at them, put down his wine and meat, and invited them into the temple. T’ang, speaking for his friends, bowed low and asked what the name of the temple. The old man replied that it was the temple of the goddess of mercy, and that he was the priest of the goddess.

Upon hearing this, Lin asked, “But, respected sir, how can it be that you are a priest but do not shave your head?” Lin decided not to ask about the wine or the meat, or the man’s wife.

“My wife and I have lived here and been the priests ever since we were young,” said the old man. “Every day, we burn incense and candles before the shrine. Here in our country, when we heard that China had accepted the Law of the Buddha, and that priests with shaved heads had become common there, we too decided to accept the Law of the Buddha, but we decided to do away with the usual promises of a priest. Thus we can grow our hair, get married, eat meat, and drink wine.”

When the old man learned that his visitors were from China, he urged them to stay with him. But no, they said they must go on to see the chief city of the Land of the Great.

“But could you please answer one question,” said T’ang. “Could you please explain the reason why the people of your country all have clouds underneath their feet? Is this something that you are born with?”

“Yes, we are born with these clouds,” said the old man. “The clouds come in various colors, and colors change depending on the character of each person. The best clouds have stripes like a rainbow. The second-best clouds are yellow in color. The worst clouds have no color at all, and look dark, as if there is nothingness, or a hole, underneath the person’s feet.”

T’ang asked the old man to show them the way to the city so they could see more of these clouds, and the old man explained which trail to follow.

Soon they were in the great city. There were throngs of people in the city streets, each moving around on a small cloud. They saw clouds of many different colors: red, yellow, orange, green, and so on.

Person on a yellow cloud

Person on a green cloud

Above: Two people from the Land of the Great, riding on clouds (based on Ch’ing dynasty portraits, public domain images on Wikimedia Commons).

At last they saw a homeless man, who obviously hadn’t taken a bath in weeks, whose cloud looked like a brilliant rainbow.

“Why, the priest told us that a rainbow cloud was best of all,” said T’ang, “and here we see a filthy, dirty homeless person with a rainbow cloud!”

“You may remember,” said Lin, “that that priest had a rainbow cloud himself. Yet how could a wine-drinking, meat-eating, long-haired, married priest be considered to be a good person? Just so, how could a homeless person be considered to be a good person? There is something here I do not understand.”

“As you know,” said Toh, their guide, “I have been to this country before. What I learned then was that good and virtuous people have clouds of the best colors, no matter what other people may think. A priest who does not follow all the rules may have a good cloud, if they are a good person. A homeless person may have a good cloud, if they are a good person. The only way to change the color of your cloud to a better color is to become a better person.

“Because of this fact,” continued Toh, “there are poor people who ride on rainbow clouds, as we have just seen, and there are rich and powerful people whose ride on clouds that lack all color at all, and look like holes of darkness. Of course, everyone avoids the people who have a cloud of darkness. On the other hand, the people of this country get the greatest pleasure from seeing acts of kindness, and everyone is always trying to become a better person.”

“Is this why this is called the Land of the Great?” asked T’ang.

“Yes,” said Toh. “It is called the Land of the Great, not because because people are big and tall, and not because they are rich and powerful. This is called the Land of the Great because here everyone is trying to become a better person.”

Suddenly they noticed that the people around them were pushing back to the sides of the street, leaving the center of the street to a person of great wealth and power, who looked almost exactly like a wealthy powerful person in their own land, with a red umbrella over his head, with assistants in front and behind carrying official documents and beating gongs, and so on. The difference was that this wealthy person was riding on a cloud that was carefully and completely covered by a red silk cloth.

“Obviously,” said T’ang, “in this country, the wealthy and powerful do not need to ride on horses, for they can move about on these convenient clouds. But one thing I do not understand — why is this man’s cloud mysteriously covered by a red silk cloth?”

“The fact is,” said Toh, lowering his voice so he could not be heard except by the two friends, “this man, like too many other people with lots of money and a high social position, has a cloud of a bad color. His cloud is not exactly one of those horrible clouds of dark nothingness. But his cloud is the color of charcoal and ashes. This means he is not completely bad, but it does mean — as we like to say — that his hands are not so clean as they ought to be.”

“In other words,” said Lin, “he is not exactly a wicked person, but he most certainly is not a good person.”

“That is a good way of putting it,” said Toh. “His cloud takes on the color of his inmost mind. He is not a good man, and so his cloud a bad color. He tries to cover up his bad-colored cloud with red silk, but red silk does not change the color of his cloud. Nothing will change the color of his cloud until his heart becomes good again, until all his actions are once again good. But still, he covers his cloud with red silk, because at least that way no one is quite sure just how bad he really is.”

“How unjust this is!” cried Lin.

“But why do you think this is unjust?” asked T’ang.

“It is unjust that these clouds exist only here, in the Land of the Great,” said Lin. “It would be very useful if we had these clouds in our own nation, for if every wicked person rode about upon a marker of their wickedness, why, that would make good people’s lives easier.”

“My dear friend,” said Toh, “though wicked people in our nation do not ride about on colored clouds, nevertheless you can tell from a person’s looks what the color of their heart is. Someone with a bright, shining look in their eyes surely must have a rainbow-colored heart. And we all know people who have a blankness in their looks that shows an emptiness in their hearts.”

“That may be so,” answered Lin, “but I for one have been fooled by a person’s looks. I would rather we could see the color of the cloud they ride about on.”


SESSION TWO: “A Visit to the Land of the Great”

I/ Opening

Take attendance.

Light chalice with these words and the associated hand motions: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism: the church of the open mind, the helping hands, and the loving heart.”

Check-in: Go around circle. Each child and adult says his or her name, and then may say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (anyone may pass).

II/ Read the story “A Visit to the Land of Great Men.”

See above.

III/ Act out the story.

This week’s story is somewhat more complicated than last week’s story, so we can build the skills of the children, helping them remember and act out the story as accurately as possible.

Ask: “Who are the characters in this story?” There are many people in this story, but only a few essential characters: T’ang and Toh and Lin; the old man; the beggar and the high official.

Determine where the stage area will be. If there are any children who really don’t want to act, they can be part of the audience with you; you will sit facing the stage.

The lead teacher reads the story, prompting actors as needed to act out their parts. Actors do not have to repeat dialogue, although some of them will want to do so. The lead teacher may wish to simplify the story on the fly, to make it easier to act out; with this story, the lead teacher may want to turn several of the characters into women.

Once again, it would be great to take photos, print them out later, and post them on the bulletin board in your classroom.

IV/ Conversation about the story

Sit back down in a group. Go over the story to make sure the children understand it. Since it may not be obvious, you should explain that the clouds may take on any color of the rainbow; the black and gray clouds do not have an actual color, but are instead the lack of light.

Now ask some general questions: “What was the best part of the story? Who was your favorite character? Who was your least favorite character?” — or questions you come up with on your own.

Ask some questions specific to the story: “What might the different color clouds represent?” “Would you want to have other people have clouds that tell you what kind of person they are?” “Would you want to have to stand on a cloud that would show everyone whether you are kind or selfish?” Or ask any questions you wish to help the children think about the story.

V/ Drawing pictures of yourself on a cloud

Have the children draw pictures of themselves on rainbow colored clouds.

VI/ Free play

Ideas for free play: “Duck, Duck, Goose”; play with Legos; walk to playground or labyrinth (if time); etc.

VII/ Closing circle

Before leaving, have the children hold hands in a circle. Show them how to hold hands: Hold your hands out in front of you with your palms down; now turn your left hand so that your left palm is up; now both your thumbs are pointing right; now hold hands with the person on each side, with your right hand on top of another person’s left hand, and your left hand under another person’s right hand.

When the children are in a circle, ask them what they did today, and prompt them with questions and answers, e.g.: “What did we do today? We heard a story, right? Anyone remember what the story was about? It was about the the Land of the Great, where everyone is on a cloud.” You’re not trying to put any one child on the spot, but rather drawing on the wisdom of the group as a whole. If any parents have come to pick up their children, invite them to join the circle (so they can know what it is their children learned about this week).

Say the closing words together — either these words, or others you choose:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Then tell the children how you enjoyed seeing them (if that’s true), and that you look forward to seeing them again next week.



1. Historical background

The Chinese novel Ching Jua Yuan (the title may be translated as “Flowers in the MIrror”) was written in the 17th century by Li Ju-chen, and is an allegoric romance in total support of Confucian morality and Taoist wisdom” (C. T. Hsia, “The Scholar-Novelist and Chinese Culture: A Re-appraisal of Ching Hua Yuan,” in Chinese Novel: Critical and Theoretical Essays, ed. Andrew H. Plaks [Princeton University, 2014], p. 266). As such, it is a useful source for portraying to children Confucian ideals of morality. Young T’ang Ao and his friend Lin grow disgusted with the state of morals in their own country; and so they go on visits to other nations, where they find strange peoples who are in some sense more moral than in their own country.

Some scholars have seen this novel as a satire of the position of women in traditional Chinese society (for one such interpretation see Lin Yutang’s Feminist Thought in Ancient China, 1935). I have included a second episode from the novel (see no. 2 below) that gives some taste of that possibility. If, in the episode above, there is little evidence of any feminist inclination, it is important to know that that inclination does exist elsewhere in the novel. Thus, while the novel may support traditional Confucian morality, there existed more than one interpretation of that traditional morality; and this particular interpretation of Confucianism was more progressive in its attitudes towards women than others.

In addition to the Confucian component, there is also a strong Taoist component to the novel. Toh Chiu-kung, for example, becomes a wise elder to the two young men: “He is in one sense almost co-eval with the Yellow Emperor and certainly enjoys the free and easy wandering of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu” (C. T. Hsia, p. 278). Toh, the guide, is a sort of Taoist sage-figure, guiding the two younger men on their visits to strange nations.


2. Original source

For reference, the original source of the story, used both by Sophia Fahs and me, is:

Visits to Strange Nations [Ching Hua Yüan]
Anonymous Chinese work of the 17th century
from Gems of Chinese Literature, 2nd ed., trans. Herbert A Giles (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1923).


3. Another episode from the same book

Here is another story from this same book; this story immediately precedes the visit to the Land of the Great. From History of Chinese Literature by Herbert A. Giles (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1901), pp. 316-322:

Among all the strange places which they visited, the most curious was the Country of Gentlemen, where they landed and proceeded at once to the capital city.

There, over the city gate, T’ang and his companions read the following legend:

“Virtue is man’s only jewel!”

They then entered the city, which they found to be a busy and prosperous mart, the inhabitants all talking the Chinese language. Accordingly, T’ang accosted one of the passers-by, and asked him how it was his nation had become so famous for politeness and consideration of others; but, to his great astonishment, the man did not understand the meaning of his question. T’ang then asked him why this land was called the “Country of Gentlemen, to which he likewise replied that he did not know. Several other persons of whom they inquired giving similar answers, the venerable To remarked that the term had undoubtedly been adopted by the inhabitants of adjacent countries, in consequence of the polite manners and considerate behavior of these people. “For,” said he, “the very laborers in the fields and foot-passengers in the streets step aside to make room for one another. High and low, rich and poor, mutually respect each other’s feelings without reference to the wealth or social status of either; and this is, after all, the essence of what constitutes the true gentleman.”

“In that case,” cried T’ang, “let us not hurry on, but rather improve ourselves by observing the ways and customs of this people.”

By and by they arrived at the market-place, where they saw an official runner standing at a stall engaged in making purchases. He was holding in his hand the articles he wished to buy, and was saying to the owner of the stall, “Just reflect a moment, sir, how impossible it would be for me to take these excellent goods at the absurdly low price you are asking. If you will oblige me by doubling the amount, I shall do myself the honor of accepting them; otherwise, I cannot but feel that you are unwilling to do business with me today.”

“How very funny!” whispered T’ang to his friends. “Here, now, is quite a different custom from ours, where the buyer invariably tries to beat down the seller, and the seller to run up the price of his goods as high as possible. This certainly looks like the ‘consideration for others’ of which we spoke just now.”

The man at the stall here replied, “Your wish, sir, should be law to me, I know; but the fact is, I am already overwhelmed with shame at the high price I have ventured to name. Besides, I do not profess to adhere rigidly to ‘marked prices,’ which is a mere trick of the trade, and consequently it should be the aim of every purchaser to make me lower my terms to the very smallest figure; you, on the contrary, are trying to raise the price to an exorbitant figure; and although I fully appreciate your kindness in that respect, I must really ask you to seek what you require at some other establishment. It is quite impossible for me to execute your commands.”

T’ang was again expressing his astonishment at this extraordinary reversal of the platitudes of trade, when the would-be purchaser replied, “For you, sir, to ask such a low sum for these first-class goods, and then to turn round and accuse me of over-considering your interests, is indeed a sad breach of etiquette. Trade could not be carried on at all if all the advantages were on one side and the losses on the other; neither am I more devoid of brains than the ordinary run of people that I should fail to understand this principle and let you catch me in a trap.”

So they went on wrangling and jangling, the stall-keeper refusing to charge any more and the runner insisting on paying his own price, until the latter made a show of yielding and put down the full sum demanded on the counter, but took only half the amount of goods. Of course the stall-keeper would not consent to this, and they would both have fallen back upon their original positions had not two old gentlemen who happened to be passing stepped aside and arranged the matter for them, by deciding that the runner was to pay the full price but to receive only four-fifths of the goods.

T’ang and his companions walked on in silence, meditating upon the strange scene they had just witnessed; but they had not gone many steps when they came across a soldier similarly engaged in buying things at an open shop-window. He was saying, “When I asked the price of these goods, you, sir, begged me to take them at my own valuation; but now that I am willing to do so, you complain of the large sum I offer, whereas the truth is that it is actually very much below their real value. Do not treat me thus unfairly.”

“It is not for me, sir,” replied the shopkeeper, “to demand a price for my own goods; my duty is to leave that entirely to you. But the fact is, that these goods are old stock, and are not even the best of their kind; you would do much better at another shop. However, let us say half what you are good enough to offer; even then I feel I shall be taking a great deal too much. I could not think, sir, of parting with my goods at your price.”

“What is that you are saying, sir?” cried the soldier. “Although not in the trade myself, I can tell superior from inferior articles, and am not likely to mistake one for the other. And to pay a low price for a good article is simply another way of taking money out of a man’s pocket.”

“Sir,” retorted the shopkeeper, “if you are such a stickler for justice as all that, let us say half the price you first mentioned, and the goods are yours. If you object to that, I must ask you to take your custom elsewhere. You will then find that I am not imposing on you.”

The soldier at first stuck to his text, but seeing that the shopkeeper was not inclined to give way, he laid down the sum named and began to take his goods, picking out the very worst he could find. Here, however, the shopkeeper interposed, saying, “Excuse me, sir, but you are taking all the bad ones. It is doubtless very kind of you to leave the best for me, but if all men were like you there would be a general collapse of trade.”

“Sir,” replied the soldier, “as you insist on accepting only half the value of the goods, there is no course open to me but to choose inferior articles. Besides, as a matter of fact, the best kind will not answer my purpose so well as the second or third best; and although I fully recognize your good intentions, I must really ask to be allowed to please myself.”

“There is no objection, sir,” said the shopkeeper, “to your pleasing yourself, but low-class goods are sold at a low price, and do not command the same rates as superior articles.”

Thus they went on bandying arguments for a long time without coming to any definite agreement, until at last the soldier picked up the things he had chosen and tried to make off with them. The bystanders, however, all cried shame upon him and said he was a downright cheat, so that he was ultimately obliged to take some of the best kind and some of the inferior kind and put an end to the altercation.

A little farther on our travelers saw a countryman who had just paid the price of some purchases he had succeeded in making, and was hurrying away with them, when the shopkeeper called after him, “Sir! sir! you have paid me by mistake in finer silver than we are accustomed to use here, and I have to allow you a considerable discount in consequence. Of course this is a mere trifle to a gentleman of your rank and position, but still for my own sake I must ask leave to make it all right with you.”

“Pray don’t mention such a small matter,” replied the countryman, “but oblige me by putting the amount to my credit for use at a future date when I come again to buy some more of your excellent wares.”

“No, no,” answered the shopkeeper, “you don’t catch old birds with chaff. That trick was played upon me last year by another gentleman, and to this day I have never set eyes upon him again, though I have made every endeavor to find out his whereabouts. As it is, I can now only look forward to repaying him in the next life; but if I let you take me in in the same way, why, when the next life comes and I am changed, maybe into a horse or a donkey, I shall have quite enough to do to find him, and your debt will go dragging on till the life after that. No, no, there is no time like the present; hereafter I might very likely forget what was the exact sum I owed you.”

They continued to argue the point until the countryman consented to accept a trifle as a set-off against the fineness of his silver, and went away with his goods, the shopkeeper bawling after him as long as he was in sight that he had sold him inferior articles at a high rate, and was positively defrauding him of his money. The countryman, however, got clear away, and the shopkeeper returned to his grumbling at the iniquity of the age. Just then a beggar happened to pass, and so in anger at having been compelled to take more than his due he handed him the difference. “Who knows,” said he, “but that the present misery of this poor fellow may be retribution for overcharging people in a former life?”

“Ah,” said T’ang, when he had witnessed the finale of this little drama, “truly this is the behavior of gentlemen!”

Our travelers then fell into conversation with two respectable-looking old men who said they were brothers, and accepted their invitation to go and take a cup of tea together. Their hosts talked eagerly about China, and wished to hear many particulars of “the first nation in the world.” Yet, while expressing their admiration for the high literary culture of its inhabitants and their unqualified successes in the arts and sciences, they did not hesitate to stigmatize as unworthy a great people certain usages which appeared to them deserving of the utmost censure. They laughed at the superstitions of Feng-Shui, and wondered how intelligent men could be imposed upon year after year by the mountebank professors of such baseless nonsense. “If it is true,” said one of them, “that the selection of an auspicious day and a fitting spot for the burial of one’s father or mother is certain to bring prosperity to the survivors, how can you account for the fact that the geomancers themselves are always a low, poverty-stricken lot? Surely they would begin by appropriating the very best positions themselves, and so secure whatever good fortune might happen to be in want of an owner.”

Then again with regard to bandaging women’s feet in order to reduce their size: “We can see no beauty,” said they, “in such monstrosities as the feet of your ladies. Small noses are usually considered more attractive than large ones; but what would be said of a man who sliced a piece off his own nose in order to reduce it within proper limits?”

And thus the hours slipped pleasantly away until it was time to bid adieu to their new friends and regain their ship.