The Picture on the Kitchen Wall

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


Find this story in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here. For educational purposes, under fair use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, a text-only version of this story has been made available below:

Long ago, in the land of China there lived a very old grandfather, named Chang Kung, who had a very large family. First, there were Chang Kung’s own sons. When his sons grew up they all married and their wives came to live in Chang Kung’s house. Then grandchildren were born. When these grandsons grew up, they also married and their wives were added to Chang Kung’s family. Then came the great-grandchildren. So Chang Kung’s family grew and grew until there were several hundred people in it — all living together. There were old people and young people, middle-sized people and children. Always there were a number of babies.

Besides all this, Chang Kung’s family was very fond of pet animals, especially dogs. It is said that at one time one hundred pet dogs belonged to the household.

As Chang Kung’s family grew larger and larger, his house had to grow bigger and bigger too, until it became a collection of houses standing side by side around a large open courtyard. A high stone wall stood like a fence around all the houses, and that made all the houses together seem like one big home.

The larger his family grew, the happier old Chang Kung became. He liked to eat at one of the big long tables with his big and little children beside him. He enjoyed sitting in the sunny courtyard where he could watch his great-grandchildren play.

But Chang Kung’s family is not remembered after these many years simply because it was such a large family. Many people of China have large families. Chang Kung is still remembered because, it is said, the members of his family never quarreled. At least so the story goes. The children never quarreled in their play. The old people never quarreled with each other and never scolded the children. Nobody— — big or little — ever said a cross word. Nobody ever did a mean thing. Some said jokingly that even the dogs did not quarrel or bite. When they were brought their bones they would not even bark, but all would wag their tails and wait their turns.

Stories about this remarkable household spread far and wide over the country just as the breezes blow far and wide in the spring. Finally news of Chang Kung’s happy family reached the ears of the Emperor.

Now it so happened that the Emperor was about to make a journey to the Western Hills, to a place not far from the home of Chang Kung. So he decided to visit this wonderful household on his way back, and to see for himself whether or not the rumors he had heard were true.

What a sight it was the day the Emperor arrived outside the village gate. First in the royal procession came the very tall guards dressed in blue and red, carrying long bows and arrows in their hands. Then came the mandarins, those important men in the Emperor’s court. Their long silk gowns were beautifully embroidered with figures of colored birds. Blue and green peacock feathers waved from their round hats. Other attendants followed, playing flutes and harps as the procession marched down the street.

At last came the Emperor himself in his richly adorned sedan chair, carried on the shoulders of four men in red. When the Emperor entered the gate of Chang Kung’s home, the old man himself was there to bow many times and to greet his Emperor with very polite words.

“Very excellent and very aged sir,” said the Emperor, “it is said that inside your walls no cross words are ever spoken. Can this be true?”

“Lord of ten thousand years,” said Chang Kung, “you do my poor house far too much honor. It is true that my family does not quarrel, but it would please us greatly if you would consent to walk about our humble courts and judge for yourself.”

So the Emperor made his way from one house to another and from one room to another. He talked with everyone he met. In the great Hall of Politeness, he was served delicious food and drink. As he sipped his tea from a dainty cup, he said to Chang Kung: “You must have a golden secret in order to keep so many people living together in such order and peace. I, too, should like to know your secret.”

Then old Chang Kung called his servants to bring a tablet of smooth bamboo. (In those long-ago days there was no paper. All writing was done on wood or on stone.) Chang Kung asked also for his brush and ink, and the ink-stone with its little well of water. He took the brush in his hand and, dipping it into the water and then on the ink, he wrote one word on the tablet. He wrote the word a second time and a third time. He wrote the word over and over until he had written it one hundred times. Then with a low bow, he placed the tablet in the hands of the Emperor.

“You have written many words,” said the Emperor, “but at the same time you have written only one word.”

“Ah,” said Chang Kung, “but that one word is the golden secret, O Son of Heaven. It is KINDNESS over and over without any ending.” Chang Kung nodded his gray head as he spoke.

The Emperor was so pleased with the golden secret that he, too, called for a bamboo tablet. Taking the brush that Chang Kung had used, the Emperor wrote these words on his tablet: “Let all the families of China learn the golden secret of Chang Kung and his family.”

When the Emperor had finished writing, he said: “Let this tablet be fastened to the outside of the gate where everyone passing may read it.”

Not many years after the Emperor’s visit Chang Kung died, but the story of his happy household has never been forgotten. People asked the Emperor to have pictures of the old man painted and sold so that families might hang his picture on the wall above their kitchen stoves to remind them to keep the golden secret that Chang Kung and his family had learned.

That is why, after these many, many years, in many homes in China, at the New Year season, a fresh bright picture of Chang Kung is pasted on the wall behind the kitchen stove. Many Chinese will tell you it is a picture of the Kitchen God, but other people say that Chang Kung was once just a very kind and good man who helped the members of his family to learn to live happily together without quarreling. Since so many people think that God is perhaps much like the very best person that can be imagined, such a good person as Chang Kung seems to them to be like God himself.

To look at the picture of Chang Kung over the kitchen stove every morning helps to remind many thousands of people in China to speak kindly to one another. They feel as if Chang Kung were watching them and listening as they go about their work. They can sometimes imagine they hear him speak that golden word — KINDNESS.

Once a year on the night before New Year’s, the picture of Chang Kung is taken down and burned. As the flames and smoke go upward, the people think: “Chang Kung is flying back to heaven to tell the great God of all the people just how well everyone has behaved during the past year.” Three days later, they will paste new pictures of Chang Kung on the walls over their kitchen stoves and they will say: “He has now come back again to the earth to keep watch over us for another year.”


SESSION ONE: The Picture on the Kitchen Wall

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 “The Picture on the Kitchen Wall.”

Find this story in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here.

III/ Act out the story.

One of the principal ways we will help children internalize the story is to have them act it out. Some of the children may be familiar with how to act out a story, but others won’t be. This is a very simple story to act out, and a good way to help the class (children and adults!) to learn how to act out a story.

Ask: “Who are the characters in this story?” In this story, the main characters are Chang Kung, Chang Kung’s large family, Chang Kung’s family’s dogs, the Emperor, and the people in the Emperor’s royal procession. So there is a role for everyone!

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.

Since this is such a simple story, you may want to act it out twice, with different sets of lead actors each time.

It would be great if you took photos of this story with your phone or a digital camera. Print out these photos, and post the best ones on the class bulletin board to remind the children of this story. This will help reinforce the idea that you will be acting out stories during this curriculum.

IV/ Conversation about the story

Sit back down in a group. Go over the story to make sure the children understand it. Remind them that Chang Kung had a huge family and yet there were never any quarrels. Remind them that the reason there were never any quarrels was KINDNESS. And point out that this story has to do with the Chinese New Year (we tried to schedule this story near Chinese New Year).

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: “If the Emperor came to visit your family, do you think the Emperor would see any quarrels or fighting going on in your family? What kind of quarrels or fighting happens in your family? Do you think kindness might help stop some of the quarrels in your family? What could you do to bring kindness to your family?” Or ask any questions you wish to help the children think about the story.

V/ Making “kindness” scrolls

If you have time, you could have the children make signs to hang in their kitchen. You could offer two options: a child could write “kindness” in English, and decorate it; or a child could write the characters for kindness in Chinese. If you have someone who could show how to write the Chinese characters properly (and there are plenty of people in our congregation who can do so), that would be best.

VI/ Free play

Ideas for free play: “Duck, Duck, Goose”; play with Legos; walk to front play area 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 family of Chang Kung and kindness.” 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).

End by saying together some closing words. We like to say the same closing words each week, which we post in the classroom. Here are the closing words we use:

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 faint-hearted
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.