IN ANCIENT TIMES King Wen of Chao was fond of swords. Expert swordsmen flocked to his gate, and over three thousand of them were supported as guests in his household, day and night engaging in bouts in his presence till the dead and wounded numbered more than a hundred men a year. Yet the king's delight never seemed to wane and things went on in this way for three years, while the state sank into decline and the other feudal lords conspired against it.

The crown prince K'uei, distressed at this, summoned his retainers about him and said, "I will bestow a thousand pieces of gold upon any man who can reason with the king and make him give up these sword fights!"

"Chuang Tzu is the one who can do it," said his retainers.

The crown prince thereupon sent an envoy with a thousand pieces of gold to present to Chuang Tzu, but Chuang Tzu refused to accept the gift. Instead he accompanied the envoy on his return and went to call on the crown prince. "What instructions do you have for me, that you present me with a thousand pieces of gold?" he asked.

"I had heard, Sir," said the crown prince, "that you are an enlightened sage, and I wished in all due respect to offer this thousand in gold as a gift to your attendants. But if you refuse to accept it, then I dare say no more about the matter."

Chuang Tzu said, "I have heard that the crown prince wishes to employ me because he hopes I can rid the king of this passion of his. Now if, in attempting to persuade His Majesty, I should arouse his anger and fail to satisfy your hopes, then I would be sentenced to execution. In that case, what use could I make of the gold? And if I should be able to persuade His Majesty and satisfy your hopes, then what could I ask for in the whole kingdom of Chao that would not be granted me?"

"The trouble is," said the crown prince, "that my father, the king, refuses to see anyone but swordsmen."

"Fine!" said Chuang Tzu. "I am quite able to handle a sword."

"But the kind of swordsmen my father receives," said the crown prince, "all have tousled heads and bristling beards, wear slouching caps tied with plain, coarse tassels, and robes that are cut short behind; they glare fiercely and have difficulty getting out their words. Men like that he is delighted with! Now, Sir, if you should insist upon going to see him in scholarly garb, the whole affair would go completely wrong from the start."

"Then allow me to get together the garb of a swordsman," said Chuang Tzu. After three days, he had his swordsman's costume ready and went to call on the crown prince. The crown prince and he then went to see the king. The king, drawing his sword, waited with bare blade in hand. Chuang Tzu entered the door of the hall with unhurried steps, looked at the king but made no bow.

The king said, "Now that you have gotten the crown prince to prepare the way for you, what kind of instruction is it you intend to give me?"

"I have heard that Your Majesty is fond of swords, and so I have come with my sword to present myself before you."

"And what sort of authority does your sword command?" asked the king.

"My sword cuts down one man every ten paces, and for a thousand li it never ceases its flailing!"

The king, greatly pleased, exclaimed, "You must have no rival in the whole world!"

Chuang Tzu said, "The wielder of the sword makes a display of emptiness, draws one out with hopes of advantage, is behind‑time in setting out, but beforehand in arriving.2 May I be allowed to try what I can do?"

The king said, "You may leave now, Sir, and go to your quarters to await my command. When I am ready to hold the bout, I will request your presence again."

The king then spent seven days testing the skill of his swordsmen. Over sixty were wounded or died in the process, leaving five or six survivors who were ordered to present themselves with their swords outside the king's hall. Then the king sent for Chuang Tzu, saying, "Today let us see what happens when you cross swords with these gentlemen."

Chuang Tzu said, "It is what I have long wished for."

"What weapon will you use, Sir," asked the king, "a long sword or a short one?"

"I am prepared to use any type at all. It happens that I have three swords ‑ Your Majesty has only to indicate which you wish me to use. If I may, I will first explain them, and then put them to the test."

"Let me hear about your three swords," said the king.

"There is the sword of the Son of Heaven, the sword of the feudal lord, and the sword of the commoner."

"What is the sword of the Son of Heaven like?" asked the king.

"The sword of the Son of Heaven? The Valley of Yen and the Stone Wall are its point, Ch'i and Tai its blade, Chin and Wey its spine, Chou and Sung its sword guard, Han and Wei its hilt.3' The four barbarian tribes enwrap it, the four seasons enfold it, the seas of Po surround it, the mountains of Ch'ang girdle it. The five elements govern it, the demands of punishment and favor direct it. It is brought forth in accordance with the yin and yang, held in readiness in spring and summer, wielded in autumn and winter. Thrust it forward and there is nothing that will stand before it; raise it on high and there is nothing above it; press it down and there is nothing beneath it; whirl it about and there is nothing surrounding it. Above, it cleaves the drifting clouds; below, it severs the sinews of the earth. When this sword is once put to use, the feudal lords return to their former obedience and the whole world submits. This is the sword of the Son of Heaven."

King Wen, dumfounded, appeared to be at an utter loss. Then he said, "What is the sword of the feudal lord like?"

"The sword of the feudal lord? It has wise and brave men for its point, men of purity and integrity for its blade, men of worth and goodness for its spine, men of loyalty and sageliness for its swordguard, heroes and prodigies for its hilt. This sword too, thrust forward, meets nothing before it; raised, it encounters nothing above; pressed down, it encounters nothing beneath it; whirled about, it meets nothing surrounding it. Above, it takes its model from the roundness of heaven, following along with the three luminous bodies of the sky.4 Below, it takes its model from the squareness of earth, following along with the four seasons. In the middle realm, it brings harmony to the wills of the people and peace to the four directions. This sword, once put into use, is like the crash of a thunderbolt: none within the four borders of the state will fail to bow down in submission, none will fail to heed and obey the commands of the ruler. This is the sword of the feudal lord."

The king said, "What is the sword of the commoner like?"

"The sword of the commoner? It is used by men with tousled heads and bristling beards, with slouching caps tied with plain, coarse tassels and robes cut short behind, who glare fiercely and speak with great difficulty, who slash at one another in Your Majesty's presence. Above, it lops off heads and necks; below, it splits open livers and lungs. Those who wield this sword of the commoner are no different from fighting cocks ‑ any morning their lives may be cut off. They are of no use in the administration of the state.

"Now Your Majesty occupies the position of a Son of Heaven, and yet you show this fondness for the sword of the commoner.5 If I may be so bold, I think it rather unworthy of you!

The king thereupon led Chuang Tzu up into his hall, where the royal butler came forward with trays of food, but the king merely paced round and round the room.

"Your Majesty should seat yourself at ease and calm your spirits," said Chuang Tzu., "The affair of the sword is all over and finished!"

After this, King Wen did not emerge from his palace for three months, and his swordsmen all committed suicide in their quarters.