The World in a Gourd

This is the story of a man called Fei Chang-Fang who lived 2,200 years ago in China. He is still very much respected in China and there is even a shrine to him. 


Once upon a time, there was a policeman called Fei Chang Fang. He was in charge of the marketplace in the small town where he lived. The problem was, he didn’t like this job very much. 


Chang Fang left his job but still enjoyed walking around the market place. One day, he saw an old man there with a gourd. They look like pumpkins, but are hollowed out to be a container. The ancient Chinese people often used them to hold wine or medicine.


The old man sat in a corner of the market selling herbs from his gourd. He sold every dose to his patients for the same price and the medicines always worked. By the end of every day, he had an incredible amount of money and every evening he would take that money and give it to the poor and hungry and needy -  until he had nothing left for himself. Then, as Chang Fang watched, he jumped inside the gourd!


Chang Fang looked around - did anyone else see that? NO? No! Chang Feng was the only person who had seen the old man leap into the dried out vegetable.

So day after day, Chang Fang watched the old man sell his herbs, tidy up, give away all his money and then jump inside the gourd at bedtime. After a while he began to help the old man. He would sweep the ground where the old man liked to sit. He would take him cakes and something to drink. Eventually, he had to ask what on earth was going on. He summoned up the courage, and just as he was about to ask, the old man - yes - he jumped into his gourd!


Chang Fang peered inside the gourd - what did he see? 

He saw a large hall, richly decorated with tapestries and gold and fine furniture, a table set for a banquet and decorated ceilings and walls and thick rugs and - you get the picture. Chang Fang was amazed. Then he saw the old man walking over to look at him from inside the gourd. He was smiling up at Chang Fang and said, “Hello, Chang Fang.” 


“How do you know my name?” gasped Chang Fang. 

“Ah, said the old man, “ordinary people can’t see me and never saw me leap into my gourd - but you did and that means that you have special powers. Come and eat with me.”  And without even thinking twice, Chang Fang found that he had also leapt inside the gourd!


That night they ate and drank and talked about a Chinese philosophy called Tao (“dow”) which is all about balance - generosity, simplicity, fairness and staying calm. One of the big lessons of Tao is to do things for their own sake, and not because you expect to get anything out of it. We might need to remember that important idea later…


Every evening, Chang Fang went back to spend more time with the old man and talk some more about generosity, simplicity, fairness, staying calm and not expecting to get anything out of the things that you do. Then one evening, the old man made a confession to Chang Fang. 


“I am an immortal, Chang Fang, and I have been sent here to live in the gourd as a punishment for breaking the laws of heaven. I had to be on earth to help and heal people. I have done that now and tomorrow I go back to heaven.”

Chang Fang was sad that he would lose his new friend. He loved him very much. “Let’s stay up late and eat too much and have all the fizzy drinks, even if it does make us feel sick!” he said. 

“We could do that,” said the old man, “or you could come with me and keep learning about the Tao!”

“I could come with you?” said Chang Fang. “To heaven?” he asked. The old man nodded and off they went. 


The two of them travelled off the immortal mountains and went deep, deep, deep inside. Then the old immortal set Chang Fang a load of tests….

First of all he made Chang Fang sit down on a slab of rock inside a cave. Then ALAKA-BOOM! He conjured up a massive rock that hung above Chang Fang’s head. It was tied to the ceiling of the cave with only a really rubbish, thin rope. Then BING BANG BONG! he conjured up a load of flying snakes that started chewing at the rope!  Did Chang Fang stress out? No - he remembered everything he had learnt about staying calm, so he just smiled at the old immortal and said, “ great trick!” 


The old immortal laughed and said, “you’ve been learning well! I think you’re really ready to learn how to do magic now!” Chang Fang grinned. 


Next, the two of them climbed a mountain path. It was tiring, but Chang Fang didn’t grumble, because he had learnt that some things just are what they are and you can’t change them. He knew they couldn’t make this path any easier - it was the path!  But just as he was having this very calm and wise thought, ABRACADABRA! The old mortal conjured up from the skies - you will never guess - what do you think fell on their heads? 


He conjured up POO! And not just poo. He conjured up poo that was covered in MAGGOTS! And then he told Chang Fang to eat three of the maggots! Chang Fang shuddered in disgust. And the Old Immortal said, “what a shame. Although I can teach you much about magic, I can see you will never be ready to learn how to become an immortal.” Did Chang Fang get upset? Had he had his heart set on becoming an immortal? He said, “That’s OK - all I want is to help others with what I’ve learnt.”


“What a good heart you have,” said his friend. And he gave him two gifts. “My first gift is this bamboo stick,” he said. “It will help you travel thousands of miles in a day. Just tap it gently on the ground, say where you want to go, and it will take you.”

“Thank you,” said Chang Fang. 

“My second gift is this gourd,” said the old immortal. “It is my own medicinal gourd, for you to use. The medicines in it will heal every sickness.” Then he smiled and vanished, just as Chang Fang was saying, “thank you.”


Chang Fang stood alone on the immortal mountain path. Even though it had only been a day, he felt very home sick. So he tapped his bamboo stick gently on the ground and said “take me home," and immediately found himself standing at the front door of his parents’ house. 


The door opened and there stood his father, looking amazed. Chang Fang stared. “Dad - you have aged - are you OK?” he said in shock. His father looked much older than he had a few days ago.  “My son! You are alive!” said his father and held him tight. “We didn’t know what had happened to you!”

“What do you mean?” said Chang Fang. 

“It’s been fifteen years,” wept his dad, as his mother came to the door. When she saw him, she immediately fainted. “Is that poo I can smell on your clothes?” asked his dad. 


After Chang Fang and his parents had spent some time getting to know each other again, and lots of time celebrating his safe return, and he’d explained that he had been with an immortal in a gourd and that there had obviously been some kind of magical immortal time slip, where one day in heaven was like 15 years on earth, Chang Fang had to go out and do his important magic work. 


He spent the rest of his life travelling the world with the power of his magic bamboo stick, healing people with the magic gourd’s medicines. 


Let’s Think!

1. what were the Tao lessons that Chang Fang learnt? 

2. do you know other stories where a day in a magic place is a long time here?

3. why did the immortal teach Chang Fang to stay calm and be kind?