A Chinese Parable

September 1, 1998

This poem first appeared in Gwee Li Sui’s Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998) and reappeared in Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of a Book of Poems? (2015). It is also featured on Postcolonial Web, as a Saturday Poem for 3 Quarks Daily (2008), and in Softblow Poetry Journal (2006) and The Shanghaiist (2012). The poem has inspired the title of Chia Yeow Tong’s Education, Culture, and the Singapore Developmental State: “World-Soul” Lost and Regained? (2015).


A Chinese Parable

Said the Premier: For a lifetime I have sought
only the common good and with bare hands wrought
a kingdom, whose vast wealth now stands testified
by pagodas, innumerable, sundried
as the blades of grass — a permanent fortune
locked from the barbarians of the warring dune
by the joining of walls. So long as we strive,
we shall enjoy our fruits; and he will survive
who works on diligently — for Work is Life.
God gave them the hands, I have given them tools;
and none starves in this kingdom except the fools.
Our magistrates are just and good law is praised.
Our governors are wise and the stores are raised.
Here are the foundations for millennial peace!
Is there more a people will desire than these?

Said the Mandarin: There is nothing lacking
in the provision of the body, seeing
our middle kingdom bodily strong, sinewy —
but there is more to Kingdom and Man than Body.
When a people clutch all gods as money gods,
you must be vigilant. Pieties are not rods
to fish material things; they form a World-Soul
to which one gives assent and he is whole
who lives in fellowship: this, too, is your goal.
Great cultures are not hewn from a heritage
for sons, but for great-great-grandsons of due age.
Some investments then must always seem pointless,
a fling into the well, but there’s some goodness
to be less than pragmatic. No work is ample
and no wall strong if you should slight the temple.

Gwee Li Sui


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