Earlier this year, when I was desperately trying to enthuse my three year old daughter with the idea of leaving our rural Devon idyll and coming to live in Beijing, I took the arguably eccentric route of writing a lengthy mock-epic poem for her based on an old Chinese myth.
皮 – meaning “Skin” – click the picture to see the animation”
However, my daughter was only very mildly impressed: the poem would reliably send her to sleep within about two minutes. Clearly I needed to recruit some help from someone more talented than myself if I was going to stoke her excitement.
Luckily, spending my days immersed in the wonderful mem-making machine that is the Memrise community, I have ample opportunity to see the work of many such people. So I got in touch with one of my all time favourite mem-creators, Jiangning (creator of, for example, the mem on the right, or you can click here to see all of her awesome mems) who’s style I thought would fit the story well.
Well, to cut a long story short, here is what she came up with. I think that she has done a pretty spectacular job – and thankfully, this time my daughter agrees. The pictures now line her bedroom wall and she bubbles with questions and excitement about all things Chinese – in fact now it is virtually impossible to get her to sleep at all! You can’t have everything I suppose…
The Emperor of Dreams
“The Emperor of China”
The emperor of china, Stood staring towards the east, And as he stood he worried, And ground his royal teeth.
For though the emperor had great power And riches beyond compare, He also had great problems – Revolution was in the air!
For the emperor’s love of power Made him always yearn for more, And so he went a-conquering, Waging war, after war, after war.
“waging war after war after war”
Waging war is always costly – All tyrants soon learn that law, And what is costly for the tyrant Must mean taxes for the poor.
Now when men who have but little, Are forced by law to give What little they have, to fund a fight Far away from where they live –
They will soon begin to wonder Who their real enemy is; Those unknown men living far away Or the emperor to whom they give?
“men who have but little”
And to the peaceful peasants The answer came quite clear: Their war mongering emperor Was the one to hate and fear.
It started in the eastern towns, Where food was in short supply; A peasant army rose and swore To oust the emperor – or die!
Now the emperor who from earliest youth, Had learned only how to fight, Thought the only way to stop this hate Was by a display of might.
“A peasant army rose…”
So as he stood and ground his teeth, He pondered on a plan; A strategy of martial skill To crush the rebels – every man!
But his armies were all far away Fighting to expand his land, So he needed now to raise more men To enact the scheme he planned.
So yet more taxes now the emperor Piled upon the poor, And the poor men paid and the poor men starved, And their rancour grew still more.
“Yet more taxes now the Emperor piled upon the poor”
Mercenaries by the thousand, With the taxes the emperor bought, And so the peasants paid the wages Of the very men they fought.
But the more he taxed and fought them, The stronger became their force; For the men all fought united By their righteous cause.
And men who fight united By their common plight, Will fight harder than any mercenaries Because they believe they’re right.
“The men all fought united, by their righteous cause”
And as the campaign wore on and on With still no end in sight, So the emperor began to loathe these peasants Who would not give up the fight.
As hatred grew inside his heart, The emperor’s health declined; For a hating heart poisons every part Of a man – both body and mind.
His mind was always racing, Wild with worry and fear, And though at night he lay in bed, Sleep would not come near.
“The Emperor’s health declined”
One sleepless early morning As he walked on the city wall, He stared out towards the east, And on a peasant his eye did fall.
This peasant, though he was clearly poor, Laughed as he strolled along; On his face he wore a carefree look, From his lips burst a merry song.
Now the emperor, in spite of all his might, Had never sung for joy, So the site of this merry singing man Was bound to him annoy –
How dare this man with nothing Yet still have so much fun, When he, the lord of everything, In misery had none?
“One sleepless early morning, as he walked on the city wall”
“Bring me that singing peasant!” He shouted to his guards. “Bring him here that I may know What makes him laugh so hard.”
They quickly brought the man before The emperor with due speed, But he would not bow in front of him As imperial law decreed.
For the emperor; already riled, This was the final straw. And in a wild and furious rage His anger did out-pour.
“In a wild and furious rage, his anger did out”
“You peasant, you lowly peasant man, How dare you behave this way? You are summoned before the dragon throne, Do you think this all in play?
“You laugh your happy laughter, You live your little life, While the emperor far above you Lives in bitterness and strife.”
“For the emperor far above you Works both day and night, To protect you humble peasants With all his skill and might.
“How dare you behave this way!”
And while he works those peasant men, Ungrateful fools like you, Rebel in the eastern provinces And have raised an army too.
Your country now faces civil war, Men die every day, And meanwhile you sing merrily And while your days away.
I will rid you of your laughter, I will destroy your easy life; Now you will join my army And learn true bitterness and strife!
“turned and walked towards the door”
But at these cruel words, The peasant smiled a little more, Then bowing politely to the emperor, Turned and walked towards the door.
“Stop!” Cried the emperor, “Don’t you know, The meaning of what I say? You will now become a soldier- You leave for the front today!”
The peasant turned his smiling face Towards the dragon throne, And he spoke gently to the emperor In a quiet, superior tone –
“In the sleeping world I am, a powerful man like you”
“You see me now, dear tyrant, A peasant before your court, And you threaten me and shout at me And wonder that I don’t retort.
“Well let me now explain to you What keeps my spirits high, And means I cannot feel the pain Of any cruelty that you may try.
“By day I am a farmer, I work hard and till the soil And I earn but little money In return for my ceaseless toil.
“my domain is peaceful, we treasure every life”
“But when I sink exhausted To bed at the end of the day, Sleep quickly comes to embrace me And whisks me a world away.
“For in the sleeping world I am A powerful man, like you An emperor of a vast domain – I swear to you, it’s true.
“But my domain is not like yours, Riven with hate and strife; My domain is peaceful, We treasure every life.
“I do not seek to grow my lands, I do not go to war, My taxes are but just enough To pay to uphold the law.
“every day I am reminded, how humble the Emperor is”
And because I treat them justly, And do not crush them down, The citizens do not rebel Against the power of the crown.
“And every day I wake anew And live as this peasant lives, And every day I am reminded How humble the emperor is.
“So give me any punishment It may please you now to give; Give me bitterness to eat so I May learn how soldiers live.
“But I will take that lesson back with me, To my dreamland dragon throne And it will help me to govern there,
“and then a smile lit up his face”
When I wield great power alone.”
The emperor sat in silence, As he pondered what was said, For it had struck him deeply – New ideas now flooded his head.
Was it really possible To rule as this man claimed? To give up fighting battles – The skill for which he was famed.
Would free men ever agree to live, Within an emperor’s state, If they didn’t see the emperor’s strength And fear the emperor’s hate?
And then a smile lit up his face When at last he saw the light;
“brother Emperor your words are wise”
He understood the peasants words And knew that he was right!
He leapt up from the dragon throne Then threw himself to the floor, He bowed before the peasant man And vowed to end the war.
“Brother emperor you words are wise And you rule for all men’s sake, And as you rule in the world of dreams, So I shall rule awake.”
At once the emperor began the work Of ending his costly wars; Recalling troops from overseas And ending oppressive laws.
“he forged a peace to last”
He met the peasant leaders, And listened to what they asked; He cut the heavy taxes and he forged a peace to last.
And as his wars were ended, So his worries disappeared, For the peasants now loved this man Who once they loathed and feared.
And when the people love their ruler The ruler has little to fear – For peasant men do not rebel Against a ruler that they hold dear.
So now when he rose early, And walked the city wall,
“the more he understood them, the more he loved them”
The emperor’s thoughts were contented ones- He did not fret at all.
And if he saw the peasant man, Tilling the rich brown earth, He greeted to him respectfully For he knew the peasant’s worth.
Little by little the emperor’s Understanding of the peasants grew And the more he understood them, The more he loved them too.
And ruling over men he loved Made his rule both fair and just,
“he burst into joyful song”
And so his tortured soul grew strong And filled with wanderlust.
And then one morn in early spring, The emperor felt within his breast, An unfamiliar feeling – Of unbridled happiness!
This happy feeling swelled and grew, As the emperor strolled along, Until suddenly, at long, long last, He burst into joyful song.
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