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Child prodigies of ancient eras

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Reality shows such as "Daddy, where are we going?" are a modern way through
which children sometimes achieve instant fame. But according to the history
books, child-celebrity status is actually a fairly ancient phenomenon.

Kids who just shared their pears, weighed an elephant or broke a vat have
been immortalized for thousands of years as good examples for every single
Chinese kid. Even today, they are held up as paragons of moral virtue and used
as lessons for children to aspire to.

Kong Rong Gives away Bigger Pears (孔融让梨)

Kong Rong was a famous scholar during the Eastern Han Dynasty. One day when
he was four years old, his father brought home some pears and asked him to
distribute them to all his brothers. Kong then gave the bigger ones to his five
elder brothers and a younger brother, and kept the smallest for himself. His
father felt curious and asked why he would do such a thing.

Kong answered, "I am younger than my elder brothers, I should respect them;
And I am older than my litter brother, I
should take care of him."

This story then widely spread. The concept of brotherhood was one of the most
important societal values, like the parent-child relationship, and represented a
key pillar of the feudal system. Kong became a model of respecting and loving
your brothers and sisters.

But ironically, without many Chinese knowing, Kong is believed to have voiced
many opinions against traditional ethical principles years later. According to
The Book of the Later Han, written sometime between 432 and 445 AD and which
recorded history from a few centuries earlier, he said, "Why should a son be grateful to his father? What a father does is all out of
erotic lust", and "Does love really exist between mothers and children? It's
just like a container and things inside. Once the thing in it comes out, there
is no relationship between them."

That of course, doesn't seem to get in the way of a good, and more
importantly, a moral story. Even today, almost everyone in China knows the story
of how he distributed those pears, but few people care about anything else he
may have said in his later years.

Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant (曹冲称象)

Cao Chong probably had the most influential family during the Eastern Han
Dynasty, with his father Cao Cao the founder of the Kingdom Wei, his brother Cao
Pi the first emperor of Wei, and another brother Cao Zhi the most brilliant poet
at that time. But Cao Chong was still outstanding. When he was seven, his father
received an elephant as a tribute from another
kingdom.

The elephant was so extremely huge that his father was desperate to learn its
weight.

First an official proposed making a scale and having people lift the
elephant, but it's pretty easy to see the flaws in that idea. Another official
suggested cutting the elephant into pieces and weighing each of them, but this
idea was hardly any better – it required him to kill the elephant.

It was Cao who figured out the problem. He asked people to load the elephant
onto a big boat in the water and marked the waterline against the side of the
boat, then put stones on it instead of the elephant, until the boat sank to the
same line. So the elephant's weight was able to be calculated by adding the
weights of the stones together.

This story is usually used to teach kids to be creative and think from
different angles when encountering difficult problems. But just because a story
stars a child doesn't mean it has a happy ending. Cao Chong's genius didn't save
him when he died from disease at the age of 13.

Maybe just like the old saying goes, Cao was "so talented that he incurred
jealousy of God".

Sima Guang Smashes a Vat(司马光砸缸)

Sima Guang, a politician, historian and literary powerhouse during the Song
Dynasty, might never have imagined that the vat he broke in his childhood would
remain almost as famous as his marvelous book in Chinese history and politics,
the Zizhi Tongjian (literally, the Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance)
hundreds of years later.

When he was a little boy, one day he played a "hide and seek" game with his
friends in the yard. One of the kids climbed up the rocks and accidentally fell
into a vat full of water. None of the kids were tall enough to pull their friend
out and the vat was too heavy to be pushed over. All of the kids began to panic,
except for Sima. He found a large stone and threw it at the vat. It broke, the
water drained away, and his friend was saved.

Even today, almost all the Chinese parents still tell this story repeatedly
to their children in attempt to stress the importance of keeping calm and making
quick responses in an emergency.

The Pity of Zhongyong(伤仲永)

As with many child celebrities today, fame in early life doesn't always
translate to fame later. Fang Zhongyong, the character of Wang Anshi's essay
"The Pity of Zhongyong", was born in a farming family and never approached
writing materials until one day he cried out for some at the age of 5. His
father felt curious and borrowed some for him. Fang immediately wrote a poem and
signed on the page. Since then, his fame spread around the neighborhood and
people even paid this child prodigy to write
poems, which were all instant hits. His father was glad to have such a
convenient way of making some cash, and thus took Fang to brag to their
neighbors every day and stopped teaching him.

As a result of the lack of further education, when Fang became a teenager, he
became mediocre and his talent drained away. This tale was passed
down over hundreds years, and Zhongyong has become a byword for "has-been child
prodigies".

Master image courtesy of Guo Muxi and depicts Kong Rong giving away
pears.

2016-06-24

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