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《Chinese Tales for Everyone_ Real and Imaginary: (8) How to Weigh an Elephant 》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

(8) How to Weigh an Elephant

Cao Cao (曹操) was a famous king and poet during the period of the Three Kingdoms, some 300 years before the birth of Christ. One day, he was given an elephant as a present. He observed the magnificent animal with great admiration and said: “I wonder how much this admirable animal weighs?”

The generals and courtiers present looked at one another. No one dared to say anything because they knew their king would not accept words of hearsay.

A courtier asked to have ropes brought in to help weigh the elephant. Then he found there was no scale big enough to do the job. He was embarrassed.

Cao Cong (曹沖), the prince, was standing beside the king. He was seven years old. He tilted his head to ponder for a moment. Then he whispered words in his father’s ear.

“Ha! Ha!” the king laughed. “Of course you may try.”

People in the court stirred, wondering what next.

The prince and the king walked down towards the river bank where a boat was moored. Everyone followed.

Meanwhile, the elephant was coaxed onto the boat. It stood still as its weight was loading the boat down into the water. The little prince went forward to see that the water rose near the edge of the boat. He smiled with satisfaction. He asked the soldiers to draw a long line on the side of the boat to mark the water level. When that was done, he asked them to lead the elephant back to the river bank.

People began to chat, guessing what was in the Prince’s head. Some were secretly suspicious that the boy was just having fun. But no one dared to utter a sound when they saw their king smiling.

The prince ordered soldiers to load the boat with rocks, adding more until the water rose to the mark drawn. When he saw the water touched the drawn mark perfectly, he stopped the soldiers.

The king was jubilant. He could see how the plan was working. A few couriers also began to understand what the little prince was doing. Silence prevailed as people await the final outcome emerging.

The prince ordered the soldiers to work as he explained his plan: “We will now remove all the rocks from the boat, and weigh them, a few at a time, until all of them have been weighed. By adding all the weights together we will get a grand total weight of the all the rocks. That should equal the weight of the elephant.”

The crowd applauded, continuing as more people understood the plan. Then, the prince whispered the results to the king’s ear. Silence dominated the riverside.

In a moment, the king stood up to announce: “Today, you have seen the wisdom of my son, your future king. By his ingenious handling, we now know how to weigh an elephant. This magnificent animal weighs four thousand six hundred and twenty three catties!”

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Note: This is an English narration of an anecdote (曹沖秤象) contained in趣聞述集. It is a legend telling us how Cao Cong was a leader and a poet in his childhood.

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