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The Artist and the Emperor

A very long time ago, the Emperor of all China com­mis­sioned an artist to paint a pic­ture of a carp. The artist told him he would begin work imme­di­ately. A month later, the Emperor had not heard from the artist, so he sent an emis­sary to inquire. The artist sent back word that he was work­ing dili­gently and would send word as soon as the paint­ing was done. Yet another month went by. Another emis­sary was dis­patched and received the same answer. Finally, after a third month had passed, the Emperor set out him­self for the artist’s house, accom­pa­nied by many body­guards and courtiers. When the Emperor arrived in his palan­quin, he entered the artist’s house and demanded that the artist pro­duce his paint­ing. Watched care­fully by body­guards, the artist set out paper, ink and brush. Over the course of 20 min­utes, he exe­cuted the most per­fect paint­ing of a carp the Emperor had ever seen. “This is excel­lent,” said the Emperor, “but I am most dis­pleased that you didn’t do this when I first asked for it.” He glared at the artist, who quaked with fear. “May I show you some­thing, great Emperor?” the artist asked. The Emperor grunted approval. The artist went to his closet and opened the door. Out poured hun­dreds of carp paint­ings. Each one was good, but none so exquis­ite as the one now before the Emperor. “I have only just become able to cre­ate a paint­ing wor­thy to present to you, great Emperor,” said the artist.

Does any­one know where this story comes from? I don’t remem­ber where I read it.

Posted in personal.


5 Responses

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  1. Incompetent says

    This is no real help, but I read a very sim­i­lar story in”The Blank Can­vas” (a book on over­com­ing artist block) but with a Japan­ese artist com­plet­ing a com­mis­sion of a rooster for a civil­ian client.

    Maybe it’s a folk tale gone through sev­eral incarnations.

  2. Vyoma says

    Never heard of the story before.

    So — the point is — we work best under pres­sure? :P

  3. Karen Beaton says

    there is a slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the chi­nese fable called “fifty thou­sand”. http://​mick​stern​.com/​C​H​I​N​A​.​pdf

  4. Susie says

    There is a ver­sion of this in The Lan­guage of Lit­er­a­ture text­book. It is an old Chi­nese folk­tale or something.

  5. Eric says

    Did you ever find out the ori­gins of the story? I’m look­ing for it too…



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