Gateway to the Classics: Fairy Tales of Old Japan by William E. Griffis
Fairy Tales of Old Japan by  William E. Griffis

The Ambitious Carp

A FEW years ago there was a boy in Japan, who was very diligent at school and had made fine progress in his studies. He was especially quick at learning Chinese characters, of which every Japanese gentleman who wishes to be called educated must know at least two thousand. For, although the Chinese and Japanese are two very different languages, yet the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese use the same letters to write with, just as English, Italian, French, and Spaniards all employ the same alphabet.

Now the boy's father had promised that when he read through the Ancient History of Japan, he would give him a book of wonderful Chinese stories. The boy performed his task, and his father kept his promise. One day on his return from a journey to Kioto, he presented his son with sixteen volumes, all neatly silk-bound, well illustrated with wood-cuts, and printed clearly on thin, silky mulberry paper, from the best wooden blocks. Japanese books are much lighter and thinner than ours.

The boy was so delighted with the wonderful stories of heroes and warriors, travelers and sailors, that he almost felt himself in China. He read far into the night, with the lamp inside of his mosquito curtain; finally he fell asleep, still undressed, but with his head full of all sorts of Chinese wonders.

He dreamed he was far away in China, walking along the banks of the great Yellow River. Everything was very strange. The people talked an entirely different language from his own; had on different clothes; and, instead of the nice shaven head and top-knot of the Japanese, every one wore a queer long pigtail of hair, that dangled at his heels. Even the boats were of a strange form. Perched on projecting rails of the fishing smacks, sat rows of cormorants, each with a ring around his neck. Every few minutes one of them would dive under the water, and after a while come struggling up with a fish in its mouth, so big that the fishermen had to help the bird into the boat. The game was then flung into a basket, and the cormorant was treated to a slice of raw fish, by way of encouragement and to keep the bird from the bad habit of eating the live fish whole. This the ravenous creature would sometimes try to do, even though the ring was put around his neck to prevent it.

It was springtime, and the buds were just bursting into flower. The river was full of fish, especially of carp, ascending to the great rapids or cascades. Here the current ran at a prodigious rate of swiftness, and the waters rippled and boiled and roared with frightful noise. Yet, strange to say, many of the fish were swimming up the stream as if their lives depended on it. They leaped and floundered about, only to be tossed back and left exhausted in the river, where they panted and gasped for breath in the eddies at the side. Some were so bruised against the rocks that, after a few spasms, they floated white and stiff, on the water, dead, and were swept down the stream. Still the shoal leaped and strained every fin, until their scales flashed in the sun like a host of armored warriors in battle. The boy enjoying it as if it were a real conflict of wave and fishes, clapped his hands with delight.

"What is the name of this part of the river?" he asked of an old white-bearded sage standing by and looking on.

"We call it Dragons' Gate," said the sage.

"Will you please write the characters for it," said the boy producing his ink-case and brush-pen, with a roll of soft mulberry paper.

The sage wrote the two Chinese characters, meaning "The Gate of the Dragons," and turned away to watch a carp that seemed almost up into smooth water.

"Oh! I see," said the boy to himself. "There must be some meaning in this fish-climbing."

He went forward a few rods, to where the banks trended upward into high bluffs, crowned by towering firs, through the top branches of which fleecy white clouds sailed slowly along, so near the sky did the tree-tops seem. Down under the cliffs the river ran perfectly smooth, almost like a mirror, and broadened out to the opposite shore. Far back, along the current, he could still see the rapids shelving down. It was crowded at the bottom with leaping fish, whose numbers gradually thinned out toward the centre; while near the top, close to the edge of level water, one solitary fish, of powerful fin and tail, breasted the steep stream. Now a leap forward, then a slide backward, sometimes further to the rear than the next leap made up for, then steady progress, then a slip, but every moment nearer, until, clearing foam and ripple and spray at one bound, it passed the edge and swam happily in smooth water.

It was inside the Dragons' Gate!

Now came a wonderful thing. One of the fleecy white clouds suddenly left the host in the deep blue above, dipped down from the sky, and swirling round and round as if it were a water spout, scratched and frayed the edge of the water like a fisher's troll. The carp saw and darted toward it. In a moment the fish was transformed into a white Dragon, and, rising into the cloud, floated off toward heaven. A streak or two of red fire, a gleam of terrible eyes, and the flash of white scales were all that the bewildered lad saw. Then he awoke.

"How strange that a poor little carp, a common fish that lives in the river, should become a great white Dragon, and soar up into the sky, to live there!" he mused the next day, as he told his mother of his dream.

"Yes," said she; "and what a lesson for you. See how the carp persevered, leaping over all difficulties, never giving up till it became a Dragon. I hope my son will mount over all obstacles, and rise to honor and to high office under the Government."

"Oh! oh! now I see!" he cried. "That is what my teacher means when he says the students in Tokio have a proverb: 'I'm a fish to-day, but I hope to be a Dragon to-morrow,' and that's what father means when he says: 'That fish's son has become a white Dragon, while I am yet only a carp.'"

"You are right," replied his mother smiling; "and I hope you will be the big carp that becomes a Dragon."

So on the third day of the third month, at the Feast of Flags, the boy hoisted a great fish, made of paper, fifteen feet long and hollow like a bag. It was yellow, with black scales and streaks of gold, and red gills and mouth, in which two strong strings were fastened. It was lifted by a rope to the top of a high bamboo pole on the roof of the house. There the breeze caught it, and swelled it out round and full of air. The wind made the fins work, the tail flap, and the head tug, until it looked just like a carp trying to swim the rapids of the Yellow River—the symbol of ambition and perseverance to every one who beheld it.

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