February 22, 2012


It was almost a year ago when I sent up a trial balloon.  Its results have been so gratifying that this week I am launching a second.  If such stand-alone nuggets of wisdom that have stood the test of time prove to be popular (judging by reader-response relayed back to me), I will make them a regular feature in this blog series.



(Adapted from Chinese by Tess White)


Li Tao sat in his garden watching the rising sun.  His yellow eyes watered at the sight of such brilliance.  He meditated on the constancy of the heavenly ball of fire which he used these many decades for his inspiration.


In all the provinces, it was said, there was not elsewhere to be found so just a sage, so wise a judge.  The perplexed, the unhappy, the disgruntled sought out his counsel and he found his Hours of Sun Journey crowded with the woes of others.  This counsel he gave gladly, for had he not studied and meditated many years to cultivate the wisdom and patience for such a task?


His servant removed the rice bowl and the fragile tea cup and announced his first visitor.  Po Ming, the perfumer, entered.


“How comes it, Po Ming, that you leave off the gathering of dew-filled blossoms on this bright day to speak with me?”


Po Ming bowed thrice to the ground, spread out his hands with a gesture of sorrow and said:


“Sage, today I seek advice. I am indeed troubled.  The princess who dwells in the Yellow Palace by the East Gate has commissioned me to perfect for her a perfume entirely new and rare and not like unto anything she ever has tried.  It cannot be, sire, for I have supplied her each day with a different scent—as far back as the memory goes—and I know no others.  I fear her wrath.  What shall I do?”


Li Tao sat in deep silence for a minute and then questioned:


“Is she the one with the countenance like the reflection one sees in the glass after eating unripe fruit?  The face made ugly by discontent?”

Po Ming nodded.


Li Tao gazed for a moment at his inspiration, now mounting rapidly into the sky, and said slowly:


“I know of one very rare scent, but in its application special care must be taken.”


Po Ming entreated anxiously, “But tell me, master, and I shall deliver it to her before the noon hour and avoid her ire.”


Li Tao pondered, then took his brush, dipped it in the ink, and wrote with flourishing strokes.


“These are the instructions for use,” he said, rolling up the scroll.  “I shall give you a sample of the perfume, too.  Guard it very carefully.  It is very precious, but I keep it for such needs.”


He clapped his hands and his servant slipped noiselessly out from behind the foliage.


“Bring me,” said the Sage, “a vial of the perfume of happiness for my friend.”


At noon that day Po Ming was ushered into the presence of the princess.  She sat like an ugly goddess on her throne.  No look but that of discontent crossed her countenance while she waited for Po Ming to speak.


“Most gracious highness,” he said, after his bowing was over, “I present a very different essence today.  In order to render this essence of effect (he was reading from the opened scroll) it is needful for the user to smile and do each day a task which he has hithertofore considered unpleasant.  Then, and then only, will the rare vapor be perceived.  Used daily, and the wearer is surrounded with happy friends, breathing and living in its atmosphere and unable to tear themselves away from the user.”


She listened to him, nodded, and questioned him in detail as to what might constitute an unselfish act.  Never had it crossed her mind to do tasks which might be distasteful to her.  Such had been her nature that her own pleasure constituted the very law of her being.


Ten days passed, and Po Ming again sought audience with Li Tao.  The perfumer radiated joy as he told of the delight of the princess who did kind deeds daily and that friends crowded about her for the first time in her life.


What, then, is the secret of the essence?” he inquired of the Sage.


Li Tao smiled a slow smile and answered, “My son, I have known all the while that the princess can smell nothing.  An infirmity several years ago destroyed that sense, but her vanity has not suffered her to let it be known.  The daily order for a new perfume was but one of her ways of showing authority and demanding attention.  Her sour soul did not improve so long as she spent her days pleasing only herself.  The essence I gave you was water from yonder brook and the recipe of its application with good deeds was my idea of helping the princess.”



He closed his eyes and said, half to himself and half to Po Ming, “Happiness is life’s rarest perfume—and its essence lies in helping others.”


Published in St. Nicholas Magazine, October 1939.  Original published text from the library of Joseph Leininger Wheeler.

Published in: on February 22, 2012 at 8:32 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh, very good, my friend! I know several uses for this story!

  2. Sobering and thought provoking. Keep the blogs coming. They are a nice visit with you and everything we encounter changes us, even if it is only a new thought or idea, it makes us different.

  3. A most interesting story. I so much enjoy your blogs each week. They are an anticipated treat for the middle of the week.

    • Always good to hear from you. Glad you’re enjoying the blogs. JW

  4. Muy interesante historia Joe. No se donde encuentras tantas historias raras y bellas.

  5. Oh, very thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thank you for sharing this story. I will tuck it away in my story-nook in my head, for I know it will be just the perfect one for some time in the future.

  7. The old saying, “people who are all wrapped up in themselves make poor packages.” is true. When we put others above ourselves and seek to help those who are less fortunate than we, we will find peace and true happiness.

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