Good Stories from China: Concern Over Loss and Gain

June 30, 2007 Updated: June 30, 2007

Once upon a time there was a masterly archer called Houyi. He trained hard and developed superior marksmanship of piercing a poplar twig from one hundred paces away. He could shoot with great precision while standing, on his knee, or on horseback. All his arrows hit the bull's eye; he just about never missed. People heaped praises about his superior marksmanship with great admiration.

The King of Xia heard about this consummate archer's marksmanship. In fact, he had watched him perform before, and was highly appreciative of his skill. One day, King Xia wanted to summon Houyi to the palace to demonstrate his skill to the king alone, so the King could heartily enjoy his marksmanship that had reached perfection.

So King Xia gave order to fetch Houyi and bring him to an open space in the imperial garden. He also had people brought in a one-square-foot target with a bull's eye about an inch in diameter made of animal skin. The King pointed at it and said to Houyi, “Today you have been invited to come and demonstrate your exquisite skill using this target. In order not to let this exhibition become dull for lack of competition, let me set the penalty and prize: if you hit the bull's eye, I will reward you with ten thousand liang of golad.[1] If you miss it, then I will decrease your fief by one thousand households' entitlement. Now please begin.”

After Houyi heard what King Xia said, he didn't say a word and his facial expression turned somber. He walked slowly to the spot one hundred paces from the target; his footsteps seemed very heavy. Then he took out an arrow to load the bow, assumed the proper stance, and drew the bow to aim.

Upon thinking about the possible outcome of this one shooting, the confident Houyi started to breathe fast. The drawing hand also started to tremble. After taking several aims at the target, he failed to release the string. Finally he made up his mind to release the string; the arrow shot out as expected, but nailed onto a point several inches from the bull's eye. Houyi turned pale in a flash. He loaded the bow again, but he couldn't concentrate, and the arrow shot further away from the mark.

Houyi gathered up his bow and arrows, and managed to bid farewell to the King with a reluctant smile, then left the imperial palace mad at himself. In disappointment, King Xia was unable to hide his bewilderment, he asked his subordinate, “Why did this accomplished archer who usually shoots with uncanny accuracy, perform below par today when penalties and awards are involved?”

The subordinate explained, “Usually, when Houyi shoots, it is nothing more than regular shooting practice. With a normal state of mind, his skill can be brought into play normally. But today the outcome of his shooting is directly related to his vital interests, how could he calm down to fully display his skill? It seems that only when one can truly put aside the consideration of loss and gain, can one deserve the title of consummate archer.”

Note [1]: One liang equals 50 gram.