“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
This legend, the foolish old man moved the mountain 愚公移山, was recorded in the ancient book Lie Zi “列子” which was written by a philosopher named Lie Yu Kou 列御寇 during the 5th or 6th century. Once there were two huge, lofty mountains named Taihang 太行 and Wangwu 王屋, located south of Jizhou 冀州 and north of the Yellow River 黃河. Yugong 愚公 (literally foolish old man), around ninety years-old, lived in a house north of the two mountains. He and his family as well as other village dwellers were greatly inconvenienced by the mountains which blocked their way of travelling south. They had to walk a remarkably lengthy distance around the mountains.
After years of tiresomeness in trekking around the mountains, Yugong gathered his family one day to discuss a solution. He proposed that together they could level the mountains, establishing a direct route to the south of Yuzhou 豫州 and reaching the bank of the Han River 漢水. All the family members enthusiastically endorsed his plan except his wife. She scorned at him stating that being an old frail man he could not even level a small hill like Kuifu 魁父, let alone the majestic Taihang and Wangwu mountains. Moreover, she questioned where they would dump those rocks, stones, soil and dirt they dug up. Everybody said that they would carry them to the shore of Bo Sea 渤海. The following day, Yugong, his sons and grandsons initiated the laborious project, painstakingly excavated masses of soil, broke up large rocks, and carried them in baskets to the shore of Bo Sea. They worked daily incessantly rain or shine.
Zhisou 智叟 (literally wise old man), learning about Yugong’s most challenging endeavor, attempted to dissuade him from undertaking what he thought was an unreachable goal and an impossible dream. He ridiculed Yugong that he was neither intelligent nor rational; with his advanced age and poor health, he could not even get rid of a blade of grass on the hill, and how he could remove those heavy rocks and soil from the two mountains. Yugong sighed and asserted that Zhisou was obstinate and inflexible. He stated that after his death, his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on, generations after generations, and eventually his descendants would level the two mountains in the distant future. Besides, the mountains would never increase their heights. The sage old man was humbled and did not utter another word.
The mountain deity 山神, worrying that Yugong and his descendants would ultimately level the mountains, informed the Heavenly Emperor 天帝 regarding the incident. Profoundly impressed by Yugong’s determination, fortitude and endurance, the Heavenly Emperor commanded the two sons of Kua’ershi , a deity of great strength 大力神誇娥氏 to transport the two mountains; one mountain was relocated to east of Shuofang 朔方, the other to south of Yongzhou雍州. Since then, there are no mountains located between south of Jizhou 冀州 and the Han River 漢水, hindering the travelers. 愚公移山不怕難, 堅強毅力可移山; 世世代代相繼下, 終把高山變平坦。
The moral of this idiom 愚公移山 and its legend depict that the highly esteemed virtues of determination, perseverance, dedication and hard work assure achievable goals and successes. It is comparable to other idioms, such as where there’s a will, there’s a way 有志竟成; nothing is impossible for a willing heart; dripping water can eat through stones 滴水穿石; and an iron rod can be ground down to become a needle 磨杵成針. Denis Waitley once said, “Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the road blocks that lay before you.” The Heavenly Emperor was moved by Yugong’s unyielding determination and perseverance; he compassionately assisted him to remove the mountains. “God helps those who help themselves” is a famed adage that accentuates the significance of self-initiative. This anecdote also exemplifies the traditional Chinese culture of emphasizing on tenacity and hard work; particularly the Chinese from decades ago who often encountered many obstacles in their lives. President John Quincy Adams wrote, “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”