The story of the empty pot and the subtle violence of storytelling
by Andreas Mauz
[This article posted on 7/8/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Die Geschichte vom leeren Topf und die subtile Gewalt des Erzählens.]
We love stories, and we also love them because we already know them. The successful wisdom tale “The Empty Pot” can be used to make clear which deep structures are responsible for this. But its example can also be used to show that we must be attentive to the price that the fulfillment of these structures can have.
Humans – the storytelling animal – have the beautiful ability to be particularly enthusiastic about some stories. This enthusiasm is demonstrated, for example, by his desire to share his reading experience with others, by his insistent promotion of a reading of the story in question. In an educational context, such recommendations then sound like this, for example: “This book deserves a 5-star rating, it offers an entertaining read that does not overtly lecture or moralize, it tells the truth, embodies quality, and shows originality. Use this book to teach integrity. A good lesson for the whole class!” Then, when you learn that the book in question not only belongs in the “Children’s Choice” of the “International Literacy Association,” it is also “an American Bookseller ‘Pick of the Lists,'” you will no longer hesitate and want to read it for yourself.
The story to which the cited praise is directed is the wisdom-filled tale The Empty Pot (1990) by the multi-award-winning U.S. children’s book author and illustrator Demi (Charlotte Dumaresq Hunt, b. 1942). I would like to demonstrate two things with the impressively illustrated story of the empty pot, whose material is based on a Chinese folk tale: On the one hand, this story exemplifies what it is about storytelling itself that excites us so much. On the other hand, the story gives reason to think about the general due date of narrative criticism: a way of dealing with narratives that asks about the conditions of their functioning and, if necessary, also raises objections against them.
“Long ago …”
The story is conveyed by a narrator whose tone closely matches Thomas Mann’s terse talk of the “murmuring conjurer of the imperfect.” The plot of the Empty Pot is also – as Mann writes with reference to the Zauberberg novel – “as it were already completely covered with historical noble rust and must necessarily be presented in the tense of the deepest past.” The narrative world opens as follows: “A long time ago, there lived in China a boy named Ping. He loved flowers. Whatever he planted began to bloom: his flowers, shrubs, and even large fruit trees grew as if by magic!”
Now Ping’s green thumb is not an insignificant skill in China, because – the story continues – everyone in the empire loves flowers, including and especially the emperor. But the emperor is an old man, and since he has no children, he must find a successor. This problem is now to be solved via a competition: Every child in the empire gets a seed, and whoever grows the most beautiful flower within a year will be named successor. Ping, of course, is very eager to participate. He knows his chances are good. He fills a pot with good soil and waters it daily. But the seed does not want to sprout. Ping is understandably desperate. So he chooses a bigger pot, different soil, and waters and waits patiently. But again nothing happens; the seed does not want to sprout, the pot remains empty. It is different with the other children: Their pots are magnificently filled. Finally, the day approaches when the flowers are to be presented to the emperor. Ping does not know what to do, and he is mocked.
“His clever friend walked by, holding a large plant in his hand. ‘Ping!” he said. ‘You don’t really want to go to the emperor with an empty pot, do you?’ […] – ‘I have grown many flowers better than yours,’ Ping said. ‘It’s just this seed that won’t grow.’ Ping’s father heard this and said, ‘You have done your best, and your best is good enough to show the emperor.'”
Ping follows his father’s advice and goes to the palace with his empty pot. There the emperor looks at the many flowers, walks back and forth, but is strangely silent. Finally, he comes to Ping, who keeps his head down, expecting to be punished. But no:
“The emperor asked, ‘Why did you bring an empty pot?’ Ping began to cry and replied, ‘I planted the seed you gave me and watered it every day, but it didn’t sprout.’ […] So today I had to bring an empty pot without a flower. That was the best thing I could do.’
When the emperor heard these words, a smile slowly spread across his face, and he put his arm around Ping. Then he called out to everyone, ‘I have found the one person worthy to be emperor!’
‘Where you got your seeds from, I do not know. For the seeds I had given you had all been cooked. They could not germinate. I admire Ping’s great courage in coming before me with the empty truth. Now I reward him and make him emperor!'”
The narrative DNA of history
So much for the story, so much for its much-appreciated lesson. So what can be learned about the practice of storytelling from the example of The Empty Pot? Against the background of elementary insights of narrative theory, what can be said about Demi’s successful book?
The most important feature of this approach, as in scholarship in general, is abstraction. Narratology’s attention is focused on capturing general properties of narrative communication. It asks less about the surface, about Little Red Riding Hood and the course of the encounter with the wolf. It looks for the characteristics that regulate this story as well as others: How does the narrator’s perspective interact with those of the characters? (The narrator of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, for example, stands outside the narrated world himself; but he knows what is going on in the characters). How are the speech or thoughts of the characters represented – in direct speech or superimposed by the narrator’s speech? And how is the temporal order represented against the background of general models?
The repertoire of general narrative research also includes the basic question of why something is narrated at all, what gives certain events their worthiness of narration. And the most general answer to this question is: because we are our story, because identity is always also narratively composed. In the pithy words of Odo Marquard (Narrare necesse est, 1999):
“Every person is who he is …; and who he is more precisely, only stories ever say: […] Little Red Riding Hood is the one who was eaten by the wolf; Odysseus is the one who took twenty years to return home from Troy. […] If Little Red Riding Hood had reached her grandmother without a wolf, if Odysseus had come home quickly without incident, these would not have been – real – stories. […] It is only when an unforeseen incident befalls a course of events regulated by natural law or a planned action that they must be told and can only be told […].”
For our case we can add: If the emperor has a child, he is not that emperor, and his story is not worth telling; then no succession problem arises. And we would probably not want to read the story if what Ping hopes happens: he comes to the emperor with the most beautiful flower and becomes his successor. For a “real” story, “something” must come in between: There needs to be a conflict, a task that sets the situation in motion.
We tell ourselves the same stories over and over again, and we love them because we already know them.
If we now follow this track, it becomes clear that stories – as far as their deep structures are concerned, their narrative “DNA” – are similar to an astonishing degree. To put it bluntly: We tell ourselves the same stories over and over again, and we love them because we already know them. Accordingly, the Russian folklore researcher Vladimir Propp was able to make an astonishing observation in the 1920s in a study of the genre of the magic fairy tale: If one abstracts from the colorful narrative surface, these texts can be reduced to a simple basic structure: The magic fairy tale lives from 31 “functions” that obey a certain sequence. One function would be, for example, the introduction of a defect or the violation of a prohibition; another would be the assignment of the hero to eliminate this evil. The regulated sequence of the functions emerges from the last one in each case: the hero/heroine is rewarded, he/she marries or receives a high reputation, for instance – as in Demi’s case – by ascending the throne. The 31 functions need not all be verifiable in every fairy tale, but they can be assigned to seven constant “circles of action”, which in turn belong to a certain “actant” – for instance to the “hero”, the “antagonist”, the “victim” or the “helper”. Seen in this way, various fairy tales can be traced back to more general structures: Whether the hero fights with the dragon or plays cards with the devil is secondary insofar as both realize the function “hero and antagonist enter into a direct duel.”
Beginning – Middle – End
Propp’s investigation was concerned with only one genre. As later research has shown, however, his observations can be effortlessly applied to other source types, and indeed to narrative itself, through further abstraction. If we look generously at Propp’s seven circles of action, they also coincide with the simplest structural model known since antiquity, which has only been unfolded with varying degrees of precision and given different terminology since then: The archetypal story has three acts, or – according to Aristotle – it has a beginning, a middle and an end. John Yorke (TV producer at the BBC and author of one of the most successful books on screenwriting) describes this structure in terms of (1.) set up, (2.) confrontation, and (3.) resolution. The transition between these acts is marked in each case by a “turning point.” “Inciting incident” transitions the first act into the second, “The Crisis” transitions the second into the third. Let’s apply this scheme to our story.
Act 1: The set up introduces the hero Ping. The “Inciting incident” (as the first “Turning point”) is that the old emperor must find a successor. Act 2: The confrontation takes the form of the competition, Ping must prove his green thumb in competition with the other children. “The antagonist” here is thus a collective subject: Ping against the many others. The “Crisis” (as the second “Turning point”) consists in the unsuccessful attempt to make the seed germinate. Ping must now decide: Does he drop out of the competition? Does he bring the empty pot to the emperor? Mediated through the father’s helper figure, he makes a decision: he stays in the competition and goes to the palace. Act 3: The resolution is based on the imperial information that the seed could not have sprouted at all. This makes it clear: Ping is the only child who has kept the rules of the game – he brings the “empty truth” in the “empty pot” – which qualifies him to be the heir to the throne.
Becoming capable of criticism
So the scheme is fulfilled in this case as well. But what now? This brief narrative analysis provides a good basis for thinking in a second direction: that of narrative criticism. If you use the available theories to understand how the story is structured, you will have understood it better. And to understand better always means to become capable of criticism. On this track we get a different view of the story, which takes away from it – what will perhaps be a disappointment – some of its wise glamor.
History “works”, as is shown not least by its great success. But what is the price of this functioning?
Let’s look at the figure of the emperor. He has a problem to solve, and he succeeds. Through the flower contest, he identifies the only child who has the moral qualifications to succeed him. The positive quality that is highlighted here is honesty, in which Ping remains even. The high price for this doctrine lies first in the fact that the emperor, in order to make his honesty test, must leave even this same moral category. The competition has a double bottom, after all: The seeds have been prepared, they cannot germinate; the real competition is not for the most beautiful flower, but for the morally sovereign handling of the empty pot. When it is said at the introduction of the competition that “because the emperor loved flowers so much, he decided to let the flowers choose,” this turns out in retrospect to be a feint – also narratively. For the narrator initially hides the character’s actual intention. But when honesty is seen as a virtue and is full-bodiedly put forth as the doctrine of the Empty Pot, one inevitably has to face a familiar dilemma: Must there necessarily be a correspondence between means and ends? Is it legitimate in itself to be dishonest in order to test honesty? Is it in this case, when the leadership of a country is at stake? Or is the duplicity particularly reprehensible just then?
But narrative criticism must go further. The story, in order to be just so tellable, must create other conditions that further increase the price of literary construction. I name two of them.
First, the chosen fulfillment of the basic school-like structure lives from the fact that Ping is the only child who does not cheat; if a second one came to the farm with an empty pot, it would collapse. Then there would be another story, perhaps about a second contest to determine the winner. Also conceivable would be the alternative course, which would be about a change in the order of rule, namely the replacement of imperial autocracy by co-emperorship. But the original story chooses a maximally radicalized quantity ratio: All other children – that is: all children of the Chinese empire – choose the way of deception. This, too, can be seen critically. In order to create a particularly heroic hero, the story has to accept a conception of man that assumes a natural inclination towards less noble deeds. However, the split social unity of the children is fleshed out even further. Ping is not mocked by just any child, but, as it is explicitly stated, by a “clever friend.” As the basically positive characterization of the friend as “clever” shows, the narrator, out of strategic calculation – we still know nothing of the emperor’s trick – again makes himself his accomplice.
Second, the chosen fulfillment of the scheme thrives on the fact that Ping has a reliable moral compass in his father. The narrative dynamics suggest that Ping’s decision-and thus his overcoming of the “Crisis”-was motivated by his vote: “You did your best, and your best is good enough.” What was the case at the level of the children is thus repeated at the level of the adults. The father is also the one exception to the rule: all the other parents (who, after all, could not have escaped failure because of the nature of the competition) at least did not discourage their children from trying to cheat, if not encouraged them to do so.
It seems to me that The Empty Pot is nevertheless a very good story. Good it is, however, in a double sense. On the one hand, it does indeed convey in an appealing way key social virtues: honesty, but also the will to do one’s best – and, more difficult, to stand by that best even when it not only falls short of one’s own expectations but also provokes ridicule from others. On the other hand, the story is also good because it is easy to show that its success is tied to well-rehearsed narrative schemes. These schemes, as well as the manner of their fulfillment (or non-fulfillment), always deserve our attention and, on a case-by-case basis, our criticism. Narrative theory offers a variety of tools for performing both tasks. But even without such tools, the simple strategy of retelling or even retelling a particular story can help us gain crucial insights and productively change the way we look at the original.
Demi: The Empty Pot. New York 1990 (translation by Andreas Mauz).
Vladimir Propp: Morphology of the Fairy Tale. Munich 1972.
John Yorke: Into the Woods. How stories work and why we tell them. London 2014.
*1973, is a literary scholar and theologian and part of the Neue Wege editorial team.