When the Lady Chang arrived in the city of Canton, she possessed nothing in the world but the clothes she was wearing, the jewels on her fingers, and most precious of all, her little son, Ko. Everything else – her husband, her fine home and all her servants, even the village in which she lived – had been washed away and lost forever in the great flood that had swept down upon them so suddenly.
The Lady Chang had one thing more, however, and that was her own brave spirit. She knew that she must now devote herself to the future and of little Ko, and never waste time in thinking of the past. “I will sell my jade ring,” she said,” and I will buy a small house, just large enough for two of us.”
She found a house which costs very little, for it was in a poor part of the city, near the rubbish dumps. Every morning the carts rumbled by, taking all the city rubbish to be burned and buried.
“I am lucky to have this small house,” the Lady Chang told herself. “I can clean my house in the morning: I can play, with my dear son, Ko, each afternoon; and in the evening, when he is asleep, I can weave and embroider. The cloth I make will sell easily, and so I shall be able to feed and clothe both Ko and myself.”
“Little Ko grew fast and was a great joy to her.
“What are you doing, my son?” asked his mother one day, as she turned from her weaving to catch him at play.
“I am the butcher, Mother,” laughed Ko. “I am working in the market. See how cleverly I kill this goat, and how I cut it up for customers.” And he raised his voice and shouted harshly as he had heard the butcher shouting each day in the market place.
The Lady Chang sighed. “Indeed, my son learns quickly. He should not be here to copy the ways of rough men. He should be learning to be a scholar as his father was.” She searched the city and found a house near the university.
“To live here will cost a great deal,” she thought. But she did not hesitate for long. She left their house near the market and sold her last ring of pearl and silver, and soon she and her son were living in their new house.
Now indeed, life was hard for the Lady Chang. In order to live and pay for Ko’s
schooling, she had to rise at dawn each day. She would clean her house, do the cooking, wash the clothes, and then work hard at her weaving until far into the night.
Ko learned quickly, and the Lady Chang often smiled as she wove the bright
threads and watched the cloth growing beneath her busy fingers.
“Ko will be a learned man,” she told herself proudly. “Already his teachers speak highly of him. He works so well that I care not that I must sit here weaving all day long.”
She threaded her loom with fine threads and began to weave a lovely pattern of gold and silver and scarlet.
Each day when Ko returned from his studies, he admired his mother’s work. “This is the most beautiful piece of cloth you have ever woven, Mother, he said one day. “Surely you will strain your eyes with such fine work.”
“Ah, my son,” she laughed, “this is to pay for you to be a wise and great man. My eyes are a poor price to pay for that.”
By this time Ko had grown to be a fine, tall lad. So easily and so well had he
learned his lessons that he began to grow proud and vain. “I know as much as any of the professors who try to teach me,” he said scornfully.
“That is boastful talk,” the Lady Chang reproved him. “You should learn
humility as well as knowledge from books, my son. You still have much to learn, I fear.”
A little later, however, Ko came home one day and threw his books on the table. “I have finished with schooling,” he said defiantly. “I am tired of learning. I know quite enough to earn my living.”
“Do not stop!” cried the Lady Chang. “You will be a wise and great man like your father, if you would only complete your studies.
“No, Mother,” declared Ko. “I mean what I say. I have finished with Learning.”
The Lady Chang did not argue with him. She reached across the table and got a sharp knife that lay there. Then, without a word, she slashed her weaving from the loom. The cloth fell, its gold and silver and scarlet in a tangled unfinished heap at her feet.
“Mother!” cried Ko in horror, “what have you done? All your hard work is wasted! If you had worked a little longer, this would have been a perfect piece of cloth. Now it is nothing but a half-finished rag.”
The Lady Chang looked at her son with grave eyes. “Son, you could have been a wise and great man,” she told him. “Now you will be little more than a peasant who toils in the fields or labors in the market place.”
Ko’s cheeks grew red as he looked again at his mother’s lovely work, ruined and unfinished. Then, he picked up his books. “I have learned a lesson, Mother,” he said in a low voice. “I will finish my studies. They’ll not be wasted. I may never be a great man, but I will try to be a wise one.”
The Lady Chang’s heart was filled with joy as she watched Ko return to his studies. She drew her seat close to the loom and began to pick up the threads once more. Many, many hours of hard work lay before her, but that which she had already done would not be wasted.
Ko indeed became a wise man, and great one. He was famous through all the land of China.
And now, when Chinese children are told tales of brave people in their country’s history, they listen to the story of the Lady Chang, who was not afraid to ruin her most perfect work in order to teach a lesson to her son.