The good life

I came across this story while reading the Liaozhai 聊斋

The Loyal Mouse

According to Yang Tianyi, once he saw two mice coming out of a hole. One was swallowed by a snake. The other stared at the snake with its small, prickly ash-like eyes, looking very angry. However, it could only stare from a distance, not dar­ing to go near. Feeling quite full, the snake meandered into its own hole. When half its body was in, the other mouse darted forward and caught the snake’s tail with its teeth. Infuriated, the snake withdrew from the hole. The mouse, quick and ag­ile as they all were, whizzed away and disappeared out of sight. Unable to catch up with it, the snake returned. Again, as soon as it entered the hole, the mouse appeared and held on to its tail as before. This was repeated many times, the mouse appearing as soon as the snake went in, and scurrying off as soon as the snake came out. Finally, having no other choice, the snake crawled out and spit the mouse it had swallowed out onto the ground. The other mouse came over, sniffed it and squeaked, as if in mourning, then hoisting the dead mouse with his teeth, he left. My friend, Zhang Liyou wrote a poem about this which he entitled, The Loyal Mouse.

It reminded me right away of the story of Klieobis and Biton This was a story Herodotus told about two young men who, when their mother could not find any oxen to tow her cart to a festival, yoked themselves to the cart and hauled her until they collapsed from exhaustion and died. Herodotus’s point was that you can’t really judge a person’s life until you see their death. What does it matter to pile up treasure on this earth if you dishonor yourself in death. For me at least, this is a pretty odd story, since for us moderns the purpose of life, if it has any, lies it what you can achieve and experience while alive. Leaving a good-looking corpse is not what most of us live for.

In the Liaozhai story we go even beyond dying well to being mourned and buried in a proper fashion. I like to think I do well by my friends, and who knows, maybe if they were attacked by a snake big enough to swallow them whole I might try to save them, if I thought there was some chance they might still be alive. Attacking a giant snake to get them a proper burial? Probably not. For this to work as a modern story the mouse would have to be spat out alive. This was not the case in the original Red Riding Hood, nor in China, where apparently ritual mattered.


  1. This isn’t really apropos of Alan’s post, but I was just browsing through some bookstores here in London and noticed that a new translation of the Liaozhai zhiyi by John Minford, under the title “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” has just been published as a Penguin Classic. According to Amazon it doesn’t come out until October, but I saw it with my own eyes. Anyhow, I can’t speak to the quality of the translation itself, or compare it to existing versions, but the fact that it is published in such a popular and widely-available series should certainly increase its readership.

  2. interesting story,reminded me when i was a child, i had to recite some articles from this book or my teacher would make me to copy these paragraphs 🙂

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