Ancient Chinese Feats of Strength

Written by the apocryphal Taoist philosopher Liezi, between 400 B.C. and 300 A.D.

The Earl of Kung-yi was famous among the rulers of the states for his strength. The Duke of T’ang-hsi mentioned him to King Hsuan of Chou, who invited him to court with the highest honors. When the Earl of Kung-yi arrived, the King examined his physique and found him a puny fellow. He was puzzled and asked doubtfully:

“How strong are you?”

“Your servant is strong enough to snap the leg of a grasshopper in spring and to pierce the wing of a cicada in autumn.”

Chang Tao-ling

“My strong men,” said the King, looking displeased, “can rip the hide of a rhinoceros, and drag nine oxen by the tail, but it still irks me that they are too weak. How it is that you are famous for your strength throughout the world?”

The Earl of Kung-yi breathed a long sigh, withdrew from his mat, and answered:

“Your Majesty has asked an excellent question! I will venture to present you with the facts. I had a teacher named Shang-sh’iu-tzu, whose strength was unrivalled throughout the world; but his own kin did not know about it, because he never used his strength. I braved death in his service, and he told me:

Other men wish to see the invisible;
Look at the things which others ignore.
Other men wish to seize the unattainable,
Be expert in the things which others will not do.

“So a man who is learning to use his eyes should begin by seeing a cartload of firewood; a man who is learning to use his ears should begin by heading the clang of bells. Whenever there is ease within there are no difficulties outside. The strong man meets no outside difficulties, so none but his own family hear of him.

“Now if my name is famous among the rulers of the states, it is not because I have disobeyed my master’s teaching and disclosed my ability. However, I am famous, not because I am proud of my strength, but because I am able to use my strength. Isn’t this better than being proud of my strength?”

What do you think is the moral of this story?


  1. Gosh I love Laozi. I take this story in the same vein as Bruce Lee’s comment about board breaking: “That’ll come in real handy whenever I get attacked by boards.”

  2. Jay, this particular story was written by Liezi (Lieh Tzu), not Laozi (Lao Tzu).

  3. Be useful. Be practical. Be rooted in what is, rather than what could be, should be, would be…In short, live in the present.

  4. “It’s not the size of the tool, but how you use it.”

    Although, I must say that this saying isn’t often applied towards martial arts.

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