The Magic Brush

Retold by Rose Owens


            Long ago in China, so long ago that if I had been there then I would not be here now, there lived an orphan boy named Ma Lien.  Ma Lien lived in a small hut at the edge of the forest.  Every day Ma Lien would gather wood in the forest and sell it at the market to buy food.  There was never any extra money but he managed to get by.

            A famous artist came to the village.  "If you pay me," he said to the villagers, "I will teach your sons how to paint."  And so an art school was begun.

            Within Ma Lien's heart was a dream.  He wanted to draw and paint.  If he could paint, he would be able to paint the beauty that he saw: the graceful birds, the sleek, shimmering fish, the trees, the forest creatures.  

            Ma Lien had a plan.  He went to the famous artist.  "Honored artist," he said.  I would learn to paint.  I have no money but I will gather wood for your fire.  I will clean your house.  I will cook your food."

            The artist was insulted.  "Go away," he said.  "I do not teach poor orphan boys."

            Ma Lien refused to give up.  He lingered near the open door and listened to the art lesson.  The artist saw him and chased him away.  So Ma Lien climbed the tree outside the artist's home.  This was even better.  Now he could both hear and see.  But Ma Lien leaned over too far and fell noisily to the ground.  "Go away!" said the angry artist.  "It is stealing to take lessons that you have not paid for!" 

            Ma Lien's head hung low as he returned to the forest.  His heart was heavy and full of sorrow.  He sat in the dust near a small pool.  How could he ever achieve his dream if he could not have lessons?  Was this the end of his dream?

            But the dream within Ma Lien's heart would not die.  Within himself, Ma Lien felt a determination.  "I will learn to paint," he said.  "I will teach myself." 

            So Ma Lien knelt down by the pool and smoothed a place in the dust.  Taking a stick, he began to draw the fish that he saw in the pool.   Day after day Ma Lien looked carefully at the beauty around him.  Day by day he drew pictures in the dust by the pool.  Day by day his pictures became more lifelike, more beautiful, more real.  The animals in the forest gathered near to watch Ma Lien draw.  And when Ma Lien left a picture in the dust, the animals carefully walked around his pictures that they might keep the beauty of them.

            Every morning Ma Lien got up very early in order to have enough time to gather firewood and still have time to draw.  One day he was so tired that he fell asleep by the side of the pool.  An old Chinese gentleman came into his dream.  He was wearing a long green brocade robe.  His hair and beard were white.   In his hand the old gentleman carried a golden brush.

            "Ma Lien," he said, "you have desired to paint.  That is good.  You have been diligent in your practicing.  That is good.  Use this brush to paint.  But promise me that you will paint for the good of the people."

            In his dream Ma Lien took the brush and promised.   Then he awoke.  He yawned and stretched.  "What a queer drea....."  With wonderment, Ma Lien looked at the golden brush that he held in his hand.

            That day Ma Lien took his bundle of wood to the market and sold it.  But instead of buying food, he bought ink and rice paper.  This day he would go hungry but he would paint!  He hurried home and spread the rice paper out on the table.  He dipped his brush into the ink.

            "What shall I paint first?"   He decided to paint a fish, the first thing he had ever drawn.  His fingers were sure as he painted the fins, the scales, the tail.  For had he not practiced these strokes over and over again in the dust by the pond?  As Mai Lien finished the last stroke on the tail, the fish slid off the paper and into a bowl of water.  For the magic of the brush was that whenever Ma Lien finished the last stroke, his painting would come to life.

Ma Lien had fish for dinner that night.  Ma Lien found that his life was better with the magic brush.  He painted chickens that laid eggs.  He painted fish and other food to eat.  Life was good. 

But as Ma Lien wandered through the village, he remembered the words of the old gentleman, ". . .paint for the good of the people."  Ma Lien saw the people carrying heavy buckets of water from the river.  He painted a well with cool, fresh water.  He saw a farmer pulling a plow through the hard earth.  Ma Lien painted a water buffalo to pull the plow.  Life became better for all the people in the village.

Now when something remarkable happens, it doesn’t take long for word of it to spread.  In the next village over, they said, "Have you heard of Ma Lien and his magic brush?  Whatever he paints becomes real."  And in the next village over, they said, "Have you heard of Ma Lien. . . . ."  

And soon the Emperor himself heard of Ma Lien and his magic brush.  "Send for Ma Lien," he ordered.  "Ma Lien should paint only for me."

Ma Lien did not want to go to the Imperial City.  But no one says “No” to the Emperor.  So Ma Lien went to the palace.  When he arrived, Ma Lien bowed low before the emperor. 

"Ma Lien," said the Emperor.   "I want you to paint me a mountain of gold and a golden dragon."

Ma Lien's heart was anxious.   He was worried.  He bowed low and replied, "Your Excellency,  I have promised the old gentleman who gave me this brush that I would use it for the good of the people.  I am sorry, but I cannot see that a mountain of gold or a golden dragon would be for the good of the people."

The Emperor was furious!  He seized the golden brush and had Ma Lien cast into prison.  "I will paint for myself!" he said.  And dipping the brush into the ink, he began to paint a dragon.   He was not pleased with the picture that began to appear on the paper for his hands were unskilled and angry.  A heart that is greedy and angry cannot produce beauty.  "Perhaps it will look better when it is done," he muttered. 

As the last stroke was finished, a strange creature hopped off the paper.  It looked more like a stunted rooster than a dragon.  It gave a queer squawk, pecked the Emperor on the nose and ran into the forest.

Then the Emperor knew that he needed Ma Lien.  He sent for him.  "Ma Lien," he said.  "I was wrong.  Of course you must paint for the good of the people."  He gave the golden brush back to Ma Lien.  "I have been thinking," said the Emperor, "that my people work hard.  Would it not be for the good of the people if there were an ocean here?  At the end of a long day, they could walk along the shore and listen to the soothing sound of the waves?"

"Yes," Ma Lien thought.  "An ocean would be for the good of the people."  But he did not completely believe that the Emperor had changed.  The

words that came out of the Emperor’s mouth were correct but the Emperor could not conceal the greedy glint in his eyes. 

Ma Lien bowed low, dipped his brush in the ink and began to paint.  He painted the swirling waters of the ocean, the rise and fall of the waves, the white foam as the waves broke upon the shore.  And when he finished the last stroke, the ocean rolled off the paper.  The people walked along the shore and listened to the murmur and crash of the waves.   And it was for the good of the people.

"Ma Lien," said the Emperor, "my people are hungry.   There are fish in the ocean.  Would it not be for the good of the people if they had a boat so they could catch fish and be hungry no more?"

Ma Lien thought about the fish.  Yes, a boat would be for the good of the people.  So he picked up his brush and began to paint.   But he still did not trust the greedy emperor.  Stroke by stroke, the boat began to take shape.

"Ma Lien," said the Emperor, "my people need beauty.  Give the boat red silk sails.   Put gold trim on it."

Ma Lien painted the red silk sails and the golden trim.  As the last stroke was finished, the boat slid off the paper and into the ocean.  There it was, gently rocking back and forth in the waves.  The Emperor and his couriers hurried on board.  The boat rocked gently back and forth, back and forth.

"Ma Lien," called the Emperor, "paint me a wind.   Paint me a big wind!"

Ma Lien began to paint.  He painted the swirling, angry winds.  He painted a veritable storm.  As he finished the last stroke, the wind whooshed off the paper and through the air.  As it passed over the ocean, it caught the red satin sails of the boat, carrying it so far out to sea that neither the boat nor the Emperor and his couriers were ever seen again.

Then the people needed a new Emperor.  They asked Ma Lien to be their new Emperor. 

"No," he said, "let me go back to my village."   And he did.

And if you should happen to go to China and travel through the countryside, you may find a certain small village.  At the edge of the forest you may see a small hut surrounded by a peaceful garden.  Graceful birds alight in the trees to sing beautiful songs and shimmering fish swim in the pool.  Should you ever happen to see this hut, you will know that you have found the hut of Ma Lien where he lives in peace and harmony and paints for the good of the people.


Copyright 1999 Rose Owens


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