Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Body stories

Only a week to go. The Olympics are about to begin, London is getting ever more crowded and already it’s becoming quite a bodily skill to manoeuvre a way through the crowds. Meantime, newspapers and TV are full of the physical skills of the athletes. There’s also lots about the psychology of competing and the determination and persistence involved in increasing bodily prowess, let alone the mental skills required to stay focused and cool. It’s absorbing.

I won’t be going to the games myself. I’ll be watching on TV at home while devoting my mind to thinking about physical skills and bodily parts. For that’s my theme for the next few weeks.

I’m starting today with one of my favourite stories. I call it Five Chinese Brothers. It’s a marvellous story for adults to tell and children to hear. Like the extendable legs in the story, it somehow seems able to stretch up the age-range from children of about five years old to children of eleven or twelve. And as you’ll see when you read the story, extendable legs are just one of the story’s magical powers. But first, here’s a bit of background about how I first came to hear this tale.

Five Chinese Brothers – some background

I first heard the story from Beulah Candappa, the inspirational storyteller from Burma who was one of the first full-time storytellers I got to know in London during the 1980s when storytelling as an art was reviving.

Beulah was the daughter of a headteacher and chieftain. She’d turned from teaching to full-time storytelling because she so strongly believed in the necessity for people to have stories. Stories had been part of her own life since childhood. She was generous in the way she shared them. Always calm and serene in her manner, she would carry with her baskets of fascinating folk objects and set these out in the course of her tellings, creating a wonderful theatre of the imagination.

Beulah has influenced me a lot. Once in a conversation on the phone, she memorably described storytelling to me as ‘the art of time and silence’. And when she wrote a piece for the booklet that accompanied By Word of Mouth, my Channel 4 TV series on storytelling that was shown in 1990, it was enticingly entitled, A Crackle of Excitement.

That’s Beulah – a wonderful combination of quiet serenity and an electric buzz of excitement. I think of her whenever I think of this tale, which I’ve probably adapted in various ways in the course of dozens of tellings over the years.

Five Chinese Brothers – the story

Once there were five Chinese brothers. They lived together outside a small village. They were identical to each other – which means you couldn’t tell them apart. And each of them had an amazing power.

The first brother had the power to suck in the ocean and hold it in his mouth for a long, long time.

The second brother had extendable legs.

The third brother had an iron neck. You could not cut it.

The fourth brother could not be burned.

The fifth brother could hold his breath indefinitely – which means for ever.

In the same village as the five Chinese brothers, there also lived a little boy who had no home and no parents.

One day, the first Chinese brother was going down to the sea to test out his skill when he saw that little boy who was all alone and who had nothing to do. The first Chinese brother asked him: ‘Do you want to come with me and play by the sea?’

‘Oh yes please,’ the little boy said.

When they got down to the sea, the first Chinese brother got ready to try out his magic trick. But first he told the little boy, with actions to show what he meant: ‘If ever I gesture to you to come to my side you must do so at once.’

Then while the little boy sat down on the sand, for he didn’t know how children play, the first Chinese brother sucked in the whole ocean. The little boy was amazed when he saw everything that had been under the water – the shells and seaweeds and tiny little creatures – and as he rushed off to collect up some things, he didn’t see that the first Chinese brother was desperately waving to him to come to his side. For by now the brother was no longer able to hold the sea in his mouth: he just had to let it out. And when he did – alas and alack! – the little boy was carried off on a wave

The first brother felt terribly sad and guilty. He had lost that little boy! And a few days later, when the villagers noticed that the little boy was missing, they stopped him as he went through the streets and told him he would have to be punished. He would have to lose his life in payment for losing that little boy and how he would lose it would be by drowning.

The first Chinese brother bowed his head. Then he asked the villagers: ‘But please will you let me go home first to say goodbye to my brothers?’

The villagers agreed. The brother went home and told his brothers what had happened.

‘No, no,’ said the second brother. ‘You stay home. I’ll go.’

So the first brother stayed home and the second went to the village. When he got there, the villagers told him they were going to take him to the big lake nearby. When they got him there, they put him into a boat, rowed out to the middle of the water and pushed him into the water.

But of course he didn’t drown. His head kept bobbing above the water because his legs had extended, getting longer and longer, so that his feet were now standing on the ground at the bottom of the lake. The villagers couldn’t see that. They were very surprised.

‘Well,’ they said. If we can’t drown you, we’ll have to do something else. You will have to be burned to death.’

The second brother bowed his head. ‘May I go home first to say goodbye to my brothers?’

The villagers agreed and off he went. When he told his brothers how he was going to have his head cut off, the third brother said: ‘No, no! You stay home. I’ll go.’

So the third brother went to the village where, by now, a huge chopping block and an axe had been got ready. But when the axe was brought down on the third brother’s neck, nothing happened except for a great big clang. However they tried, the villagers could not cut off his head.

Once more, the villagers had to think of something else. They told the third brother that he would have to be burnt and, like his two brothers before him, he asked if he could go home first.

At home, the fourth brother said, ‘No, no! You stay home. I’ll go.’

So the fourth brother went to the village. When he got there, he saw that an enormous bonfire that had been piled up with a pole in the middle. The villagers pushed him up onto the huge pile of wood, tied him to the pole and started the fire. But the brother didn’t burn.

By now the villagers were extremely puzzled. ‘We can’t drown you. We can’t cut off your head. We can’t burn you. We’ll have to try to suffocate you to death,’ they said. But of course the fourth brother asked if he could go home first.

At home, the fifth brother said exactly the same as the others. ‘No, no! You stay home. I’ll go.’

Back in the village, the fifth brother saw an iron safe. The villagers immediately pushed him into the safe and told him he’d have to stay locked up inside until the air had run out and he was dead. A whole day went by and then a whole night. And then another and another. But inside the iron safe the brother was not upset. Instead, he kept holding his breath. For of course, though the villagers did not know it, he could hold his breath indefinitely.

When the villagers at last opened the safe, the fifth brother came out smiling. The villagers were so amazed by now, they thought they might have been wrong in what they were doing. If their punishments weren’t working, maybe there had been no crime! So they told the fifth brother he could go free.

When the fifth brother got home, all the brothers rejoiced. And in the middle of the rejoicing, the first brother told them that he had been making a plan. Maybe if he went down to the sea and tried out his magic power again, perhaps that little boy might come back.

So that is what he did. And when the ocean returned at the end of his trick, on the top of a wave came that little boy.

The little boy was happy. He’d had a marvellous time. He’d travelled right over the ocean. And he became even happier when the first brother said, ‘Please will you come and live with me and my brothers?’

And that is exactly what happened. I’ve even heard that, as the little boy grew up, the five Chinese brothers passed on to him all their different magic powers. So in the end, he didn’t only have five brothers. He had all their powers too. And if there’d been an Olympics in his village, he would probably have won all the different competitions.

Why I think  children love this story:

Children love it when it dawns on them what’s happening – that the villagers are mistaking all the other brothers for the first one.

Children love thinking about what they might see under the ocean if all the water went out.

Children don’t seem to mind the gruesomeness of the punishments – they just love realising that every single time there’s another, it ‘s going to be avoided.

Children love the repetition – ‘No, no!  You stay home. I’ll go.’

Children love it that the little boy in the story gets a home in the end.

P.S. And that’s one reason why I use the pincushion I’ve pictured in my illustrations as a way of starting the story. It has six figures in it and by the time the tale has ended, the children realise that that’s just right for the story.

P.P.S. There are probably dozens of variations on this tale. For instance, Margaret Mahy’s picture-book, The Seven Chinese Brothers, has two extra brothers with two extra powers.

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