Me-Lin and the Magic Paint Brush
Chinese Folktale retold by Marilyn Kinsella
Long ago in China, a land of immense wealth and dire poverty, there lived a poor orphan boy named Me-Lin. I say he was poor because he had to gather sticks to sell at the market each and every day to get enough money to buy a cup of noodles. And, at night? Well, he had to sleep in the doorways of the village homes to try and keep warm. But, even though he was poor, he was also rich. You see, even as a young boy, he knew what he wanted to be…an artist. He knew this because, to Me-Lin, everything was art – the blue-green sound of the nightingale, the sculptures in the clouds, the very wind brushing his face. Yes, he wanted to be an artist. Every day, after he gathered a bundle of sticks he went to a special place in the woods. There was clear lake where a silvery fish swam just below the surface. Me-Lin drew that fish on the sandy beach down to the last silvery scale. He drew birds and flowers and trees, but when he came back the next day, the lake waters had swept his palette clean. Oh, how he wished to be a real artist.
But, in China, to be an artist meant that you had to spend years studying with a master artist. This took dedication and…money. Me-Lin had the dedication, but he had no money. Then, one day, word spread throughout his village that a famous master artist was going to set up an artist’s school. Me-Lin was so excited. He went to the see the artist. He bowed low. "Master, I wish to be an artist. I have no money, but I will work for you…cleaning the studio or gathering firewood."
"What!" cried the artist, "you expect me to let you learn from me when you cannot pay? Other children’s parents spend a lot of money to have me teach them. If I want my studio cleaned or need firewood, I will hire someone to do so. Now, go away!"
Me-Lin left with a heavy heart, but not ready to give up. He went into the forest to gather his bundle of sticks to sell, and then to his special place by the lake. When he saw the silvery fish, a smile came across his face. "I see you have come to have me draw your picture." He picked up a stick and once again began to draw. But, he was so tired from the day that he sat down under the cherry tree to rest. Before he knew it, he was sound asleep.
Me-Lin always had such beautiful, colorful dreams. He went on great adventures. But, this time he had an unusual dream. He dreamt that he was sitting under the cherry tree looking out over the lake, when he saw and old man coming his direction. The man wore a beautiful teal green robe with a white obi. He long white hair and beard. When he came near, he acted as if he knew Me-Lin, for he called him by his name, "Me-Lin, I have been watching you for a long time. You come to this place to practice becoming an artist. You are dedicated and you are of pure heart. Therefore, I am going to give you something."
With that the old man reached into the fold of his enormous sleeves and brought out a beautiful paintbrush. It seemed to glimmer in the old man’s hands. "Me-Lin, I have been waiting for someone I could trust. You see, this is no ordinary paintbrush. Whatever you choose to paint will come to be. However, this brush must only be used to help yourself and others in what they need. It must never be used for selfish reasons. Do you understand?" Me-Lin nodded as he reached for the brush.
"Ahhh!" suddenly Me-Lin was awake! Such a dream…it was so real he turned to look for the old man, but no one was there. Then, he looked down at his hand…and there was the magic brush! It wasn’t a dream after all. It was real.
Me-Lin quickly picked up his bundle of sticks and brought them into the village. But, this time, instead of buying a cup of rice, he bought rice paper and ink. He took this back to the lake where he drew his favorite subject – the silvery fish. When he finished putting on the last silvery scale the fish jumped out of the picture and into Me-Lin’s waiting arms. And, don’t you know that Me-Lin ate well that night.
After that, whenever Me-Lin was hungry for eggs, he drew a hen that would lay eggs. Whenever he wanted to cook, he drew fire. When he needed a place to live, he drew a modest cottage right there next to the lake. But, Me-Lin never forgot what the master artist told him in the dream…to use the brush to help others.
One day, he went into the village to see how he could help. When he saw the elders doing the backbreaking work of walking miles to bring water, he built a well in the middle of the village. When he saw a mother that had no money to buy medicine for her sick daughter, he painted plants and herbs that popped out of the picture, so the mother could mix medicine and make her daughter better. When he saw a farmer with a yolk around his neck, he painted two oxen who fairly jumped out of the picture and onto the field.
Word spread throughout the village of the great power of Me-Lin’s brush. Many people came to ask for a favor. And, if it was something that was needed, Me-Lin was always happy to help. But, if it were for some selfish "want." Me-Lin graciously declined.
Soon, word of the magic brush spread to other villages as well, and then it spread all the way to emperor’s palace. Now, the Emperor was not a good man. The people feared his wrath. When he heard of Me-Lin, he sent his soldiers to bring him to the court.
The emperor was a wicked looking man. He wore black silk robes – as black as his long hair and mustache – as black as his heart. Me Lin came into the court and bowed low. "Me-Lin, I have heard that you have a special brush. I have heard that whatever you paint comes to life. Is this true?"
Me-Lin dared not look into the evil eyes of the emperor, yet he knew he must tell the truth. "Yes, your majesty, I have been given a special gift. I must use this brush to help others."
"Well, then Me-Lin, you can help me!" bellowed the emperor. "I want you to draw me a special picture. I want you to draw a mountain of gold and a golden eagle flying around it."
Now, Me-Lin dared to look up. "But, your majesty, I fail to see how drawing you a mountain of gold and a golden eagle would help anyone."
"Insolent fool! But, he realized that the brush would only work in the hands of Me-Lin, So he said, "Me-Lin, my dear boy, I was hasty in my judgment. I realize now, like you do, that this brush must only be used for good. Is that right, Me-Lin?"
Me-Lin slowly nodded his head. "So, Me-Lin, I would like to do something good for my people. I want you to draw an ocean. An ocean would be a good thing. The people will be able to fish and swim and go for long walks. Isn’t that a good idea, Me-Lin?"
Me-Lin could not think of any reason why an ocean would be a bad thing, and it would be for the people. "Yes," he said, "an ocean would be a good thing."
"I thought so," said the emperor, "now come over here. Your paper and paints await you."
Me-Lin took his brush and dipped them into the rich colors. He painted the blues and greens and purples of the seas. He drew the swirling of the waves and the sparkles of the sunlight. When he was finished with the last drop of color, the ocean flowed out of the picture and onto the land. It was indeed a thing of beauty.
The emperor put his arm around Me-Lin. "Look! Look what we have done. The people will be so happy. But, you know what would make them even happier, Me-Lin? A boat! Yes, a beautiful boat that will take them out to sea to fish and to trade. Isn’t that a good thing, Me-Lin?"
Me-Lin had an uneasy feeling, but he could think of no reason why having a boat was bad. So, he agreed. He took the richest oak and mahogany and began to paint. It was a big boat elegantly trimmed. He was just about finished when the emperor said, "Oh, Me-Lin, this is such a beautiful boat, the people will be so happy, but do you know what would make it even more beautiful? Sails! Red, silk sails and a gold trim around the edges. Oh, just think how the people will so happy to see such a boat!"
Me-Lin took the reds and golds and painted them on the boat. And, when the last stroke left his hand, the boat sailed out of the picture and onto the ocean.
Then the emperor laughed…a deep and evil laugh. "Oh, Me-Lin, you are such a simple fool! Now, I will take my army and we will sail to other lands. We will conquer them and bring back their riches and make slaves of the people. And all because of you, Me-Lin!"
"No, no! I was told to use this brush only for good."
But the emperor only laughed as he ordered his soldiers to put on their armor and prepare their weapons. They marched proudly down to the boat. But, the day was calm and the boat would not sail. The emperor sent word to Me-Lin that he must draw the wind to fill the sails.
When the messenger told Me-Lin, he sadly went over to begin to draw. He drew a gentle breeze that ruffled the curtains, he drew a strong wind that filled the red sails, and when the boat was safely out to sea, he drew a mighty wind…a wind that bellowed and tore at the sails, a wind that heaved the ocean waters onto the boat, a wind that carried the emperor and his army to the depths of the ocean floor.
When the people realized that the emperor would not be returning, they came to Me-Lin and said, "Me-Lin, you have delivered us from the hands of the evil emperor. You are a young man of pure heart and we wish for you to be our ruler."
But, Me-Lin just shook his head. "I am happy to have helped, but I am not a ruler of a country, I am an artist. Surely, there is someone trustworthy that will make you a good ruler and look out for the people. But, as for me, I must go."
Me-Lin left and went back to his cottage by the lake where he became a teacher. It was said, that if you were pure of heart, Me-Lin would teach you everything he knew about being an artist. Even to this day, if you visit China, you will see his cottage still full of the beautiful flowers, birds and animals that he drew so long ago. And, if you stay overnight in the cottage and have a pure heart, they say you will have a dream. In that dream Me-Lin will give you a special brush. Then, if you are a true artist - a musician, a dancer, a storyteller… your art…will come to life.