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The Arborist, Humpback Guo

Liu, Zong-yuan (773 A.D.-819 A.D.)

    We do not know Humpback Guo's original name. Because he was deformed, he walked bent over low like a camel with a raised hump. Consequently, the villagers called him Humpback. After he heard his nickname, he said, "Great! Humpback is a suitable name for me." Therefore, he abandoned his own name and called himself Humpback.

    He was born in Feng-le 1 Village, in the west part of Chang-an City. He made a living by planting trees. In Chang-an City, fruit sellers or the rich people who tried to beautify their garden, all competed for his service with excellent offers. The trees he planted or transplanted all lived. They would grow large and luxuriantly and produce more fruit earlier. Although other arborists secretly observed him planting trees and tried to imitate his method, still no one could equal his talents.

    A man questioned Humpback about his secrets of planting trees. He replied, "I cannot make a tree live longer and grow up. All I can do is develop a tree's potential by acting according to the tree's nature. Thus, the roots should be spread out and covered with old soil. Fertilizer should be distributed evenly. After the tree is planted, the top soil should be packed. Then the tree should be left alone. In other words, after I leave the tree, I do not return to look at it. When I plant a tree, I treat it like my son. After I plant the tree, I put it aside as if I am discarding it. Then the tree's nature is protected and its potential can develop. All I do is help avoid stunting its growth. I do not have the ability to make it grow tall and abundant. All I do is not hinder the growth of its fruit. I do not have the ability to make the tree bear fruit earlier and make the bounty more plentiful. Other arborists plant trees differently. When they plant a tree, they bend the roots like a fist and fail to leave old soil on the roots. When they feed the tree, they add either too much or too little fertilizer. Even if they can correct their problems, they dote on the tree too much and worry about it too often. They constantly watch it and stroke it. After leaving the tree, they return and want to do something more to it. They scratch its bark to check if the tree is alive. They shake its roots to check if the soil is properly packed. By their interference, the spirit of the tree is driven away. Although they claim they love the tree, they actually damage it. Although they claim they worry about the tree, they actually act like its enemy. Therefore, their trees do not grow as well as mine. I have no special talent in planting trees."

    The same man questioned again, "Is it possible to apply your method of planting trees to politics?" Humpback answered, "I only know how to plant trees. Politics is not my specialty. However, while I live in the village, I see that the officials love to give orders. It seems that they sympathize with people's ignorance, but the orders actually become disasters for the people. The officials constantly come to say, 'We urge you to cultivate, encourage you to plant, and will assist you with your harvest. You should reel silk and weave cloth early. You should provide for your children and attend your livestock.' They beat drums to gather people and strike wood to summon them. Even if we do not take meals, we still cannot find enough time for ourselves simply because we have to respond to these officials. How can we find peace and prosperity? Therefore, we are sick and tired. Is such an interference similar to the improper way of growing trees?"

    After listening to Humpback's words, the man who had questioned him smiled and said, "I have learned to govern people by asking about growing trees." I wrote this story as a cautionary tale for a government.

1 In Chinese, "Feng" means "plentiful"; "le" means "happy".