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The Snake Catcher

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

    The rural area near Yong-zhou City produces a strange snake. The snake is black with white stripes. If it touches trees or grasses, they die. There is no antidote for the snakebite. However, if anyone can catch it and dry it, it can be used as a good medicine: it can cure leprosy, palsy, tumor and skin ulcers, help regenerate flesh and kill evil spirits 1. The royal physicians collect them upon the emperor's order. The city sends the snakes to the palace twice a year. The mayor recruits anyone who can catch these snakes. The snakes can be used to pay off taxes. Therefore, the people of Yong-zhou City are all out to acquire the snakes.

    The Jiang family made a living for three generations by catching these snakes. When I asked Jiang about the danger, he replied, "My grandfather died from a snakebite, as did my father. Several times I have almost been killed by snakes." When he said this, he looked sad. I sympathized with him, so I said, "If the risk is that high, I will tell the official in charge to change your job and reinstate your requirement to pay taxes." Jiang became very upset, his eyes welled with tears, and he said, "You are sorry for me and want me to live by giving me this advice. Actually, it is much worse to pay taxes than to catch deadly snakes. If I had failed to hold this job, I would have been in trouble for a long time. It has been 60 years since my grandfather came to live in this village. During this time, the life of my family's neighbors become more and more troubled. They took all that the land could produce, and gather as much as income they could, but still could not survive. They cried for help and moved frequently to a poorer neighborhood. They were hungry and thirsty, and lived a miserable life. They braved wind and rain, suffered chill and heatstroke, breathed miasma, and died quickly like flies. The corpses were piled like mountains. Out of ten families who live in the same village as my grandfather, only one family survived. Out of ten families who lived in the same village as my father, only two or three families survived. They either died or moved. I alone could survive here because I made a living by catching snakes. The ruthless tax collectors came to our village. They shouted from east to west, and harassed people from south to north. Their uproar scared people. Even dogs and fowl were not left in peace. In contrast, I rose whenever I felt comfortable. As long as I saw a snake in the earthen jar, I would sleep restfully. All I needed to do is to attentively feed the snake and send it to the city at the proper time. Then I could enjoy my farm life. In other words, I may risk my life twice a year, but the rest of the time I feel peaceful and happy. However, my neighbors have nightmares everyday. If I were to die from a snakebite, I would die much later than my neighbors. How can I complain?"

I felt more upset after listening to his story. Confucius said, "Tyranny is more ferocious than a tiger." I used to doubt it. In view of Jiang's story, I was convinced that the levy of heavy taxes is more poisonous than a snakebite. I wrote this story for a sociologistís reference.

1 Taoists said, "There are three evil spirits living in a human body. They appear in the form of worms. White-worm Spirit lives in the head. Green-worm Spirit lives in the stomach. Bloody-worm Spirit lives in feet."