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In ancient Chinese literature we find many fables. They have lived on for hundreds of years in men's hearts and, constantly on their lips, have become a precious part of our national heritage.
The golden age of Chinese fables was during the third and the fourth century B.C.
This was the era in Chinese history usually known as the Warring States Period, when society was undergoing rapid changes. Influenced by the spirit of the age, many different schools of thought flourished, resulting in great advances in culture and philosophy. The heritage of the past was studied, summarized, and recorded for posterity, and in these records some of the best and oldest fables were preserved.
Many works dating from the Warring States Period embody fables, outstanding examples being Lieh Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Mencius, Yin Wen Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, The Discourses of Lu Pu-wei and the Warring States Anecdotes.
During that period, fables proved extremely useful weapons in debate. Outstanding philosophers, politicians, or orators who wished to realize their ideals by political means, were expert in using them. Since they belonged to different schools of thought and had different political aims, there were constant clashes between them; therefore to gain their ends they made speeches, engaged in debates, and set down their views in writing. And, realizing that abstract ideas alone were not sufficient to defeat their rivals, they used fables to give substance to their thoughts and to prove the validity of their arguments. Thus most of the fables of the Warring States Period are interspersed among philosophic and political writings, which they illuminate.
This being the case, the fables of this period, whether written to elucidate certain ideas or to praise or censure specific actions, all have a definite purpose.
And yet, the ideas, characters and incidents in these fables have universal validity. For instance, when Mencius told the story of the chicken thief he had a particular example in mind, a certain minister of the state of Sung who would not put an end to unreasonable taxation; but the moral applies to all those who see their own mistakes yet refuse to mend their ways. Similarly, “The Fox Who Profited by the Tiger's Might” was used by Chiang Yi, a minister of the state of Chu, to criticize another minister. Later generations, however, have used this tale to describe those who rely on the power of others to oppress the people.
This collection of ancient fables, broadly speaking, consists of those which are still in current use today in China. They are only a fraction of those written during the Warring States Period. There are many other ancient fables, embedded in classical works, which have been forgotten, but those presented here have stood the test of time.