By the yellow waters of the great river Yangtze River lived a good woman who had five sons, the five brothers Li. They were called Li the First, Li the Second, Li the Third, Li the Fourth, and Li the Fifth. These brothers looked so much alike that their mother could hardly tell them apart, yet each had a special gift that was not shared by the others. Li the First could drink the whole sea at a gulp and spout it forth again in a gushing torrent. Li the Second could not be burnt by fire. Li the Third could make his legs grow as long as he wanted. Li the Fourth had a body as hard as steel. And the youngest of the brothers, Li the Fifth, understood the languages of all the animals, birds, and fishes as well as he understood his own Chinese mother-tongue.
The brothers were the best of friends. Li the First caught fishes, Li the Second stoked the fire with his hands, Li the Third and Li the Fourth worked in the fields, while Li the Fifth looked after the sheep and the geese.
One day a high-ranking mandarin came to hunt by the waters of the Yangtze River. A little shepherd-boy sat at the edge of a wood, tending a flock of sheep and four geese: this was Li the Fifth. Beside him lay a beautiful spotted mountain goat, sunning itself peacefully and without a shadow of fear. Quick as lightning the wicked mandarin drew his bow and took careful aim at the little goat as it lay blinking its eyes lazily in the sun. Suddenly Li saw the mandarin and leapt to his feet, shouting to the goat to run, and it disappeared into the wood with one bound. Next moment a stag came through the trees, and Li yelled to it in deer language, ‘Quick! Run away and save yourself!’ And the great stag vanished like a flash.
Li was glad that he had been able to help his woodland friends, but the mandarin, once he had got over his astonishment, was furious. Livid with rage, he ordered his servants to seize Li. He was dragged to the city, where he was flung into a cage with a hungry tiger. The mandarin had expected the tiger to tear the miserable shepherd-boy limb from limb, but Li spoke to the beast in tiger language and it drew in its claws immediately. It allowed Li to pat it and to scratch it behind its ears and soon it was purring loudly, just like a big cat.
The mandarin’s fury knew no bounds, and he ordered his men to take Li away and chop off his head.
While Li the Fifth sat in prison awaiting his execution, Li the Fourth crept quietly in and changed places with him. You will remember that Li the Fourth’s body was as hard as steel. The two brothers looked so much alike, that not one of the mandarin’s men noticed the change which had taken place.
Next morning Li the Fourth was led out to be executed. The executioner raised his sword high above his head and brought it down with terrific force on Li’s neck. The sword was razor-sharp and of the highest quality, but it split into a thousand fragments on Li’s neck, which was of course as hard as steel.
The fearsome mandarin grew angrier than ever, and ordered his men to hurl Li over a high cliff. During the night, however, Li the Third – the Li who could make his legs as long as he wanted – changed places with Li the Fourth, and once again no one noticed the difference.
At first light on the following morning Li was taken up to the top of a high cliff. The mandarin’s men seized him by his hands and feet and hurled him out into space, but Li simply stretched out his legs until he felt firm ground beneath the soles of his feet, leaving his head level with the top of the cliff where his tormenters stood.
By this time the mandarin was foaming at the mouth with rage. He retired into his palace, and issued orders that Li should be burnt alive. A massive stake was driven into the ground in the palace courtyard, and a great pile of wood was heaped up round it. The courtyard was surrounded with a powerful armed guard, and people came running from all over the city in order to see Li burnt at the stake.
But Li the Second – the one who could not be burnt -managed to slip into the palace dungeon and change places with his long-legged brother just before the mandarin gave the order for the prisoner to be brought out and tied to the stake.
As soon as he was bound fast the executioners poured oil on the wood and set light to it. The flames crept higher and higher and clouds of smoke filled the air. Nothing could be seen of the unhappy boy tied to the stake in the midst of the smoke and flames, and many of the tenderhearted onlookers began to cry, they were so sorry for him.
In time the pile of wood was burnt up, the smoke died down, and the flames dwindled to a ruddy glow amongst the embers, and in the middle stood Li, still bound to the stake but unharmed and grinning from ear to ear!
The mandarin almost choked with rage. ‘What can I do with this scoundrel ?’ he exclaimed. This cannot go on! It is ridiculous that I, a high and mighty mandarin, cannot deal with a common shepherd-boy!’
He thought things over, and ordered his men to tie an enormous boulder round Li’s neck, take him out to sea in a ship, and throw him overboard.
The prison where Li awaited his fate was heavily guarded, but at the last moment Li the First – the Li who could drink the sea dry at a single gulp – managed to slip in and change places with his brother.
Early next morning Li was led aboard a ship, and the mandarin followed in a second ship with his entire court.
As soon as they were in the middle of the ocean an enormous boulder was tied round Li’s neck, and at a sign from the cruel mandarin he was heaved overboard into the waves.
Li sank below the surface, and at once began to drink. It was not long before the mandarin noticed that the sea was becoming shallower, and he began to quake with fear. Soon the ship settled on the muddy ocean bed and heeled over on its side as the last of the sea-water disappeared, flinging the mandarin overboard.
Li untied the boulder from his neck and walked quietly to the shore, leaving the mandarin and his entire court floundering in the mud and slime. In no time the ocean waters were gushing out of Li’s mouth to fill up the sea again.
The hard-hearted mandarin and his men-at-arms were all drowned, for they were stuck fast in the muddy bed of the ocean. But all the people of that land were delighted to be free of the wicked tyrant, and sang grateful songs of praise to the five victorious brothers Li.