2 Ancient Chinese Brainteasers

Tiny white flowers in Spring in front of scrolls with Chinese characters written on them.

Try answering these perplexing questions and see if you are as clever as these people from ancient China. (Image: Matt Photo via Dreamstime)

Are you as clever as these people from ancient China? The following stories raise some perplexing questions. See if you can unravel these brainteasers.

Confucius examines Xiang Tuo

In the Spring and Autumn period (around 770 to 476 B.C.), Confucius and his students once went out for a ride in a carriage. They saw many children playing along the roadside. However, one boy named Xiang Tuo had built a fortress made of soil in the middle of the road. Other children dispersed when they saw the carriage approaching them, but Xiang Tuo sat unmoved in the middle of his fortress.

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Confucius stepped off the carriage and asked why he didn’t move to avoid them.

Xiang Tuo responded: “I have only heard of carriages going around a fortress. But I have never heard of demolishing a fortress to let the carriage pass by.”

The boy told Confucius that people never demolished a fortress to let carriages pass by, so Confucius presented him with several brainteasers.
The boy told Confucius that people never demolished a fortress to let carriages pass by. (Image: Panya Khamtuy via Dreamstime)

After listening to his response, Confucius decided to put him to the test with several Chinese brainteasers.

Confucius asked him: “Since you know so much, what kind of mound has no rocks? What kind of water body has no fish? What kind of carriage has no wheels? What kind of cow does not give birth to a calf? What kind of horse does not give birth to a foal? What kind of fire has no smoke? What kind of man does not have a wife? What kind of woman does not have a husband? Which days are short? Which days are long? What kind of tree has no branches? What kind of city has no officials? What kind of person does not have an epithet?”

The young boy answered: “There are no stones on a mound of dirt. There are no fish in a well. There are no wheels on a palanquin. A clay cow cannot give birth to a calf. A wooden horse cannot give birth to a foal. There is no smoke in the ‘fire’ of a firefly. The gods don’t have wives. The fairies don’t have husbands. Days are short in the winter. Days are long in the summer. Dead trees have no branches. An empty city has no officials. Children don’t have epithets.”

After that, Confucius treated Xiang Tuo as if he were a respected teacher for solving his brainteasers with such ease. 

A Chinese doctor’s unique way of treating patients

An official who lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) became seriously ill and could not eat, so he asked Hua Tuo, a famous Chinese physician, to treat him. After feeling the official’s pulse, Hua Tuo did not prescribe any medication or use acupuncture to treat him. He just quietly left.

Chinese herbs, a pot, a mortar and pestle, and paper packets tied with string sit on a wooden surface.
Hua Tuo did not prescribe any medication or use acupuncture to treat him. He just quietly left. (Image: HongChan001 via Dreamstime)

The man thought that perhaps he was not a good host, so he quickly sent gifts and invited Hua Tuo to a banquet. Hua Tuo accepted the gifts and enjoyed the banquet, but he still didn’t prescribe any medicine.

Ten days later, the official sent his son to look for Hua Tuo, but Hua Tuo had already left. He did leave behind a letter though. It said: “Shameless official living in this world!”

The official recovered from his illness after reading the letter. How was that possible?

After reading the letter, the official was furious and shouted: “I’m going to catch him and kill him!” His men split into two groups and chased after Hua Tuo for two hours, but they failed to catch him.

The official was anxious and angry. He hyperventilated and coughed up black blood and felt better afterwards.

Hua Tuo came back the next day and returned the gifts. He told the official: “You’re illness is gone.” It turned out Hua Tuo used this indirect method to make the man spit out the blood clot. Chinese brainteasers came in all forms.

Translated by Elaine

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