Times Past

In the book ‘The Empty Pot,’ the art of trying and failing honestly is a valuable lesson

Ping shows his empty pot to the Emperor from Demi’s “The Empty Pot.”
Ping shows his empty pot to the Emperor from Demi’s “The Empty Pot.”

“The groundwork does not show til one day.”

Famed artist Corita Kent’s serigraph with the skeletal outline of a tree at the end of winter sits above our piano. It reminds us that trying to do our best, even in the dark of winter, will one day yield results.

Corita’s student at Immaculate Heart College, Demi, has written and illustrated more than 300 children’s books. My wife, Liz, introduced me to Demi’s The Empty Pot in 1990. Former First Lady Barbara Bush picked it to read on ABC Radio’s “Mrs. Bush’s Story Time.” The National Education Association (NEA) named The Empty Pot as one of the 100 best children’s books.

It’s the story of Ping, a young boy in ancient China with a magic touch for growing flowers. When the flower-loving Emperor calls all the children to the palace and gives a seed to each, he proclaims:

“Whoever can show me their best in a year’s time will succeed me to the throne.”

At the end of the year, Ping is distraught. His father consoles him, saying, “You did your best, and your best is good enough to present to the Emperor.”

As the children line up at the Imperial Palace with beautiful plants, Ping must show the Emperor an empty pot.

When the Emperor questions him, Ping starts to cry. “I planted the seed you gave me, and I watered it every day, but it didn’t sprout. I put it in a better pot with better soil, but still it didn’t sprout! I tended it all year long, but nothing grew. So today I had to bring an empty pot without a flower. It was the best I could do.”

The Emperor, smiling, put his arm around Ping. “I have found him! I have found the one person worthy of being Emperor!”

The Emperor turned to the other children. “Where you got your seeds from, I do not know. For the seeds I gave you have been cooked. So, it was impossible for them to grow.”

Ping’s courage in bring “the empty truth” won the day!

The Chinese morality tale struck a chord with me. In complex times, it’s important to do one’s best, and if your efforts fail, acknowledge the empty truth of that approach, and discern another path.

In 2001, I spoke at Cal Poly’s spring commencement in honor of the university s centennial. Poly was close to being shut down at three points in its history. Campus leaders had to do their best and find new paths to the future. I told the story of Demi’s hero, Ping, as an example of dealing honestly with clear failure.

Demi’s sequel to The Empty Pot, The Greatest Power, speaks to how Emperor Ping seeks to bring the harmony of the heavens to his Kingdom.

For 51 years, Liz has been giving me great children’s books. Some are just fun.

Many hold profound wisdom. You can fulfill your heart’s desire of both children’s and adult books among the carefully organized books at the Friends of the SLO Library’s mammoth book sale. It’s March 1-3 at the Veterans Hall on Grand Ave. on from 6-9 p.m. Thursday (members only, with memberships sold at the door), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Ping’s honesty and loyalty in The Empty Pot are characteristic of many people born in the Year of the Dog. You can join Cal Poly’s Chinese Students Association at its 61st Chinese New Year Banquet on March 3 at Chumash Auditorium from 6-9pm.

Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and food is served at 6:30. There will be traditional food, the Lion Dance, Martial Arts, Wushu Taichi and the play, “The Great Dog Detective.” Open to the public, it’s ideal for children. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Reservations are essential. Call Juliana Yee at 805-229-1983 or email calpolycsa@gmail.com for reservations.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.