What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient

What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient

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These Oriental fables by Russian great Vlas Doroshevich are unexpected, exciting, colourful and tremendously readable. Doroshevich could not stand tyranny in any form and used his tales to mock and accuse the rich and the powerful for their wickedness, hypocrisy and stupidity. The themes within will ring large with the anti-establishment and ‘Occupy’ movements of today. Doroshevich’s works were often banned during Tsarist times and then finally banned completely under the Bolsheviks. This great Russian writer, a friend of Chekhov, is only now being resurrected from oblivion. This is the first English translation of his Tales.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9785717201209
Publisher: Glas
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Series: New Russian Writing , #53
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 463 KB

About the Author

Vlas Doroshevich (1864-1922) enjoyed the reputation of the “king of journalists” in his time. He was also a successful novelist, drama critic, and short story writer of world renown. He had a warm heart, a sharp mind, and a brilliant style which made him immensely popular both in Russia and abroad.
Doroshevich was born in Ryazan province into a wealthy upper class family, but his mother was disinherited by her family for marrying Vlas's father, an unsuccessful writer who died shortly before Vlas was born.
When Vlas was six months old his mother who was struggling financially, abandoned him and he was adopted by a childless couple by the name of Doroshevich.
At the age of sixteen Vlas withdrew from school and left home. After a short spell as a laborer he found work as a proof-reader and actor. During the 1880s he became a skillful journalist and critic, writing for the major papers, which also employed the young Anton Chekhov. In 1893 he moved to Odessa to work as a reporter for the Odessa Chronicle. In 1897 he traveled to Sakhalin as part of a larger international assignment. He recorded his experiences and impressions in his book "Sakhalin" (published in English translation by the Anthem Press as Russia's Penal Colony in the Far East.) From 1902 to 1918 he was the editor of the major paper Russian Word raising its circulation to one million. His travels in the East produced a book called Legends and Fairy Tales of the Orient. His best known work, The Way of the Cross (1915) is an account of the refugees from the German invasion of Russia during the First World War, in August and September of 1915.
Even though he was rich, Doroshevich welcomed the Russian Socialist Revolution of 1917. However, the censorship of the Soviets turned out to be no less strict than the Tsarist censorship. Doroshevich could not stand tyranny in any form and in his fairy tales, he availed himself of complete freedom to mock, to despise, and to accuse the strong and the rich for their wickedness, hypocrisy, and stupidity.

Read an Excerpt


Chinese Tales

What the Emperor Cannot Do

From the Hundred Golden Fairy Tales read to the future Emperor in childhood

The Omnipotent Emperor saw all kinds of people at court, mostly clever and cunning people. One day he had a wish to see happy people as well. "I am the sun that gilds only the tops of the mountains while the rays never reach the valleys," he said to himself, whereupon he ordered his Master of Ceremonies to bring him a list of officials of the lowest grade.

The Master of Ceremonies brought him 666 scrolls, each one 66 cubits long, hardly enough for all the names.

"Goodness!" said the Emperor. "There are so many of them!" And pointing to the name of Tun Li, a mandarin of the 48 class, he said to his Master of Ceremonies, "Find out what kind of a man he is!"

The orders of the Emperor were always carried out immediately. Therefore, before the Emperor could count to 10,000, the Master of Ceremonies returned and, bowing low, said, "This is your old servant, O Omnipotent Son of Heaven. He is an honest and meek official, a good husband and father. He lives happily with his wife and he has raised his daughter in piety and diligent work."

"Let joy be his fate!" said the Emperor. "I want to bring him bliss with the look of my eyes. Go and tell him that on the first day of the new moon he can present himself to me with his entire family."

"He will die of happiness!" exclaimed the Master of Ceremonies.

"Let us hope that this will not happen," smiled the good Emperor. "Go and carry out my order."

When the Master of Ceremonies returned to the palace the Emperor asked:

"And what did he say?"

"Your sacred wish has been fulfilled, O Omnipotent Son of Heaven!" said the Master of Ceremonies, prostrating himself before the Emperor. "Your gracious command was conveyed to Tun Li with a roar of drums, the sounds of pipes, and the people's praise for your wisdom!"

"And what did Tun Li say?" asked the Emperor.

"He seemed to become insane with happiness. Never has the world seen such mad joy!" was the reply.

The appointed day for Tun Li to present himself and his family to the Emperor was approaching too slowly — as is always the case when something is eagerly awaited — and the Emperor was becoming impatient. He wanted to look at the happy man as soon as possible, so one evening he dressed himself as a simple coolie and, accompanied by an escort, he went to the outskirts of Peking where Tun Li lived. Even from a great distance one could hear the shouting coming from the house of Tun Li.

"Do they exult so loudly?" asked the Emperor, and joy filled his heart.

"O you," cried Tun Li, "most miserable of all women, most contemptible of all beings on whom the sun ever shone! I curse the day when I decided to marry you. Truly evil dragons put the idea into my head!"

"For 300 moons we have lived as husband and wife," said Tun Li's tearful wife, "and never have I heard such curses. You always said I was a kind, good and loyal wife. You praised me."

"Yes! But we did not have to be presented to the Emperor!" Tun Li fumed. "You will cover me with shame. You will make me a laughingstock! Do you think that you will be able to make the 33 gracious bows required by etiquette? Humiliated by you and our daughter, I will have to hide myself in a dark hole. And our daughter! Here is the other most disgusting being in the whole world. Such ugliness the sun has never seen!"

"Father!" cried Tun Li's daughter, also in tears. "Did you not call me a beauty? My lovely My-Cian? Did you not say that there is no one in the whole world who is kinder, better, more obedient than I?"

"Yes! But your feet are two fingers too long," cried Tun Li in desperation. "I feel certain the Emperor will be horrified when he sees that monstrosity."

"I was not born to be carried in palanquins," cried poor My-Cian. "My feet are for walking. I'll have to marry a meek official like you, Father. I was raised to work."

"Cursed be your ugliness when one has to be presented to the Emperor," cried Tun Li, losing all control.

Just then the sound of a gong was heard and a usurer entered the room: "Now then Tun Li. What do you say to my conditions?"

"But we will die of hunger if we accept them," said Tun Li, covering his face in despair.

"As you wish," shrugged the usurer. "But remember, time is passing. If you wait too long there will be no time in which to make you a robe of blue silk with golden sleeves, a silk-embroidered robe for your wife, and a dress embroidered with flowers for your daughter. Everything that you must have to be presented at court. What will you do then?"

"Very well! I agree, I agree," muttered Tun Li.

"Good! But remember, so that we do not have an argument later: I will prepare all that you need, and every new moon you will bring me three quarters of your salary."

"But we will die from hunger," Tun Li cried. "Take half of it! Do not kill us!"

Tun Li, his wife, and little My-Cian fell down on their knees before the usurer, imploring him to take only half of Tun Li's salary. "Don't you see? We will have to starve all our lives."

"No!" insisted the usurer. "Three quarters of your salary every new moon! This is my last word. Take it or leave it! Yes or no?"

In tears, Tun Li replied, "Very well. Prepare all."

"Oh, Heaven," murmured the Emperor, and his eyes filled with tears.

"Don't you dare call me Omnipotent!" the Emperor cried when, upon returning to the palace, his Master of Ceremonies, according to protocol, prostrated himself before him and called him just that. "Don't you dare lie to me! What kind of omnipotence do I have if I cannot make a man happy?"

Later, while strolling with sadness in his heart in his magnificent fragrant gardens, the Emperor thought, "I am the sun that warms and shines only from afar and burns when it comes closer to the poor earth."

Translated by Rowen Glie


The Emperor's First Outing

Throughout his blessed life the Emperor San Yanki (may he be an example to us all!) had a particular passion for travelling and acquiring new knowledge.

All the same he reigned successfully for 242 moons without ever seeing Peking. Certainly this was not for any lack of desire on his part.

Every day the Emperor would announce to his Prime Minister Zhuar Fucian: "Today I shall go out and see Peking."

The Prime Minister would bow low before the Emperor and scurry off to give the necessary orders.

The palace guards and musicians would appear, palanquins and banners would be assembled, and the mandarins would mount their horses.

The Prime Minister would report: "Everything has been prepared for the execution of your will, O Son of Heaven!"

And the Emperor would go to take his seat in the palanquin. At this point, however, something was always bound to happen.

It might be the Chief Astronomer emerging from the throng of courtiers to fall on his face and announce: "Ruler of the Universe, one minute from now the most fearful thunderstorm will break over Peking, bringing torrential rain and hailstones the size of the swallows' eggs of which Your Majesty is so fond. A terrible whirlwind will blind everyone, making it impossible to see. Any palanquin out in the streets at that moment would find itself in a most unenviable position. It would be blown into the air, spun around, swept up to the clouds and then hurled back to earth with such violence that of course anyone in it would not survive for an instant. Today this fearful hurricane will rage over the whole of Peking, except for your palace and gardens, which the Heavens themselves dare not assail. Thus it is written in the stars and recorded in our books, O Joy of the Universe."

Or the Court Historian might step forward, bow down before the Emperor and declare: "Master of the Earth! Permit me to remind you that today happens to be the anniversary of the death of your great ancestor Huar Zingzun, who lived twelve thousand moons ago, and that national tradition requires you to remain closeted in the palace on this day and, outwardly at least, to give yourself up to sorrowing."

Or again it might be the Chief Eunuch who would come running toward the Emperor, fling himself violently to the ground and announce: "Master of the Rivers, Seas and Mountains! A new slave girl has just been brought in, and never before have I witnessed such beauty! She is truly a flower, a freshly picked flower! It will be cause for regret if you delay seeing her even for an instant. Just come and look for yourself!"

And so the royal progress through Peking would be postponed.

When he had reigned auspiciously for 242 moons, however, and the 243rd had begun, the Emperor San Yanki declared: "Enough! This has gone too far! I know who is behind these machinations: that wily fox Zhuar Fucian! But do what he will, I shall see Peking, and that's that!"

After first paying some servants to ensure their loyalty, he said to them: "Strike the great gong used to proclaim the death of Emperors. Start wailing and lamenting as loud as you can. Call out: 'The Emperor is dead!' Tear your clothes and claw your faces. You will be paid for all of this."

Then he lay down on a high couch which the servants had prepared according to his instructions.

The servants did as he had bidden. They beat the great gong and announced to the courtiers who, their faces deathly pale, came running at the sound.

"The Light of the Sun has gone out; the Joy of the Universe is transformed to grief: the Fount of Wisdom, our Emperor, was dining when suddenly, in the middle of his meal, he passed away!"

The palace filled with lamentation and intrigue.

The Prime Minister groveled at the feet of San Yanki's successor, saying: "Son of Heaven, I will initiate you into all the complexities of governing the country. Put your trust in me!"

Tradition dictated that the first ceremony to be performed was the emptying of the 'basket of wishes' beside the Emperor's throne.

In fact there was only one slip of paper in it, and on this the deceased Emperor had recorded a single wish: "I wish to be buried on the same couch I shall be found lying on in the palace. Let no one dare to touch my body or even come near."

The wish of a deceased Emperor being sacred his instructions were duly followed.

He was carried to the imperial cemetery, borne aloft above the crowds on the same couch he had lain on in the palace. It was a magnificent, glittering procession, with everyone dressed in white.

The streets of Peking were thronged with people who had gathered to see the Emperor, even if he were dead, in the flesh.

The priests chanted, the courtiers sobbed, the ordinary folk made their remarks; while high above them all the Emperor lay on his couch and, peeping through one half-open eye, observed Peking.

"Goodness, what pigs the Chinese are," he thought as he lay there looking at the city. "How can they live under those roofs with so many holes in them? Even then it wouldn't matter so much if they had warm clothing on in case it rains, yet they go about in rags and tatters. But listen: what is it they are shouting?"

Having seen as much as he wanted for the moment, he listened instead. The citizens of Peking were calling out: "Yah! You palace fox, Zhuar Fucian! Now there's an end to your robbing and pillaging! When the new Emperor cuts your head off, you'll have to go into the next life without it! And when it is put on display for public vilification, we shall spit on it! Never again shall you steal the clothes off our backs!"

"Aha! So that explains their raggedy appearance!" the Emperor thought to himself. "Just you wait, you villain!"

By this time the procession had reached the imperial cemetery. The people were sent away, leaving only the courtiers to stand at the graveside.

Roaring with laughter, the Emperor raised himself on his couch.

"Ha, ha, ha! Wasn't that an excellent joke I played on you all? Well, Zhuar Fucian, was there no hurricane during my tour of Peking?"

All the courtiers had turned pale, but palest of all was Zhuar Fucian. They were all trembling, yet it was Zhuar Fucian who trembled the most.

"What do you wish to do now?" he asked the Emperor.

"First of all," replied San Yanki, "I wish to return to the palace and reclaim my throne. After that we shall see."

Zhuar Fucian looked around helplessly at the other courtiers.

The Court Historian stepped forward. "That is out of the question!" he exclaimed. "We must live in accordance with the traditions of our ancestors. Yet no Emperor has ever died and then come back to life. This is quite unheard of. It could unleash the most fearful disasters and popular unrest on a vast scale. Quite frankly, it could mean the end of China itself!"

The First Master of Ceremonies also spoke up. "Quite out of the question!" he exclaimed. "Everything is governed by protocol, yet this is in complete breach of all protocol. What has been done cannot be undone: the funeral has taken place and, most importantly, the basket of wishes has been opened, which according to protocol may be done only after the death of an Emperor. Now it has been opened, quite clearly you are dead. In any case there is no form of protocol for the return of an Emperor from the cemetery to his throne. And who will observe the sacred laws in our country if we ourselves are the first to set protocol aside? That really could spell the end for China!"

"Indeed, the end of China, no less!" the Chief Priest also spoke up. "It is contrary to all the holy laws of our Heavenly religion. These laws state that when an Emperor dies he becomes a god. However, a god cannot be an Emperor. The Emperor must be mortal: he must govern the country, fearing the wrath of Heaven. But what would a god be afraid of? What assurance could there be that he would govern justly? This could lead to general discontent and anarchy. The religious laws have been violated! The end is in sight for China!"

With a heavy heart the Emperor looked around at his courtiers.

"Very well!" he said. "If the country really is faced with such disaster, there is nothing for it. Bury me. I cannot wish for the end of China."

"It was ill-advised to have undertaken this trip, O Joy of the Universe! I always said it would bring misfortune upon you!" said Zhuar Fucian as he threw in the first shovelful of earth.

Deeply impressed by Zhuar Fucian's perspicacity, San Yanki's successor kept him on as Prime Minister and granted him even more powers.

To start, Zhuar Fucian had the Court Historian, First Master of Ceremonies and Chief Priest beheaded. As he said himself, they were all far too wily for their own good.

Translated by John Dewey



The Son of Heaven, Emperor Li O-a (may his name live longer than the universe!) was standing in the window of his porcelain palace. He was young and therefore still kind. Amidst the luxury and sparkle, he could not stop thinking about the poor and miserable.

It was raining torrentially. The sky was crying and its tears poured from trees and flowers. Sadness gripped the Emperor's heart and he exclaimed, "How miserable it is for the ones who, in this rain, do not have even a hat!" Turning to his Chamberlain, he said, "I would like to know how many such unfortunates there are in my Peking."

"Son of the Sun!" answered Tsung Hi-tsang, falling on his knees, "Is there anything impossible for the King of Kings? Before the sun goes down, O Father of Dawn, you will know what you wish to know."

The Emperor smiled graciously, and Tsung Hi-tsang ran as fast as he could to the Prime Minister, San Chi-san. He ran in gasping for breath and, in his haste, he forgot even to honor the Prime Minister with all the salutations due his rank. Panting, he could hardly get out the words: "The Joy of the Universe, our most Gracious Sovereign, is terribly upset. He is upset by all the people who walk about without hats in the rain. He wants to know today how many there are of these people in Peking."

"Oh, there are such good-for-nothings in Peking," said San Chi-san. "Anyway ..." And the Prime Minister summoned before him the mandarin Pi Hi-vo, Commander of the City.

"There are bad tidings from the palace," said San Chi-san as Pi Hi-vo, as was required, touched his forehead to the ground. "An impropriety has come to the attention of the Master of our Lives."

"How is that possible?" Pi Hi-vo cried in horror. "What has become of the magnificent garden with cool shadows that separates the palace from Peking?"

"I do not know exactly," said San Chi-san, but His Majesty is terribly upset by the scoundrels who walk about without hats in the rain. He wishes to know this very day how many such people there are in Peking. Find out!"


Excerpted from "What the Emperor Cannot Do"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Vlas Doroshevich.
Excerpted by permission of GLAS New Russian Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Russian King of the Feuilleton,
What the Emperor Cannot Do,
The Emperor's First Outing,
Not the Right Heels,
The Good Emperor,
Chinese Jurisprudence,
The Fulfilment of Wishes,
On the Value of Learning,
A Story about One Wet Nurse,
Magic Mirror,
The White Devil,
A Fairytale about a Fairytale,
2 x 2 = 4 ½,
The Caliph and the Dancing Girl,
How Hassan Lost His Pants,
Without Allah,
Truth and Falsehood,
The Green Bird,
The Portrait of Moses,
The Birth of Jesus,
The Legend of the Invention Of Gunpowder,
The Dream of a Hindu,
A Chicken,

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What the Emperor Cannot Do: Tales and Legends of the Orient 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
g026r on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first English translation of fiction from the Russian "master of the feuilleton", whose writings were frequently banned by both the Tsarist and subsequent Soviet authorities.A collection of moral fables, set primarily in mythical versions of China and the Middle East. To dismiss them solely as "Orientalist" ¿ for, without a doubt, they are ¿ would be to miss the point: unable to openly criticize contemporary society, instead we see the time-honoured method of transposing the criticism to another time and place. (See, for example, Tynyanov's Stalin-period satires.)Which isn't to say that all is roses, however. Relatively short and numerous,they suffer much the same problem as attempting to digest all of Ambrose Bierce's social critiques at once: there's a more bit of a repetitiveness to the themes, the stock characters, and the morals, and attempting to digest them all at once can leave one weary. Best consumed in small, bite-sized doses.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago