Ma Liang and the Magic Brush

Author: Hong Xuntao

Legend has it that there once was a young boy named Ma Liang. His mother and father both died early, thus leaving him on his own, only able to cut firewood and grass to make a living. As a youth, he already enjoyed learning to paint, though he didn’t own even a single painting brush!

One day, he walked past the entrance of a small school. Inside he saw the painting instructor holding a brush and painting away. Without thinking, he stepped inside and addressed the instructor: “I want to learn to paint. Can you lend me a brush to use?”

The teacher glared at Ma Liang. “Ba!” He hacked a mouthful of spit on Ma Liang’s face and scolded him: “A poor child wants to pick up a brush, does he? You want to learn to paint?! Hah! In your dreams!” When he finished, he had Ma Liang promptly thrown out the door.

Yet Ma Liang was an ambitious child, and he said: “Why can’t poor children hold a brush? Why can’t we learn how to paint? I want to learn to paint!”

From then on, he was determined to learn how to paint. Every day he would practice diligently. When he went to the mountains to cut wood, he would pick up a dry stick and scrape at the sand, learning to draw birds. When he went near the river bank to cut grass, he would dip a blade of grass in the river and would practice painting fish on the stones. At night, he would return home, grab a piece of charcoal, and on the wall of his dwelling he drew again everything he had practiced drawing during the day.

Though he didn’t have a brush, Ma Liang still persisted in learning to paint. As the years went by, not a day went by that Ma Liang didn’t practice. The four sides of his abode were eventually completely covered in paintings.  And of course he improved very quickly. The birds he painted were just short of flying away, and the fish he depicted were very close to swimming off downstream. Once, he painted a small hen at the entrance to the village, and a hawk circled over it in the sky all day long. Another time, he painted a black wolf behind the mountains, which in turn frightened the sheep and cattle to the point that they would no longer dare to graze behind that mountain. But Ma Liang still didn’t have a brush!

Oh! How he wished he could have his own brush!

One night, Ma Liang was lying on his bed. In a daze from the day’s strenuous work and exhausted from painting practice, he fell straight asleep the moment he lay down. The exact timing is uncertain, but not long after Ma Liang fell asleep, the little dwelling burst into a rainbow of light. An old white-bearded man appeared, gave Ma Liang a paintbrush and said, “This is a magic brush. You must use it wisely.” Ma Liang took the brush and gazed at it. It emitted a brilliant golden light. Taking it in hand, he felt that it was heavy. Ecstatic, he bounced off his bed and cried: “Thank you, old man!” Before Ma Liang could finish speaking, he noticed that the white-bearded old man had already disappeared.

Surprised by the disappearance, Ma Liang woke up, rubbed his eyes, and realized it had all been a dream! And yet it had also not been a dream: was the brush not grasped firmly in his hand? Filled with excitement, Ma Liang burst out of his house running and began knocking on door after door, waking up all of his companions to tell them: “I have a brush!” And all the while it was the middle of the night!

He used the brush to paint a bird. Rustling its wings, the bird soon flew off into the sky and began chirping a song for Ma Liang to hear. He used the brush to paint a fish. The fish curved its tail, making its way into the water and then began to swim. It then started to shake and wiggle about, breaking into a dance for Ma Liang to see. Ecstatic, he said: “How wonderful this magic brush is!”

Every day after Ma Liang acquired his brush, he would paint for the poor people of his village. If a house did not have a plow and hoe, he would paint a plow and hoe for them. If a house lacked an ox to plow the fields, then he would paint them one. If a house was missing a waterwheel, he would paint them one. Should any home be missing a stone mill, Ma Liang would be sure to paint them one.

As there are no walls under heaven that do not talk, the news soon spread to the ears of a rich, yet wicked lord of a nearby manor. This lord had always been a greedy tyrant, and so he sent two retainers to arrest Ma Liang and bring him back to paint for him. Although Ma Liang was young, he was born with an iron will?. He saw through the lord’s malicious intent, and no matter how the lord attempted to deceive him or frighten him, wishing to have gold coins painted for him, Ma Liang refused to paint. The lord had him locked in the barn without food, so that Ma Liang’s only option would be to paint gold coins.

At night, snow fell and blew about, eventually accumulating into a thick layer on the ground. The lord thought, “With things as they are now, Ma Liang will certainly give in.” He walked out to the barn and took a look around, but all he saw was a bright red light emanating from within the barn, with a faint, savory scent of food. He thought it to be strange, so he stealthily crept inside to take a look. Ah! Ma Liang was burning a pile of firewood, steadily roasting a fire and eating a steaming millet pancake! The lord knew that this fire and the pancakes were painted by Ma Liang using the magic brush. In a huff he shouted for his retainers, ordering them to come and seize Ma Liang’s magic brush!

Many fierce retainers broke into the barn, but none could see Ma Liang. All they could see was a ladder resting against the back wall of the barn. Ma Liang had used the dark of night to his advantage. He had climbed up the ladder and jumped over the wall. The lord hastily ordered his retainers to pursue Ma Liang up the ladder. The retainers didn’t make it more than three steps up the ladder before falling back to the ground. Apparently, this ladder had been painted by Ma Liang and his magic brush!

Ma Liang left the wicked lord’s manor. He knew he could no longer live in this town, and facing his village he waved goodbye, quietly saying: “Friends, I will return.” Ma Liang used his magic brush to paint a large steed, jumped onto the horse’s back, and went galloping off down the road.

He hadn’t been riding for long when suddenly all he could hear was loud thrashing behind him. Looking back, the lord emerged from the darkness riding on a fast horse and carrying a bright torch. In the lord’s other hand he held a gleaming steel knife, and behind him could be seen a group of retainers quickly gaining on Ma Liang.

Seeing how they would catch up to him at any moment, Ma Liang calmly used his magic brush to paint a bow and then an arrow. He loaded the arrow into the bow and then “whoosh” went the arrow just before it pierced the lord’s horse. As the horse began to tumble, the lord threw himself off the horse’s back and jumped down to the ground. Ma Liang whipped his steed hard, hastening it to gallop so quickly it nearly took flight. Ma Liang ran down the road like this for days and nights on end. On arriving in a small town, he noticed that he was already very far from home. It was here that he decided to live temporarily.

He painted many pictures and took them to various neighborhoods to sell. Because he was afraid people would know of him, he wouldn’t allow the things he painted to come to life. To do this, the things in the paintings would either be missing a mouth or would have a broken leg.

One day, Ma Liang painted a white crane without eyes. But a drop of ink accidentally splashed onto the crane’s face. The white crane opened up its eyes and flew off into the sky. This caused quite a sensation throughout town. The local official soon sent word of the event to the emperor. An imperial edict passed, assigning men to bring Ma Liang to the capital to paint for the emperor.

Ma Liang refused to go, so they dragged him off by force. Ma Liang had heard many stories of how the terrible emperor would bully commoners which had left him with a deep hatred for the ruler in his heart. How could he be willing to paint for the emperor!? The emperor called on him to paint a dragon, but instead he painted a giant gecko. The emperor told him to paint a phoenix, but Ma Liang instead painted a giant crow. The giant gecko and the giant crow were both very ugly looking. They would run about the imperial palace shrieking and sometimes even began to fight, turning the inside of the palace to shambles!

The emperor was greatly angered. He ordered his bodyguards to rob Ma Liang of his magic brush and throw him into the blockhouse. When the emperor got ahold of the magic brush, he began to paint. First he painted a mountain of gold. His greed still unsatisfied, he continued to paint another and another, followed by another and another! He painted many overlapping mountains of gold. After he was done he looked again. Where was the mountain of gold? All he saw was a big pile of stones! The top was too heavy and pressed down on the bottom, causing it to collapse to the floor, nearly injuring the emperor’s own legs.

The emperor still wouldn’t give in. He thought to himself, “If I can’t paint a mountain of gold, then I’ll just paint some gold bricks.” When he finished painting one, he felt it was too small. After painting another, he thought that one, too, was also small. Finally, he painted a enormously long gold brick. When he was finished he looked at it again. Where was the brick of gold? All that was there was an incredibly long python! The large mouth stretched ajar and seemed like a basin filled with blood. It then rushed straight at the emperor! Fortunately the bodyguards were able to rescue him quickly, otherwise, the emperor would have long been eaten by the giant python.

The emperor was left with no other option: all he could do was set Ma Liang free. He also made some kind promises that, generous though they were, Ma Liang knew were insincere. He was promised he would be given a fortune of gold and silver, and that the emperor would bestow him with a high-ranking title.

Yet Ma Liang really only wished to get his magic brush back, so he pretended to accept the emperor’s offer. The emperor was very pleased that Ma Liang accepted and returned the magic brush to him so he could paint for him.

            The emperor thought: “A mountain of gold can’t be painted, nor can a gold brick. Then why not paint a money tree? Gold grows on money trees and with just a slight shake an endless stream of falling gold can be collected! It’s perfect!” Ma Liang was then told to paint him a money tree.

            Ma Liang had made up his mind, and without speaking he lifted the magic brush and painted one long stroke. A great, boundless sea appeared before their eyes. The blue water contained not a single ripple, but shined brightly like a large jade mirror.

            Seeing what Ma Liang had done, the emperor became very displeased. His face became distorted as he shouted: “I wanted a money tree! Who told you to paint a sea?”

            Ma Liang then used his magic brush to add a small island in the center of the vast sea. On the island he then painted a tree. Ma Liang replied, “Is this not your money tree?”

            The emperor saw the tree on the island and felt the bright, gold light shining off of it hit his eyes. His throat choked on his own saliva and he then burst out into hysterical laughter. Very anxious to get to the tree he told Ma Liang: “Hurry up and paint a boat! I want to reach the island and shake the money tree!”

            Ma Liang painted a boat, in which the emperor boarded along with many of his soldiers. Ma Liang painted a few gusts of wind, soon causing the water to ripple and turn into thick waves that began moving the boat.

            The emperor was feeling antsy. He complained that the boat was moving too slowly and from the bow called out: “More wind! More wind!..” Ma Liang painted a few more crude gusts of wind. The sea was now full of large waves and the ships sails were swollen full. The ship now sailed very quickly toward the center of the sea.  Ma Liang added a few more big gusts of wind and the sea became violent and roared. The turbulent waves rolled over one another, causing the boat to tilt dangerously.

The emperor became afraid and waved his arms at Ma Liang to indicate his concern. He yelled: “Enough wind! Enough wind!...”

Ma Liang pretended not to hear and continued painting more wind.  The sea became angry and waves attacked the boat. The boat tilted sideways, throwing its occupants about.

The emperor was hit by waves and his entire body became drenched. He grabbed onto the mast of the boat and yelled repeatedly: “Too much wind! The ship’s going under! Don’t paint any more!”

Yet Ma Liang wouldn’t stop painting wind. The more powerful the wind was, the more thick dark clouds formed above, causing thunder, lightning, and an onslaught of heavy rain. The fiercer the waves became, the more the water seemed like an endless chain of decaying walls pressing up against the ship.

            The ship tipped over and broke apart. But what about the evil emperor? He was gone, seemingly having drowned and sunk to the bottom of the sea.

            This is how the story of “Ma Liang and the Magic Brush” was passed down. However, what happened to Ma Liang afterward? No one is certain. Some say he headed back to his hometown to be with his old comrades. Others say that he drifted all over, painting for the poor.

(Originally published in “The New Observer” (Xin Guancha), 1955, Issue 3. Original Work: Liao De)

Original English translation by Patrick Nowlin, copyright 2012.