Two stories of Liu Ba, the Bai trickster

Two stories of Liu Ba, the Bai trickster

The Bai are one of the minorities who have had the longest contact with the Chinese.They are also one of the minorities that has received more cultural influences.  This has been due to the accessibility of the land they inhabit and their status as farmers. The Bai are almost two million people, who live fundamentally in the province of Yunnan, concentrated in the fertile plains that surround the city of Dali, on the shore of the Erhai lake. In the old books they were called Minjia. The Bai speak a language of the Tibetan Burmese family, Yi branch. Many Chinese words have been incorporated into their language due to the long contact between the two peoples. Most of the Bai, in fact, are bilingual.

They have a very advanced culture, an economic life that revolves around the cultivation of rice and a religion that emphasizes the cult of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, and the founding heroes of each village, known as the Benzhu (Lords of the Locality), who are worshipped only in the corresponding village.

Their best known trickster is Liu Ba, who always helps the people by making fun of the powerful, in the stories the somewhat anonymous figure of the governor (tuguan).

The worms spoiled the silver

There was one occasion when one of the governor’s workers became ill.  Liu Ba went to visit him and when he saw that it was not a passing illness he thought of buying him some medicines. The only problem was that he had no money. So he went to borrow from the governor, but the governor refused to help him. Since he couldn’t get anything that way, Liu Ba began to think of a way to solve the problem.

When he had his plan ready, he went to the governor’s house and waited for him to come out, as he did every day after eating breakfast. When he was out of sight,  Liu Ba entered the house very excited and told the governor’s wife:

– Ama. The neighbors of the house next door have taken out their silver to air.

The lady was a little surprised, as she was in the habit of airing her clothes and even some furniture, but she had never heard that the silver needed to be aired. But, fearing that on her return her husband might get angry, she replied:

– If the neighbors are airing it, we will air it too.

So she went to the warehouse and took out three silver boxes, weighed them carefully and gave them to Liu Ba to take to the yard to air them.

Liu Ba placed the silver in the courtyard and kept watch to make sure no one stole it. It was a suitable pretext, since he took advantage of every occasion when he was alone to hide some small pieces of silver among his clothes. So he spent the whole day, ending up at the end of the day with enough silver to carry out his purposes.

When the sun set in the west and the night approached, Liu Ba gave the silver back to the governor’s wife, assuring her that he had aired enough. She weighed it again, discovering to her surprise that instead of three boxes there were only two and a half. She then angrily addressed Liu Ba.

– Liu Ba, there is half a silver box missing here, what have you done with it?

He answered her calmly:

– Madam, I haven’t done anything with the silver, but stored as it was in a damp place, the silver has bred worms. We were lucky to get it out today to air, and that only half the box was ruined. If we let a few days go by, it’s certain that there would be even less.

When he had finished speaking he took a silver bar out of the box and pointed to some holes on its surface and insisted to the woman:

– Look! Look if you don’t believe me! These are the holes that the worms have gnawed into.

Seeing that there were indeed holes on the surface of the bars, the governor’s wife took his words as true, and resigned herself to accepting the loss of the missing silver.

As soon as she left the governor’s house, Liu Ba took the silver that she had been hiding during the day and went to buy medicine for the sick worker. With what was left over, he still had enough to buy some clothes for the other workers, and even some chickens, ducks and lambs, with which they had a good party that night.

The Governor is cheated

As the governor was often mocked by Liu Ba, he was not very happy, and was always looking for ways to teach that mischievous servant a lesson.

This year the forty-sixth anniversary of the governor was to be celebrated. The governor was especially happy, because he had prepared a great feast for the afternoon to which all the important people of the vicinity were invited. Celebrating his joy from the first hour of the morning, after breakfast he drank a few glasses of liquor. When the effects of the alcohol began to be noticed the governor was saying to himself

«You, Liu Ba, do not cease to be a servant. I am the great lord of this palace. On your body, Liu Ba, you do not wear even a slightly decent garment, while silks and brocades fill my trunks. My treasures consist of boxes filled with gold and silver. In everything I am stronger and more powerful than you. How is it that being a miserable servant you still dare to mock me? You will never be able to do it again. No, surely you can never again mock me, for I am, in fact, the incarnation of a great star fallen from heaven. Today I am forty-six years old, Father Sky has always helped me. I will show you who is in charge here. I’m going to teach you a good lesson. Today I’m going to punish all your past mischief. Then you will know who is the boss in this house.»

As he thought about it, he became more angry with Liu Ba. So he left his thoughts and ordered one of his servants to make him come. When Liu Ba, who was working in the field, heard about his urgent request, began to think why the hell the master had called him. He returned home with a provocative slowness, knowing that his tardiness would contribute to his anger.

When he finally appeared before him, the governor began to speak in anger:

«Liu Ba. You’re always making fun of people and that’s not right. In this house you are just a poor servant, and since you think you are capable of making fun of everyone today we are going to test whether you can make fun of me. If you are capable, I will not get angry or punish you, if you are not, I will force you to leave those smart airs forever.

Liu Ba made as if the governor’s words affected him deeply, remaining silent before him for a while. Then he answered him with a humble tone:

«Sir, today is your anniversary. Heaven will be watching over you in a special way. Even if three suns appeared in the sky, I could not defeat you, and besides, where would I find the time to make fun of you? Right now all the people in the house are pulling fish from the Pond of Calm Waters, and I still want to get there in time to catch some fish for dinner.

When Liu Ba finished speaking, he apologized and left his presence. The governor, whose greed was well known to all who treated him, began to feel nervous thinking that all his servants were catching the best fish from the Pond of Calm Waters, and he would have nothing left, so he immediately ordered a servant to prepare a horse for him, and carrying a large bucket to store the fish he went to the Pond of Calm Waters.

When he reached the pond he saw only its calm waters, for there was absolutely nobody on the shore, so he sighed and went home. Once there he called out to Liu Ba, cursing him out loud:

«There was absolutely no one in the Pond of Calm Waters. Why did you say there were people taking fish?»

Liu Ba blinked in amazement and answered calmly:

«Sir, weren’t you the one who told me to try to see if I could make fun of you?»

At that moment the governor realized that he had been fooled by Liu Ba once again. That star descended from the sky could not yet be compared to a mere servant.

These two stories were originally published in “Pícaros y listos en las minorías de China”  by Pedro Ceinos Arcones. 2004. The book can be purchased HERE

Other languages: There is a Spanish version of these two tales HERE

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Two stories of Liu Ba, the Bai trickster," in Ethnic China, 4 enero 2021,
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