The Five Chinese Brothers

by Jefferson Hansen


There were not five Chinese brothers. There was only one. And he did not live with his mother, he lived with a chemist.

When the two men got together for their evening meal one day, the mad chemist noticed the Chinese brother's new red tennis shoes. He asked him where he got them. "On the street," grunted the brother.

"Oh, I see. So they were just lying there ready to be picked up?"

"More or less."

"I hope you like them. They look so stylish, just the sort of thing 16-year-old's are wearing these days."

"I love them. And they are stylish, not fashionable, but stylish. I love that word." Chinese brother slurped up some soup that the mad scientist had cooked.

"Do you like the soup?"

The Chinese brother shrugged. "Same as I like everything else you cook."

"And how is that?"

"It gets the job done." He looked up into the other man's staring face. "What do you want me to say?" To this, the Mad chemist just shrugged, then eyed the Chines brother's dull, beige shirt.

"Maybe if you care so much about being stylish, you could think about your shirt. I could help you come up with something that looks sharp. You wouldn't want people to get the idea that you're a simpleton."

The Chinese brother, with his head still down by his bowl, looked up. "Are you saying I am a simpleton?"

"Of course not. But you know that clothes have a big impact on how you are perceived. I would like you to get what you deserve."

"I don't care what anybody thinks."

"That would seem evident." He studied him closely. "Then why do you insist on wearing red shoes?"

"Because I like them."

They were silent and ate the soup. "You know," said the mad chemist, smiling, "We all get what's coming to us, someday."

"What's that supposed to mean?" The Chinese brother glared at him.

"I was just joking. I was parodying the cliche. You know that." He paused. "You know that, right?"

The Chinese brother was not innocent. No, he did not accidentally drown a boy one day when he went fishing: He did not use his tremendously flexible belly to swallow the entire ocean so as to make the fish left on the bottom easy pickings for the boy; he did not franticly signal the boy to come back ashore as he picked up writhing fish and threw them into his basket; he did not then give into the enormous pressure in his mouth and stomach and release the sea, sadly drowning the boy.

That's just how the legend is told. This is the reality.

He killed not a boy, but a teenager. And he did it for his tennis shoes. The Chinese brother liked their red color. And killed for it.

After a short manhunt, the Chinese brother was arrested and brought before the magistrate, who sentenced him to death by beheading. The Chinese brother asked the magistrate if he could go home for a night to put his affairs in order. This was agreed to.

On the day of the execution a large crowd gathered in the public square. They jostled for the good sight lines, and when the prisoner arrived, the jostling turned more intense.

A man in uniform checked the knot holding the Chinese brother's hands together behind his back. Then he tied his feet together, and eased the Chinese brother to his knees, right in front of the block. The Chinese brother resisted not at all: He even thanked the officer for his trouble.

The large headsman came out: his enormous torso was open to the sun and sky. He wore short, baggy pants that reached to his knees. He loosened up, and then the sword was handed him.

Formed like a half-moon, the sword was almost as tall as he was. He went through a series of ritualistic steps: first he thrust the sword toward the sky, then took one step toward the crowd as he brought the blade almost to the stage; he pivoted to his right and held the sword horizontal to his hip and swung it parallel to the stage; he did the same on his left.

Then he walked up to the prisoner whose head was on the block. He became disconcerted when the Chinese brother wished him good day, and good luck, then thanked him for his efforts. The Chinese brother was smiling, and the headsman could even see the corner of that smile as he brought the sword slamming and slicing into the neck.

But it didn't work. Instead of his head being cut off, the blade made a loud "thunk" against his neck. The headsman, embarrassed, roughly slammed the prisoner back onto the block, put one enormous foot on his upper back, and grunted loudly as the sword came down again.


The headsman cried out in agony and ran off the stage, and down the street, and into agoraphobia. His mother took care of him for the rest of his truncated life.

The Chinese brother had survived because the night before the execution, the mad chemist put an ointment on his neck that made it strong as steel. It had been developed by the chemist years earlier, to prevent his head from being snapped back while he studied gravity by riding a cart on a very steep hill.

The other four Chinese brothers, according to legend, were each supposed to have a special talent. One, as was already mentioned, could swallow the sea. Another was said to be able to stretch and stretch and stretch his legs, a third to withstand the hottest fire, and a fourth to hold his breath indefinitely.

But none of these brothers was real. This is what happened:

The Chinese brother was then sentenced to a different execution: by drowning. He again was granted a night to go home to get his affairs in order.

There, he ordered the chemist to develop something that would allow him to stretch his legs infinitely. The mad chemist said, "Oh, I don't need to do that. I invented such a cream just last week. I applied it to my own legs. I managed to walk on the ocean floor all the way to Korea in a mere afternoon. It was quite pleasant." He paused. "Oh, yes, it was to study tidal flow and cross currents."

While the chemist rubbed the cream onto the legs of the stone-faced Chinese brother, he asked him if he had really killed the teenager. The Chinese brother did not answer him.

"Should I be worried?" asked the chemist.

"Not if you keep doing this sort of thing," the Chinese brother gave the mad scientist a rare smile, which made him uneasy. He finished applying the ointment and was not thanked.

The magistrate, other town dignitaries, and a couple workmen took the Chinese brother far, far out to sea. They attached chains and weights to his body. And threw him overboard. All on the boat drank tea in celebration.

Then they saw something quite remarkable: a human face was bobbing just above the surface of the ocean. It was obvious that he was not treading water or swimming. The boat pulled up beside him. They asked him what he was doing. He turned toward them and they were stunned to see the Chinese brother's cheerful face saying that his legs had stretched.

The magistrate, thinking he saw a ghost, ran to the opposite end of the boat and leapt off, probably drowning. Then several other dignitaries on board followed their leader to their likely deaths. No bodies were ever recovered.

The new magistrate now decided that the Chinese brother should be burned alive. Since the town and its officials were growing increasingly angry — they blamed the Chinese brother for the mental illness of the headsman, the death of the magistrate, and the death of the other dignitaries who leapt off the boat — they decided to leave nothing to chance: they decided to cut down half a forest to get enough wood to be sure they could burn him to cinders.

Once again, the Chinese brother asked to go home in order to set his things in order. This time, they only gave him the length of an afternoon.

Once home, he demanded that the mad chemist make him a dinner and set his place at the table. He then took a nap. While the chemist was serving him a delicious 'last dinner' of vegetables, seafood, and rice, (he was getting tired of all the 'last meal' cooking he had to do) the Chinese brother ordered him to create a substance that would keep him from being burned alive.

The mad chemist said that he had just the thing. He had secreted juice from two different plants and combined them. That combination, when ingested as a pill, prevents one from being burned. Proudly, the mad chemist explained that he designed it a couple weeks ago to help him with his study of volcanoes. He smiled proudly as he told the Chinese brother the story of how he actually lowered himself into an active volcano and came out unhurt.

"Good for you," said the Chinese brother. "Get me some."

With a hard smile on his face, the chemist asked the Chinese brother if maybe it were best for the town if he were to die. When the Chinese brother eyed him quickly, the chemist said that he was just joking.

He took the pill. Then told the chemist that, if the pill did not work, he was coming for him.

That evening, the Chinese brother was put on a pyre. Cords and cords of wood were stacked up around him. They started the fire and the Chinese brother smiled at the crowd, and thanked them for doing all in their power to give him a cozy night. He kept smiling and commenting on how cozy he felt.

They piled the timber up to his neck. It was dangerous work, and a couple workers lost their balance on the treacherous pilings and fell to their deaths in the fire. But the town would not give up. The desperation to see this murderer suffer was palpable. Nobody moved the whole night long. As the dawn came up all held their breath.

His head was hanging loosely down onto his chest. An excited murmur gradually rose into a few celebratory shouts. The crowd began to cheer, which woke him up. He stretched, smiled, and thanked them for the marvelously cozy sleep they had given him. Then he walked off the pyre: the intense heat had melted all of his constraints.

He was again arrested and this time the magistrate sentenced him to death by suffocation. He was to spend the night in a hot oven. This time, he was allowed to go home for only three hours to set his affairs in order.

There, he ordered the mad chemist to invent something to help him hold his breath. The chemist said that he already had just the thing: it was a pill he designed out of synthetic materials that allowed a person to go without oxygen for four hours. If properly taken every four hours, the pill should allow one to go without oxygen indefinitely. The chemist explained that he was using it for the deep sea diving he was going to do next week. He hoped to locate and categorize a new species of starfish.

"Why don't you get me some dinner, Chemist? These performances every night take the starch out of me."

That evening the dour-faced crowd watched as the Chinese brother practically skipped up to the oven that was to kill him. He yelled to the crowd that he would see them in the morning.

And he did. Even though the oven was held at a steady 450 degrees farenheit, he emerged in the morning smiling, saying that he felt rested and healthy.

The magistrate started to cry and bow in shame. He pulled out his sword and fell on it. Other dignitaries and town leaders followed his example. The Chinese brother continued smiling during the wailing cries and death rattles.

Then the common people began bowing to him. Some even prostrated themselves before him. He told them to knock it off. They were being undignified.

He went home to the mad chemist.

Too afraid to admit it to himself just yet, the mad chemist hates the Chinese brother. But, in the end, he who has the pills will win.