During Chinese Warring states period, there lived a woodsman in state Zheng. One day, on his way to the mountain where he chopped wood, he saw a frightened deer standing in the field, shot and killed it. Afraid someone else found the deer, he hid the deer and covered it with banana leaves, and then happily went to work.
However, when he came back, he could not remember the hiding place. After a couple of hours fruitless searching, he began to doubt if he really caught the deer. "Maybe the whole thing was just a dream." he said to himself. But he was so frustrated that he kept mumbling how he hunted the deer and where he hid it. He did not know, all his talking was overheard by a passerby.
His wife smiled and said," There was no woodsman in our neighborhood at all. I'm afraid it was you who dreamed the woodsman got the deer. Now that you have the deer, it means your dream comes true."
The man replied," I now have the deer any way. It doesn't matter who was the dreamer."
That night, the woodsman had a dream in which he came to think of where he hid the saw the passerby take the hidden deer. Next morning, following his dream, he found the passerby and the deer. So he took him to the magistrate and sued for the recovery of the deer.
The Magistrate said,"The woodsman killed the deer, but thought it was a dream. Then he found the deer and the one who took it through a real dream, so he sues for the deer.
The passerby thought the woodsman killed the deer in dream and he found the real deer, while his wife said that the passerby got the deer from his dream; so the deer belongs to no one. I cannot tell who is the dreamer, but the deer is here and is real. Let it be divided equally between the two men."
Hearing of this case, the duke of Zheng jokingly remarked, "Ah, next thing I will be told could be that the Magistrate had dreamed about dividing the deer." and sent the case to his Chief Adviser for an opinion.
The Chief Adviser said:" Your Majesty, whether this case is about dreams or reality I cannot tell. Only (really wise men like) Huang Di or Confucius can differentiate dreams and realities. Since they are both dead, I recommend that we leave the Magistrate's decision be."
Background and Writer Comment:
It is a confusing story, isn't it? This story is from The King Mu of Zhou, an article of Lie Zi, in which the author talked about some typical points of Taoism.
Taoists think our world is like a dream in which everything is unreal and delusive. If we get obsessed with this kind of world, we will get lost and confused. Dream, in Taoists' eyes, is a metaphor for illusory world or delusive thought or idea.
Thus, Taoists argue that sages have no dream, because sages can keep themselves from being bewildered by dreams and thus are able to grasp the essence of the world.
Dream or delusive world has long been the most favorite subject of novels and movies. In China, this kind of stories are often related to immortals and fairies such as Lu Dong Bin in "The Dream of Han Dan" and the ant spirits in "The Dream Of Nan Ke", while in western countries, they seem to be more modern like the Cyber world in "The Matrix" and the man-made life of Truman in "The Truman Show".
The idiom produced from this story is Jiao Lu Zi Qi (蕉鹿自欺). But due to the fact that this idiom is rarely used nowadays and the complicated subject discussed in this story, I prefer put it in Chinese parable stories instead of idioms.