'The Emperor's Challenge' | Circle Round 54

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

When it comes to leaders — people who are in charge — we want them to have certain qualities.

Like wisdom. Honesty. Fairness. You can probably name a whole bunch more.

In this story, we’ll hear about a wise, honest and fair leader who’s ready to step down--and the contest he holds to decide who will take his place!

Our story is called “The Emperor's Challenge.” Versions of this tale originally come from China.

Voices in this episode include: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Jeff Song, Delores King Williams, Christine Toy Johnson and Nikki SooHoo. Check out Christine in the national tour of the hit Broadway musical, Come From Away. And grown-ups: look for her on Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix. Grown-ups also can see Nikki SooHoo on Paramount Network’s Heathers, as well as The Resident on FOX. And kids, listen for Nikki’s voice on Star Wars Resistance on the Disney Channel, and Shimmer and Shine on Nickelodeon.

This story was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Jessica Alpert.  Original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

ADULTS!  PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

Imagine you are the emperor — or empress — and it’s time to choose someone to replace you. What are the three most important qualities you’d look for in a successor?

Think about what those qualities might be, then describe them to a family member or friend. After that, have them tell you what three qualities they’d want to see in the next leader!

Musical Spotlight: Pipa

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

Dating back more than 2,000 years, the pipa — a wooden, pear-shaped, four-stringed lute — is one of the oldest and most popular Chinese musical instruments. Originally, to play the pipa you’d hold it horizontally across your body, like a guitar. As time progressed, musicians began holding the instrument in a more upright position - as Eric Shimelonis did for this week’s Chinese folktale!

Story Transcript

NARRATOR: There once was a young woman named Mei... and Mei had a very, very green thumb.

Her actual thumb wasn’t green, of course! No! Having a “green thumb” means having a talent, a gift, for making plants grow.

The plants Mei loved to grow most... were flowers. Fragrant lilacs, fluffy peonies, glistening tulips… she grew all those and more in a tiny garden behind the cozy cottage she shared with her grandmother.

Monday through Friday, Mei would wake up with the sun, and spend hours tending her beloved garden. Then she’d gather flowers to sell from her stall at the marketplace.

When the work week was over, Mei and her grandmother would pack a picnic and visit another garden… at the royal palace.

You see, the highest ruler in all the land was the emperor. And guess what?

He had a green thumb, too!

Years ago, the emperor had planted a massive garden next to the palace. Every Saturday and Sunday he opened his garden to the public, so his subjects could enjoy the vibrant colors and delicious scents of his fabulous flowers.


Whenever Mei and her grandmother strolled through the royal garden, the young woman would gaze wistfully at the rows and rows of flowers… and sigh.

MEI: Oh, Grandmother! Have you ever seen roses so ravishing? Or dahlias so dazzling? Not to mention those marvelous magnolias. (beat) If only I could care for a garden as grand as the emperor’s!

GRANDMOTHER: I’m sure it would be wonderful, Mei. But this garden is a thousand times bigger than our patch of earth behind the cottage. The emperor must plant a million flowers a year! Do you think you’d be up to the task?

NARRATOR: Every time Grandmother asked this question, Mei felt deep in her heart that yes: she would be up to the task. She loved the idea of nurturing those precious plants, and doing her best to help them reach their greatest potential. It would take a lot of work, and a lot of time, but Mei knew she’d be happy… and the flowers would be happy, too.

One Monday morning, as she always did, Mei awoke at sunrise. She ate her breakfast, then grabbed her rake, shovel and watering can and spent hours weeding, planting and watering her garden. She even sang to her flowers! After that, she filled several baskets with blooms, and carried them to the marketplace.

Mei’s flower stall always attracted a long line of customers. But on this particular morning, as Mei flipped her “Closed” sign to “Open,” she noticed the line snaked around the entire market! It was as if every customer who usually visited throughout the day had shown up all at once!

MEI: Well, good morning, everyone! What brings you all here so bright and early?

NARRATOR: The customers’ eyes sparkled.

CUSTOMER 1: Oh, Mei! Haven’t you heard the news?

CUSTOMER 2: It’s big!

CUSTOMER 3: It’s huge!

CUSTOMER 4: It’s enormous!

NARRATOR: Mei shook her head.

MEI: No, I’m afraid I haven’t heard the news! I’ve been gardening all morning. (beat) What’s happening?

NARRATOR: The customers proceeded to tell Mei that the emperor… the highest ruler in the land… was looking…

CUSTOMER 1: retire!

CUSTOMER 2: move on!

CUSTOMER 3: step down from his throne...

CUSTOMER 4: ...forever!

NARRATOR: Mei smiled.

MEI: Well, the emperor has been such a wonderful ruler… so honest and wise! I’m sorry to see him go. (beat) But everyone knows he’s getting quite old... and quite tired. No wonder he’s ready to move on!

NARRATOR: The customers exchanged a look.

CUSTOMER 1: Yes, Mei… but, here’s the thing!

CUSTOMER 2: The emperor doesn’t have any children!

CUSTOMER 3:, he doesn’t have any natural successors!

CUSTOMER 4:, to decide who will replace him, he’s holding...

CUSTOMER 1 / CUSTOMER 2 / CUSTOMER 3 / CUSTOMER 4: ...a contest!!!

NARRATOR: Mei was impressed.

MEI: How creative! Of course, we always knew the emperor was a clever man with a brilliant mind. (beat) But, why did you want to tell me about this contest?

NARRATOR: As it turns out... the customers had a very good reason. Because the contest to become the next emperor…?

CUSTOMER 1: a seed-growing contest!

CUSTOMER 2: The emperor is requiring every young person in the land to compete!

CUSTOMER 3: ...and you are a shoo-in, Mei!

CUSTOMER 4: You’re destined to win!

CUSTOMER 1: After all...

CUSTOMER 2 ...who around here knows more about growing seeds…

CUSTOMER 1 / CUSTOMER 2 / CUSTOMER 3 / CUSTOMER 4: ...than you???

NARRATOR: That was Monday. The contest began on Friday. And on that morning, Mei found herself among the throngs of young men and women who flocked to the emperor’s palace. The air was buzzing and humming with excited chatter… until the great ruler appeared on the palace balcony.

EMPEROR: My good people! Thank you for coming here today. (beat) It has been an honor serving you all these years. But, just as winter turns to spring... and new green sprouts emerge from the once-barren earth… it is time for me to move on. So…

NARRATOR: ...the emperor swept his hand across the crowd.

EMPEROR: of you will inherit my throne. As for which one of you... well… that remains to be seen.

NARRATOR: The emperor gestured toward the palace’s entrance. Suddenly, hundreds of servants streamed through the archway. Each one was pushing a cart piled high… with flower pots.

EMPEROR: Inside each of these flower pots... is a pouch. Inside each pouch is a very special seed. Each one of you will take a pot and seed home, and see what you can grow. After six months time, you will come back to the palace and show me the fruits of your labors. I will choose the next emperor based on what you bring back.

NARRATOR: Mei’s heart beat faster than a bumblebee’s wings as a palace servant handed her a pot and seed. Mei wrapped them in an extra-soft blanket, tucked them into her knapsack, and made her way back home.

Inside the cottage, Mei told Grandmother everything the Emperor had said. Then, Mei took the pouch, loosened its drawstrings, and tipped it over.

As the tiny seed dropped into Mei’s palm, she looked at Grandmother with wide eyes.

MEI: Grandmother, do you really think I have what it takes to replace the emperor?

NARRATOR: Grandmother’s eyes twinkled.

GRANDMOTHER: I do, my child. I do! (beat) But it isn’t up to me. Now…

NARRATOR: She tilted her head toward the seed.

GRANDMOTHER:’s up to you.

[theme music in]

NARRATOR: What will happen when Mei plants the emperor’s seed?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.

[theme music out]


[theme music in]

NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Emperor’s Challenge.”

[theme music out]

When we left off, the emperor was about to retire. To choose his successor, he gave a flower pot and seed to every young person in the empire. After six months, they were to come back and show the emperor what they had grown.

A young woman named Mei was especially fond of growing things - and especially gifted. She tended a garden at home, and her flower stall at the marketplace drew long lines of admiring customers.

So Mei took the emperor’s flower pot and seed, and got to work.

First, she gathered some pebbles.

MEI: These will help the pot drain properly. (laying pebbles across bottom of pot) I’ll just lay them across the bottom, like so…

NARRATOR: Next, she scooped in some rich, dark soil.

MEI: Mmmm. (inhaling) I love that earthy smell! Now the seed will have all sorts of yummy nutrients!

NARRATOR: After that, Mei pressed her thumb into the soil...

MEI: (making the indentation) Okay…

NARRATOR: ...laid the seed inside…

MEI: (placing seed inside) There you go!

NARRATOR: ...and sprinkled even more soil on top, making sure that the seed disappeared from view.

MEI: Voila! (beat) Now, my little seed... it’s time to help you grow.

NARRATOR: Mei tended her seed with the same loving care she gave all of her flowers. She watered it… she gave it sun... she even sang to it each day.

And yet… every time Mei checked to see what had popped through the soil… there was nothing there.

Not even a little green sprout!

MEI: Hmmm. What could I be doing wrong? (beat) I know! Maybe I’m giving it too much water!

NARRATOR: So Mei stopped watering the pot. She made sure it was in a nice, dry room, sealed off from any fog, mist or rain.

And yet… after a few days… when she checked to see what had popped through the soil…?

MEI: There’s nothing there!

NARRATOR: ...not even a little green sprout!

MEI: Well, this is a mystery… (beat) I know! Maybe I’m giving it too much sun!

NARRATOR: So Mei moved the pot into a darker space. She cleared the jars and cans out of a cupboard, and placed the pot inside.


And yet… when she checked to see what had popped through the soil…?

MEI: There’s nothing there!

NARRATOR: ...not even a little green sprout!

MEI: Now I’m just plain confused. (beat) I know! Maybe I’m not singing to it enough!

NARRATOR: So Mei spent hours each day... singing.

MEI: [sings song]

NARRATOR: She sang every song she knew… and when she ran out? She started making songs up!

MEI: [sings made-up song]

NARRATOR: And yet… every time she checked to see what had popped through the soil…?

MEI: There’s nothing there!

NARRATOR: ...not even — you guessed it — a little green sprout!

Meanwhile, at the marketplace, all Mei’s customers could talk about… was the emperor’s contest.

CUSTOMER 1: How’s your seed doing, Mei?

CUSTOMER 2: We bet it’s amazing!

CUSTOMER 3: And have you heard? Everyone who received a pot has grown a flower already!

CUSTOMER 4: ...Each one bigger and more beautiful than the next!

NARRATOR: Mei just nodded and smiled.

MEI: [not letting on how hurt/upset she is] Hmm. Big, beautiful flowers, you say? Well... isn’t that wonderful.

NARRATOR: Soon, the six months came to an end. The night before the emperor was expecting everyone back at the palace, Grandmother cooked Mei a dinner full of her favorite foods.

But before Mei could take her first bite, she began… to cry.

MEI: Oh, Grandmother! I was foolish to think I could care for a garden as grand as the emperor’s! I couldn’t even get this silly little seed to grow!

NARRATOR: Grandmother smiled.

GRANDMOTHER: But, my dear... what matters most… is that you tried! You watered, you sunned, you sang… you gave your heart and soul to this “silly little seed.” (beat) You’ve done your best, Mei! And that’s all any of us can do: our best.

MEI: But don’t you see? My best wasn’t good enough, Grandmother! My pot is empty! (beat) I can’t face the emperor now! I’m so ashamed.

NARRATOR: Grandmother lifted a wrinkled hand and wiped away Mei’s tears.

GRANDMOTHER: My child, your efforts have been true. It’s your duty to be humble and brave and show the emperor your truth. There’s no shame in that.

NARRATOR: So, the next morning, Mei took her empty pot back to the palace. Much to her dismay, she saw that her customers were, indeed, correct: all the other young men and women had grown magnificent flowers, each one bigger and more beautiful than the next!

They all beamed proudly as they lined up with their bursting flower pots. Mei stood in the very back, off to the side. She stared at the palace balcony, her heart heavy with dread.

Just then, a murmur rippled through the crowd. All eyes turned to the palace’s main entrance as who should stride through the archway, but the emperor himself! His embroidered silk robe flowed behind him, and rows of elegant beads swung from his tall rectangular hat.

The emperor wore a serious look as he paced up and down the rows of young men and women. He peered at each of their pots with piercing eyes.

EMPEROR: I see… Yes… Yes… Interesting… Very interesting…

NARRATOR: At last, the emperor reached Mei. With trembling hands, she held out her pot.

EMPEROR: And what do we have here? An empty pot?!?

NARRATOR: Mei hung her head.

MEI: Yes, your Majesty. I have brought an empty pot.

NARRATOR: The emperor arched an eyebrow. His head cocked to one side.

EMPEROR: But, where is your flower? Everyone else has brought me a magnificent flower! Each one bigger and more beautiful than the next!

NARRATOR: Mei lifted her head.

MEI: Your Majesty... the truth is, I cared for my seed... with all my heart and soul! I watered it, I sunned it, I sang countless songs… But, as you can see, I wasn’t able to grow a flower for you. (beat) I’m sorry.

NARRATOR: Mei expected the emperor to get angry, his face growing redder than a begonia.

But instead…?

The great ruler... smiled!

EMPEROR: Young woman, please, tell me: what is your name?

NARRATOR: Mei gulped.

MEI: Mei…

EMPEROR: Mei… please, come with me.

NARRATOR: The emperor took Mei’s hand and guided her to the front of the crowd, where one of the palace servants had set up a platform. The emperor led Mei up the stairs, then turned to the mass of young men and women.

EMPEROR: Ladies and gentleman! I am proud to present… your new empress! Mei!

NARRATOR: An even bigger murmur rippled through the crowd. Mei was so shocked she almost dropped her pot.

MEI: But, your majesty, I brought you an empty pot! I failed!

EMPEROR: No, Mei. You didn’t fail. On the contrary… You are the only one who succeeded!

NARRATOR: The emperor gazed out into the crowd.

EMPEROR: Six months ago, I gave everyone here a seed. I told you all to take the seed home, and see what you could grow. But what I didn’t tell you is that those seeds I gave you... were boiled! None of them could grow! Not even a little green sprout!

NARRATOR: Everyone gasped - including Mei.

EMPEROR: And yet... despite those seeds being boiled… after six months... you’ve all brought magnificent flowers! Some of which rival the blooms in my own royal garden! (beat) But the seeds you planted were not the seeds I gave you! They most definitely weren’t the seeds of an emperor! No. It is clear that you swapped them for seeds of dishonesty, pride, and cowardice.

NARRATOR: The emperor took Mei’s pot and held it up for all to see.

EMPEROR: The seed Mei planted... was the seed of an empress! A seed of truth, persistence, and courage! And that seed will grow trust, greatness, and leadership. (beat) Congratulations, Mei. You have won the contest.

NARRATOR: So... much to Mei’s delight… and surprise… she became the next empress.

But while the old emperor did retire, he didn’t disappear. Upon Mei’s request, he stayed on as the official royal gardener. He taught the new empress everything he knew about growing plants - and she taught him a few things as well!

Mei was a young ruler, but a wise one. She tended her empire like she tended her garden. She nurtured her precious citizens, and did her best to help them reach their greatest potential. It took a lot of work, and a lot of time, but Mei was happy… and her citizens were happy, too.

And when those citizens visited Mei’s royal garden, a handful of them would notice something new among the ravishing roses, dazzling dahlias and marvelous magnolias:

In the very back... off to the side… was an empty flower pot.

A true, persistent and courageous reminder that… in the end… we always reap what we sow.

Headshot of Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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