'The Enchanted Paintbrush' | Circle Round 7823:32

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

When’s the last time you wanted more of something?

Maybe you wanted more books, or more toys, Perhaps you just wanted more time to stay up before bed.

In a moment, we’ll meet a greedy man who always wants more, more, more… until, in the end, he gets way more than he bargained for!

Our story is called “The Enchanted Paintbrush.” Versions of this folktale come from China.

Voices in this episode include Amy Brentano, Laura Gardner, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Stacy Keach and Phillipa Soo.

Phillipa is a Broadway star who originated leading roles in Hamilton, The Parisian Woman, and Amelie. Grown-ups: look for Phillipa in the upcoming feature film The Broken Heart Gallery. Kids: listen for her in The One and Only Ivan, Disney’s animated film coming out in 2020. Stacy Keach stars in CBS’s Man with a Plan, as well as CNBC’s American Greed. Look for him on stage in select cities in the upcoming one-man show Pamplona, where he portrays legendary author, Ernest Hemingway.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Virginia Marshall. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Circle Round’s artist is Sabina Hahn. Circle Round’s executive producer is Katherine Brewer.

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on FacebookTwitterInstagram 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

If you had Liang’s magic paintbrush, and wanted to use it for good — only good — what would you paint? Find some paper, and draw a picture of what you would create with your enchanted brush.

Then, share that picture with someone you love. If you’d like, have a grown-up share it with us on Instagram! Our Instagram handle is @circleroundpodcast.

Musical Spotlight: Pipa

The wooden, pear-shaped, four-stringed lute known as the pipa 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 went on, musicians began holding the instrument in a more upright position - as Eric Shimelonis did for this week’s magical Chinese folktale!


NARRATOR: Once upon a time... there was a powerful emperor.

The mighty ruler wore the most luxurious clothing, ate the most sumptuous food, and lived in a grand palace with so many rooms, floors and hallways, that his hundreds of guards and servants often got lost!

So… given everything the emperor had, you’d think he was content, right...? Satisfied...?


You see, the emperor was greedy… very greedy. In fact, can you guess what his favorite word was?

EMPEROR: More! (beat) I want more! More... more... more!!!!

NARRATOR: The emperor was always brainstorming ways to get more riches and more power. One day, as he lounged on his towering, gold throne encrusted with jade and pearls, he had… an idea.

EMPEROR: I know! To bring even more money to my coffers, I’ll raise taxes! One-hundred percent! From here on out, taxes will be doubled for every single person in the land… no matter how rich or how poor!

NARRATOR: That meant that every farmer, every fisher, every single person in all the land had to give more of their earnings to the emperor, whether they could afford to or not.

So… as you can imagine, it was a hard time for many people… including a young woman named Liang.

Liang lived on her own, in a small village by the sea. To support herself, each morning she walked along the beach and collected pieces of wood that had drifted ashore. Then she hauled the wood to the marketplace, to sell.

LIANG: Firewood! Get your firewood here!

NARRATOR: Liang made just enough money to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly. Of course, that roof was patched-together and often leaked... and that food was usually nothing more than a small bowl of rice… but Liang was content. Satisfied.


You see, for as long as Liang could remember, she dreamed of being… a painter. But she couldn’t scrape together the funds to buy a paintbrush of her own.

So every day… while she was on the beach collecting wood… she would hunt for the straightest, skinniest stick she could find and drop it in her knapsack. Then, after work, she’d run back to the shore and use her stick to draw pictures in the sand.

Liang drew everything — animals, flowers, landscapes — and the more she drew, the more real her pictures began to look… the more lifelike. Soon, her fellow villagers began to notice.

PERSON 1: My goodness, Liang! It’s like that butterfly of yours could leap right off the sand, and flutter into the air!

PERSON 2: And that dog! I swear he’s about to open his mouth and bark!

PERSON 3: How about that cascading waterfall? Can’t you just hear the roar and feel the spray?

PERSON 1: / PERSON 2: / PERSON 3: (ad-lib expressions of agreement) Why, yes! I absolutely can! It’s so true! My goodness!

LIANG: (humble) Thank you, everyone! Thank you!

NARRATOR: One night, Liang stayed up especially late drawing her pictures in the sand. The moon was full, and its shimmering glow lit up the empty beach. Suddenly, Liang heard a voice.

WOMAN: Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that when the sun comes up… that rooster you’re drawing will start crowing its head off!

NARRATOR: Liang dropped her stick and looked up. Standing before her was an old woman with flowing white hair.

LIANG: (sincere) Thank you for the kind words, ma’am! I love making art more than anything else in the world; it makes me feel so wonderful! So alive! (beat) You know… if I could... I’d spend the whole day painting! But alas, I can’t even afford a real paintbrush.

WOMAN: (mysterious) Is that so…?

NARRATOR: Just then, a cloud passed over the moon and everything went dark. When the moon shone its light again, Liang saw that her straight, skinny stick... had vanished. In its place, was a sparkling, silver paintbrush!

WOMAN: This, Liang, is an enchanted paintbrush. Anything you paint with it will become real! Just like that! (beat) But heed my words. The brush’s powers must be used carefully… and wisely… and for good. Only for good.

NARRATOR: Then another cloud drifted across the moon and the sky went black. When the moon reappeared, the old woman… was gone.

But the silver paintbrush was still there! Eager to test it out, Liang raced home and swept the brush through the air, as if she were painting... a peacock. And there, before her very eyes…

LIANG: (ad-lib expression of amazement) Wow!

NARRATOR: ...was an actual peacock! A glossy green bird with a magnificent red, gold and blue tail. The bird flapped its wings, then soared through the kitchen window and up into the sky.

LIANG: (ad-lib expression of surprise/wonderment) That was amazing! (beat) But wait…

NARRATOR: Liang hadn’t eaten all day, and her stomach was growling.

LIANG: If anything I paint will become real… I think it’s time for a dinner break!

NARRATOR: As usual, Liang’s cupboards were bare… so can you guess what she did?

She twirled the paintbrush over the table, as if she were painting a bowl of noodle soup. Sure enough…

LIANG: (smelling the magically-appearing soup) Mmmmm!

NARRATOR: ...a real bowl of soup appeared, with fragrant wisps of steam curling off the top!

LIANG: This is unbelievable! (beat) But I have to remember what the old woman said: “The brush’s powers must be used carefully... and wisely... and for good. Only for good.”

NARRATOR: Liang sipped her soup and drummed her fingers on the table. Suddenly, her eyes lit up.

LIANG: (a-ha moment) I know! The emperor’s taxes have been so hard on this village. I’ll take the paintbrush to the marketplace and help my neighbors! Anything they need, I’ll paint it for them. (beat) If that isn’t using the brush’s powers “for good”... I don’t know what is!

NARRATOR: So, the next morning, Liang strolled through the crowd at the marketplace, offering to paint for anyone who was down on their luck.

She found a poor farmer who’d lost his one and only work-horse.

LIANG: Here you go, friend! I’ve painted you a strong, black steed... plus a harness and plow!

NARRATOR: She met a little boy who had torn his one and only coat:

LIANG: How about a warm new jacket, kiddo? Plus a colorful scarf!

NARRATOR: And she came across a musician who was so hungry, he had sold all of his instruments for food.

LIANG: How about if I paint you a brand, new flute, sir? Plus a drum... and bamboo drumsticks?

NARRATOR: Word of Liang’s enchanted paintbrush spread… and over the weeks that followed, she used the brush to paint for anyone in the village who was struggling.

But it wasn’t long before the news reached the ears of someone who definitely was not struggling:

The emperor.

Remember him? The one who always wanted ‘more, more, more’?

EMPEROR: My, my, my. Just think of the things I could paint with that silver paintbrush! Why, I could take over the entire world! (beat) I must have it for myself!

NARRATOR: Then he called for his guards and sent them to Liang’s village, with orders to bring back the young woman… and her enchanted silver paintbrush.


What do you think will happen next?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.


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

When we left off, the rich and powerful emperor ordered his guards to go to the village and bring back Liang… and her magical silver paintbrush. An old woman had given it to her on the beach… and anything Liang painted with it immediately became real!

The guards led Liang to the emperor’s throne room. When the high and mighty ruler spotted the brush, his greedy eyes gleamed.

EMPEROR: Young lady… I’ve heard about this enchanted paintbrush of yours. It seems to have wondrous powers! (beat) But I won’t believe it until I see it. How about you use it to paint me a brick of gold…?

NARRATOR: Liang knew it was her duty to obey the emperor’s orders… and use her paintbrush to paint whatever the powerful man wanted… but she couldn’t get the old woman’s words out of her head.

WOMAN: (engineer: reverb the earlier line, from p. 3) The brush’s powers must be used carefully… and wisely… and for good. Only for good.

EMPEROR: Well, what are you waiting for? I said, use that paintbrush of yours to paint me a brick of gold! (beat) On second thought, paint me a thousand bricks of gold. One for each room in my palace!

NARRATOR: Liang looked the emperor right in the eye.

LIANG: I can’t do that, Your Majesty.

EMPEROR: What?!?? 

NARRATOR: The great ruler’s jaw dropped all the way down to his embroidered satin robe.

EMPEROR: You would dare defy an order from the highest sovereign in all the land?!? (beat) Very well, then. I’ll paint the gold bricks myself!

NARRATOR: He snapped his bejeweled fingers, and his guards snatched Liang’s silver paintbrush right out of her fingers.

LIANG: (ad-lib sound of paintbrush being snatched away)

NARRATOR: The emperor took the brush and held it up admiringly. Then, he began swishing it around in front of him. Instantly, what should appear... floating in mid-air… but a glittering, gold brick!

EMPEROR: (delighted) Ha ha! It works!

NARRATOR: But then, the glittering, gold brick transformed into a regular, clay brick...

EMPEROR: (confused) What?!?

NARRATOR: ...and plummeted to the ground… landing right on the emperor’s big toe.

EMPEROR: (ad-lib pained expression) Ow!

NARRATOR: Liang lowered her eyes and tried not to giggle. The red-faced emperor clenched his fists.

EMPEROR: This isn’t how the silver paintbrush is supposed to work! (beat) I’ll try something else!

NARRATOR: So the emperor painted a dazzling necklace — a thick gold chain strung with emeralds and rubies and diamonds. But just as he reached out to grab it...

EMPEROR: Come here, my precious!

NARRATOR: ...the dazzling necklace turned into... a snake!

EMPEROR: (ad-lib frightened expression) Yahhhh!

NARRATOR: ...and slithered out of the room.

EMPEROR: (ad-lib whimper/cry)

NARRATOR: The emperor’s hands were trembling… and his big toe was throbbing… but he was determined to make the enchanted silver paintbrush work. So, he clenched his teeth... and flashed Liang a smile as sweet as sugar.

EMPEROR: (frustrated, trying to butter her up) Young lady. It’s clear that you alone possess the power to use this silver paintbrush. What can I give you so that you’ll paint for me? Jewels? Silks? Delicious food? Anything you want… it’s yours.

NARRATOR: Liang took a deep breath.

LIANG: Well... since you’re offering… you can lower the taxes that have been bleeding my neighbors dry! We are humble people, and we can’t afford to pay such costly dues!

NARRATOR: The emperor leaned back and crossed his arms.

EMPEROR: Lower the taxes, eh…? (beat) Very well, then. I’ll lower the taxes. But first, you must paint whatever I ask. (beat) Come with me.

NARRATOR: Liang followed the emperor and his guards out of the palace and down to the seashore. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and when they reached the water, its clear, blue surface was smooth as a mirror.

EMPEROR: Alright, young lady. I want you to paint me… a boat. A big, beautiful sailboat twice the size of the vessels I already have!

NARRATOR: Liang nodded, then lifted her brush and swept it through the air. She painted a grand sailboat, with carved wooden sides and bright crimson sails. The emperor looked the vessel up and down, then climbed aboard.

EMPEROR: Splendid! Now... I want you to paint me… more guards. At least twice as many men as I have now!

NARRATOR: Liang was puzzled, but she did as the emperor requested. She painted hundreds of guards, all of them standing straight and tall in their matching uniforms. The emperor clapped his hands, and every one of his guards… old and new… marched onto the ship.

EMPEROR: Marvelous! Now… I want you to paint me… some wind. A great blast of wind that will whisk me and my guards out to sea!

NARRATOR: Liang cocked her head.

LIANG: But wait! Before you go, you’ll lower those taxes... right?

NARRATOR: The emperor narrowed his eyes.

EMPEROR: Actually… no. I’ve changed my mind. You see, now that I have this magnificent boat, and all of these strapping, brave guards… we are going to sail across the sea… to foreign lands! And we are going to conquer each and every one of those foreign lands… and expand my empire across the entire earth! Then, all the riches of the world will be mine! All mine!

NARRATOR: Liang could hardly believe her ears. She knew the emperor was hungry for more, more, more… but she never realized just how hungry he was!

EMPEROR: So, young lady...? Get to it! Paint me a nice, big gust of wind! Now!

NARRATOR: Liang hesitated… but then she lifted her paintbrush and painted a few gentle strokes. Immediately, ripples formed on the water, the crimson sails puffed up with air, and the boat began floating out to sea.

But the greedy emperor was not satisfied.

EMPEROR: (as boat starts drifting away) Oh, come now! You call that “wind”? I can breathe harder than that!

NARRATOR: Liang lifted the paintbrush and slashed it through the air. The wind picked up, and the emperor’s guards held on to their hats as the sea rumbled, and frothy waves thrashed the boat this way and that.

But still… the greedy emperor was not satisfied.

EMPEROR: Paint me more wind! More!

NARRATOR: Liang swung the brush all over the place. The sea roared like a dragon, and the angry waves crashed higher and higher, drenching the emperor and his guards from head to toe.

But still…

EMPEROR: More! More!

NARRATOR: As the ship was tossed farther and farther out to sea, Liang could hear the greedy emperor’s cries grow quieter...


NARRATOR: ...and quieter…

EMPEROR: (quieter) More!

NARRATOR: ...and quieter…

EMPEROR: (fade out as he disappears) Moooooooooore!

NARRATOR: ....until, at last, his voice was lost...… and the boat, was too.

Liang stood on the shore, gazing at the enchanted silver paintbrush, and knew exactly what she would do.

She gripped the brush and swirled it up, down and around… until she had painted... a brand new emperor! A kind, generous leader who would rule the people with fairness and compassion… and use his powers carefully, wisely, and... yes... for good. Only for good.

That was the last time Liang used the enchanted paintbrush. Some say she hid it away in her house… others say she flung it out into the sea. Either way, Liang saved up her pennies and bought a regular, wooden brush — just like she’d always wanted. And she spent the rest of her days making art, and selling her paintings in the marketplace.

And she didn’t need anything more than that.

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