'The Governor's Puzzle' | Circle Round 128

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("The Governor's Puzzle" by Sabina Hahn)
("The Governor's Puzzle" by Sabina Hahn)

Think about a time you encountered a problem.

How did you try and solve it?

Sometimes, to solve a problem, we have to get creative and try new things. We have to think outside the box.

Or as we’ll hear in today’s story, we have to think inside the boat!

Voices in this episode include Elle Borders, Feodor Chin, Brandon Green, Thais Harris, Hrishikesh Hirway, Edward Hong, Jefferson A. Russell, and Tiffany Espensen. Check out Tiffany Espensen in Kirby Buckets and Bucket and Skinner, as well as the feature film, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

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

Coloring Page

("The Governor's Puzzle" by Sabina Hahn)
("The Governor's Puzzle" by 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, 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

The next time you come up against a problem, ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. What isn’t working?
  3. What have you tried already?
  4. What else can you try?

By going through these questions — and using your imagination — you’re bound to come up with plenty of problem-solving options. And ideally, one or more of them may very well work!

Musical spotlight: The Sheng

Eric Shimelonis playing the sheng, a.k.a the “mouth organ.” (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)
Eric Shimelonis playing the sheng, a.k.a the “mouth organ.” (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)

The gourd-type reed instrument known as the sheng is one of the oldest Chinese instruments; you’ll find mentions of instruments similar to the sheng in Chinese texts dating from the 14th to 12th centuries B.C.E.!

The sheng consists of a vertical bundle of at least 17 metal or bamboo pipes, each one varying in length and seated on a small wind chamber. At the root of each pipe is a free brass reed. To play, you hold the sheng in your hands and exhale or inhale through the mouthpiece, while using your fingers to cover air holes in the instrument. The air causes the reeds to vibrate, and they create a sound/pitch based on the length of the corresponding pipe. Because of how it operates — and sounds — many refer to the sheng as the “Chinese mouth organ.”


NARRATOR: Once upon a time... in the northern part of China... there lived a powerful Governor.

Legend has it that nearly two-thousand years ago, this Governor in the northern part of China received a most curious gift from a ruler in the southern part of China.

It was… an elephant.

No one in the northern part of China had ever seen an elephant before-- at that time, elephants only lived in the south!

So when word spread that this mysterious creature was on its way to the Governor’s palace, citizens journeyed from all across the region to catch a glimpse of the majestic mammal.

The morning of the elephant’s arrival, the fields around the Governor’s palace were thronging with people… each and every one of them buzzing and quivering with excitement.

PERSON 1: I wonder what the elephant looks like?!?! I’ve heard it’s bigger than a water buffalo!

PERSON 2: Well, I wonder what the elephant feels like?!?! I’ve heard it’s rougher than the bark of a gingko tree!

PERSON 3: And I wonder what the elephant sounds like??!! I’ve heard it’s louder than the loudest drum! 

NARRATOR: At long last, a messenger from the southern part of China appeared. In his hand was a rope. And tied to that rope… was the elephant. 

The colossal creature’s four stout legs were as wide as tree trunks… its two flapping ears were larger than serving trays… and when it lifted its long, grey trunk and let out a loud, trumpet-like call...

[SOT: Asian Elephant trumpet]

NARRATOR: ...the sound seemed to echo for miles!

Everyone stood and stared as the messenger led the elephant into the palace courtyard. There, the Governor was waiting with his court officials, his scholarly advisors, and everyone else who worked in the palace.

The mighty ruler tapped his finger to his chin as he looked his massive new gift up and down.

GOVERNOR: Well, well, well... I must say, I have received many gifts in my time. Sparkling gemstones! Glistening gold! Silks, spices, even rare, colorful birds! (beat) But this

NARRATOR: He waved a bejeweled hand toward the elephant.

GOVERNOR: ...this awesome creature surpasses them all! (beat) (delighted) I love it!

[SOT: cheering, whistling, clapping]

NARRATOR: As the crowd applauded, whistled, and cheered, the Governor turned to his team of advisors.

GOVERNOR: Listen up. I must know everything there is to know about my new gift… beginning with its height. (beat) Tell me... how tall is my elephant??

NARRATOR: The advisors went into a huddle, then bustled out of the courtyard. When they came back, they were carrying a ladder. They set the ladder next to the elephant, then took turns climbing up the rungs, measuring the animal’s body as they went.

After comparing their results, they turned to the governor with big smiles.

ADVISOR 1: (pleased to announce) Your elephant is nine feet tall, Your Excellency!

ADVISOR 2: (pleased to announce) Nine feet tall!!!

ADVISOR 3: (pleased to announce) That’s approximately the height of one-and-a-half men!

NARRATOR: The Governor’s lips curled into a grin.

GOVERNOR: One-and-a-half men, you say...!?! My, my! What an impressive creature! (beat) Now tell me...

NARRATOR: He arched an eyebrow.

GOVERNOR: long is my elephant??

NARRATOR: Again, the advisors went into a huddle, then lined up single-file behind the elephant. One by one, they made their way from the creature’s swinging tail to the tip of its wrinkled trunk, scrutinizing its baggy, grey body as they went. And once all were in agreement, they turned back to the Governor.

ADVISOR 1: (pleased to announce) Your elephant is twenty feet long, Your Excellency!

ADVISOR 2: (pleased to announce) Twenty feet long!!

ADVISOR 3: (pleased to announce) That’s roughly three times as long as Your Lordship’s bed!

NARRATOR: The Governor clapped his hands.

GOVERNOR: Three times as long as my bed, you say...?!? That’s stupendous! (beat) So now tell me...

NARRATOR: He rubbed his hands together.

GOVERNOR: (slowly) … How much does my elephant weigh???

NARRATOR: This time, the advisors did not go into a huddle. In fact, they didn’t even move! They just stood there, silent and still.

GOVERNOR: Yes….??? What are you waiting for?? (beat) I said, how much does my elephant weigh???!??

NARRATOR: The advisors said nothing. Instead, they cleared their throats and stared down at their slippers.

GOVERNOR: Come now, people! Why can’t you tell me how much my elephant weighs? What’s the problem?

NARRATOR: The advisors exchanged a look. A sheepish look.

Then they turned to the Governor with frowning faces.

ADVISOR 1: Well, you see, Your Excellency…

ADVISOR 2: order to weigh your elephant... we need a scale.

ADVISOR 3: ...and there isn’t a scale big enough in all of northern China!

NARRATOR: Now it was the Governor who said nothing. He just furrowed his brow and fixed his advisors with a withering stare.

And then, with a clenched jaw… and clenched fists… he spoke.

GOVERNOR: (frustrated) This is unacceptable! Surely someone here can tell me how much my elephant weighs! (beat) Someone! Anyone!

NARRATOR: The Governor’s eyes flashed across the crowd of onlookers. But no one spoke up. The courtyard grew so quiet you could hear the swishing of the elephant’s tail.

Until, all of a sudden, the silence was broken…

DAUGHTER: I can do it!

NARRATOR: a voice.

DAUGHTER: I can tell you how much the elephant weighs! (beat) Just you wait!

[theme music in]

NARRATOR: Who do you think spoke up?

And can they really weigh the Governor’s elephant?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.

[theme music out]


[theme music in]

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

[theme music out]

NARRATOR: Before the break, a powerful governor was determined to weigh an elephant — the first elephant ever seen in northern China.

The governor’s advisors were stumped. After all, no scale was large enough to do the deed!

But then someone else spoke up and offered to weigh the elephant.

Someone very near and dear to the governor’s heart.

DAUGHTER: I can weigh the elephant… Father!

NARRATOR: The Governor blinked his eyes and gazed down... at his daughter. The young girl was six going on seven... but the Governor often joked she was six going on seventeen. He bent down and patted the precocious, pint-sized girl on the head.

GOVERNOR: (humoring her) Oh, my dear… that’s very sweet of you to offer your services. But if my scholarly advisors can’t devise a method for weighing the elephant, then how in the world can a mere school girl like you?

NARRATOR: A twinkling smile touched the young girl’s lips. She looked up at her father with glittering eyes.

DAUGHTER: (confident) It’s easy, Father! I have a plan that’s sure to work. You’ll just have to trust me. (beat) May I give it a try?

NARRATOR: The Governor studied his daughter’s shining, determined face. He took a deep breath, then let it out again.

GOVERNOR: All right, my child. (beat) Let’s see what you can do!

NARRATOR: The governor’s daughter stood up tall, straightened her shoulders, then turned to the messenger who had brought the elephant all the way from the southern part of China.

DAUGHTER: You, sir! Can you please lead the elephant down to the river?

NARRATOR: The messenger was confused by this request... but he did as he was asked, and turned the elephant in the direction of the water.

DAUGHTER: Thank you! (beat) And you! 

NARRATOR: She pointed to the governor’s boatman, who managed the palace’s fleet of river-going vessels.

DAUGHTER: Can you please have a boat waiting at the river? A large boat — hefty enough to carry an elephant?

NARRATOR: The boatman wasn’t sure what good a boat would do, but he heeded the girl’s request and hurried off toward the boathouse.

DAUGHTER: Thank you! (beat) And you! 

NARRATOR: She waved to the governor’s crew of stonemasons.

DAUGHTER: Can you please bring a whole bunch of rocks to the river? Big rocks — the kind you would use to build a sturdy wall? As many loads as your carts can carry!

NARRATOR: The stonemasons were just as perplexed as the messenger and the boatman had been, but they nodded their heads, turned on their heels, and raced to the quarry.

DAUGHTER: Thank you! (beat) And finally… you!

NARRATOR: The young girl walked up to the Governor’s chief carpenter.

DAUGHTER: Can you please give me a knife? Sharp enough to carve some wood?

NARRATOR: The carpenter was just as befuddled as the rest. But he reached into his pocket and fished out a knife, which he handed to the Governor’s daughter.

DAUGHTER: Thank you! (beat) And now…

NARRATOR: The girl grabbed her father’s hand.

DAUGHTER: ...let’s go!

NARRATOR: She took off running toward the river; her father struggled to keep up. All of the palace officials, advisors and other workers followed behind, joined by a gaggle of curious citizens.

Once everyone reached the wide, flowing river, they saw the boatman had already moored a big wooden boat to the dock.

DAUGHTER: This is fantastic! Thank you!

NARRATOR: The Governor’s daughter let go of her dad’s hand, then raced down the dock and scrambled onto the boat. She leaned over the boat’s edge, took out the knife, and carved a notch on the side… right at the waterline, where the boat met the river’s surface.

DAUGHTER: (having made her mark) There! (beat) Now, if you please…?

NARRATOR: She motioned toward the messenger.

DAUGHTER: Send the elephant aboard!

NARRATOR: The messenger barked a command, and the giant grey elephant trundled down the dock. When the creature stepped its four mammoth feet onto the boat, the vessel rocked back and forth; the Governor’s daughter had to fight to steady herself.

DAUGHTER: (to the elephant) Woah! You do weigh a lot, don’t you, buddy? (beat) And we’ll soon discover how much!!

NARRATOR: Once the boat settled, the Governor’s daughter moved to one side and peered over the edge. She noticed that the notch she had carved was no longer at the waterline… instead, it was underneath the waterline! The elephant’s enormous heft had made the vessel sink down a few inches.

Without missing a beat, the Governor’s daughter took the knife she was holding and carved a new notch at the new, higher waterline.

DAUGHTER: Alright! Now that that’s done... (to the elephant) you may be dismissed, my friend! Off you go!

NARRATOR: The messenger gave a whistle, and the elephant tromped onto the dock. The minute the animal disembarked, the boat bobbed back up again. The first notch the Governor’s daughter had carved was now once again even with the surface of the water.

As the elephant shuffled back to shore, everyone in the crowd looked on in bewilderment — including the Governor.

GOVERNOR: (calling from the shore) Um, dear daughter...? May I ask what you’re doing? How is any of this helping us discover the elephant’s weight?

DAUGHTER: Patience, Father! We’re getting to that. (beat) Now... where are those rocks…?

NARRATOR: Right on cue, the stonemasons stepped forward. As instructed, they had brought dozens of carts, each one brimming with craggy, gray rocks from the quarry.

DAUGHTER: Thank you, folks! These will do quite nicely. (beat) Please, load the rocks onto the boat, until I tell you to stop.

NARRATOR: The stonemasons got to work wheeling the carts down the dock. They took turns emptying load after load of rocks onto the boat.

And all the while, the Governor’s daughter kept her eyes on the second notch she had carved on the boat’s side — the one that marked the waterline when the elephant was on board.

DAUGHTER: (keeping her eyes on the mark) Alright, folks… just a few more rocks,… a few more… a few more… Okayyyyy… STOP!

NARRATOR: The stonemasons stopped dumping rocks onto the boat. All eyes were on the Governor’s daughter, as everyone waited to see what she would do next.

DAUGHTER: Now, good people — please remove these rocks, and take them back to the quarry. Once you’re there, use your scales to weigh each rock one by one. Write down each rock’s weight, and when you’ve finished, bring me the list.

NARRATOR: The stonemasons obeyed, loading up their carts and wheeling the rocks back to the quarry, so they could weigh them.

Meanwhile, the onlookers on the shore began chattering and murmuring amongst themselves.

PERSON 1: I’m sorry, but what does the Governor’s daughter think she’s doing?!?

PERSON 2: Her scheme seems downright harebrained! 

PERSON 3: Seriously! What does the Governor think he’s doing, entrusting such a complicated task to a mere child…?!???

NARRATOR: The Governor heard what the people were saying, and felt his cheeks burn. He took a breath, lifted his robes, then marched down the dock. When he reached the big, wooden boat, he climbed in and sat beside his daughter.

GOVERNOR: Daughter! You’re making me look like a fool! First you have the elephant get on the boat with you... then you have it get off…! Then you load the boat up with rocks... then you load the rocks off…! How will any of this nonsense help us weigh the elephant?

NARRATOR: The Governor’s daughter turned to her dad with a grin on her face and a glint in her eye.

DAUGHTER:Nonsense,” you say…? Oh, on the contrary, dear Father! All of this makes perfect sense! (beat) (confident, mysterious) You’ll see.

NARRATOR: Before long, the stonemasons came bustling back to the river. One of them dashed down to the boat and handed the Governor’s daughter a piece of paper.

DAUGHTER: Ah! The weights of all the rocks! Thank you!

NARRATOR: The girl took the paper… then handed it to the Governor.

DAUGHTER: Here you go, Father. I’ll let you do the honors.

GOVERNOR: “The honors”...?

DAUGHTER: Yes! Please take all of these weights… and add them up.

GOVERNOR: “Add them up”…?!?

DAUGHTER: That’s right! (beat) And no hurry. Take your time.

NARRATOR: The Governor squinted at the long list of numbers and began to calculate.

GOVERNOR: (to himself as he adds in his head) Okay… Let’s see… one-hundred pounds… plus one-hundred-and-five pounds… plus ninety-eight pounds… plus ninety-two

… plus one-hundred-and-seven... plus one-hundred-and-four… plus ninety-five… plus plus ninety-nine… plus ninety-seven… plus ninety-two...

NARRATOR: The Governor continued adding up the weights of the rocks. Until, at last…

GOVERNOR: ...Twelve-thousand! The combined weight of the rocks my stonemasons loaded into this boat is twelve-thousand pounds! (beat) But, Daughter...What does this have to do with the weight of the elephant?

NARRATOR: The young girl flashed her father a smile.

DAUGHTER: Only everything! (beat) Listen. When I first boarded this boat, all by myself, the waterline — that’s the line where the boat met the surface of the river — that line was at a certain point. I used my knife to mark that point. (beat) Are you with me so far…?

GOVERNOR: I think so...

DAUGHTER: Good. Now… when the elephant came on board, the boat sunk a little bit; the roly-poly fellow is pretty gargantuan, after all! So once we were floating in the boat together, I used my knife to mark the new waterline. (beat) Do you follow?


DAUGHTER: So… after the elephant went back to the shore... and I was all alone again... the boat floated back up, to its original waterline.

GOVERNOR: (starting to get it) ...Which was the first notch you made…

DAUGHTER: Exactly! And as the stonemasons came onto the boat and loaded it up with rocks, I kept my eye on the elephant’s waterline.

GOVERNOR: ...Which was the second notch you made!

DAUGHTER: Mm-hmm! And the moment the boat sunk to the elephant’s waterline again, I told them to stop!

GOVERNOR: (figuring it out) Because at that point…

NARRATOR: The wheels in the Governor’s brain were really turning now.

GOVERNOR: that point, the weight of the rocks was equal to the weight of the elephant!

DAUGHTER: Precisely! (beat) So... what was that number you calculated again?

NARRATOR: The Governor consulted his memory banks.

GOVERNOR: Twelve-thousand pounds.

DAUGHTER: Then the elephant weighs twelve-thousand pounds! (beat) And that, Father…

NARRATOR: The Governor’s daughter stood up and held out her arms.

DAUGHTER: (slow) ...That is how you weigh an elephant.

NARRATOR: Well, that was the last time anyone in the northern part of China ever doubted what “a mere child” could do.

In fact, legend has it that this same child went on to rule all of China!

Which just goes to show you: amazing things can happen when you think outside the box… and you aren’t afraid to rock the boat.

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



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