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Image by Victor Larracuente

‘The Story of Ng  吳’

There is a very ancient Chinese story about a man and his surname, Ng. One version goes like this.

Once there was a cruel emperor in the early years of the Middle Kingdom who delighted in not only torturing his enemies but also tormenting his own courtiers. He would devise horrific stratagems to test those whom he suspected to be traitorous, seditious or, just maybe, slightly disloyal. When the emperor discovered that a few of his own kindred would dare rebel, he had all his brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and distant relatives flayed alive in public for all to see. No one was safe in this kingdom. This was the emperor’s object lesson for all.

Ng witnessed all this, and understood that he, his wife and son would be subject to such treatment, given time. Secretly he prepared for his family to flee from this tyranny. 

One day, the emperor summoned Ng to court. At first, they chatted about expansion of the empire westward. Then the emperor presented a special dish for Ng. It was rabbit stew. He expected Ng to eat the whole bowl. The emperor laughed that the dish was not poisoned, but he did not take part, although there was a similar bowl in front of him. The courtier knew this was a test, a test of obedience, loyalty, and subservience.

Ng instantly discovered what was in his bowl. Tears swelled in his eyes. He knew he had to eat the flesh of his favourite son. He knew also that if he should refuse he would die painfully and soon all his family, kin and clan would be put to death in horrible ways. Ng ate solemnly and swiftly.

The emperor gave a satisfied smile. He and Ng now had a silent understanding. The cruel ruler permitted Ng to leave the court.

Once outside and distant enough, Ng vomited out the stew. According to legend, the pieces of undigested meal turned into rabbits and scampered into the woods. On that day, Ng swore that all his descendants would never ever eat rabbits. 

According to my father, there is a vocal pun to Ng’s pledge. *Ng ho jai*. In one way, the phrase can be interpreted as “The Ngs love their sons,” and in another, “The Ngs don’t eat rabbits.”

Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian, whose short stories have appeared in publications such as AsianadianMany-Mouthed Birds, and Ricepaper Magazine. “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English” has been anthologized often. He has co-authored textbooks, such as Essay Do’s and Don’ts for Oxford Canada. He has started exploring the horror genre.


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