Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Many of you may be familiar with the title under which this story was published in 1938: The Five Chinese Brothers. Since that time, the book has become somewhat controversial for its stereotypical depiction of Chinese people and the idea that they all “look alike” (though that’s not really a racist comment, that’s just the only way the story works). Believing Claire Huchett-Bishop’s story to still be an entertaining and valuable one, I have rewritten it without mentioning the brothers’ ethnicity. In your mind, they can be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Indian, Mongolian, African, French, Welsh, Martian, Mexican, Canadian, Robots…well, you get the idea.

This is a story about brothers. Or, to be more specific, it’s about five brothers. Or, to be even more specific, it’s about five identical brothers (quintuplets, that’s called). OR, to be ludicrously specific, it’s about five identical brothers named Jon, Don, Ron Han, and Larry, who caught his parents by surprise as they were expecting quadruplets, and didn’t have a name ready for him so he ended up being named after the doctor.

But the curious thing about these five brothers…well, I should say another curious thing because identical quintuplets is pretty rare to start with so that’s awfully curious right there…but not only that, each brother had a strange ability and each one was different from the others. The first brother, Jon, could swallow the sea. The second, Don, had an iron neck. Ron could not be burned. Han could hold his breath forever. And Larry could stretch his legs for almost a mile.

Why? I don’t know, it’s a story! Just go with it.

One day when Jon was out by the seaside, a little boy who knew about his special talent asked if he could help him gather oysters from the seabed. Jon was hesitant at first but he agreed. “But,” he said to the boy, “You have to do exactly what I say when I say it. When I tell you it’s time to come back, you have to come back. Agreed?”

The boy agreed and Jon swallowed the entire sea, holding it inside himself. Now the little boy was free to walk along the empty seabed and pick up oysters. After a while, Jon was straining to hold the sea in so he called out “Okay, time to come back!” But if the boy heard, he didn’t answer, and just kept gathering shells. Jon thought he might burst and he called out again for the boy, but he didn’t come back. Finally, Jon could take it no longer and he released the sea, which rushed out of his mouth and covered the seabed as it had before…the little boy was nowhere to be seen.

Jon did what he thought was the only honorable thing, and went to tell the boy’s mother. She did not entirely understand all of what Jon said, but she did understand the part about Jon and her son going to sea and only Jon coming back. She at once called for the authorities and Jon was arrested and condemned as a murderer! The judge said that on the following morning, he would have his head cut off.

“What is your last request?” said the judge, which gave Jon a great idea.

“Please allow me to go home and say goodbye to my mother,” said Jon. The judge agreed and two large guards led Jon to his home. They waited outside to escort Jon to the execution the next morning. But, what they didn’t know was that Jon lived in this house with his mother and his four identical brothers, and when he told them all what had happened, they agreed to help him.

The next morning it was not Jon, but Don who accompanied the guards to the executioner’s block. With a cheery smile, which perplexed everyone who saw it, he allowed himself to be led up to the chopping block, his head covered in a black bag and placed on the block. He whistled as the executioner raised his axe and brought it down on Don’s neck…off of which it unceremoniously bounced. Of course, they had no idea that this was Don, the brother with the iron neck, and they tried for hours to cut his head off. The executioner resharpened his axe so many times that he soon wore it down to almost nothing!

Finally, the judge decided that if they were going to execute him, they’d have to try something else and he decided that the next day, he would be burned at the stake. Once again, he was allowed a last request and, once again, he asked to go home to see his mother. So it was that the next morning, Ron was taken in place of his brothers, tied to the stake and surrounded by dry wood and straw. The fire was lit and the flames surrounded him. But Ron, you may recall, could not be burned by any fire, so he just sat there humming Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” as the flames licked higher.

When it became apparent that fire wasn’t going to cut it, they had to put their heads together again and ultimately decided to smother him to death. As before, his request to spend his last night with his mother was granted, and, as before, Ron traded places with one of his brothers inside the house. The next morning, Han was taken to the courthouse where he was strapped down to a table and a heavy pillow was placed over his face, completely covering his nose and mouth, making it impossible to draw any breath. Fortunately, Han was the brother who could hold his breath indefinitely, so he was quite comfortable during his execution.

The judge was beginning to get very annoyed now, so he came up with one last plan: The accused (who the Judge still thouht was Jon but was, at this point, Han, in case you’re having a hard time keeping up) would be placed in a boat, taken far out to sea. His arms would be tied behind his back and a heavy stone would be tied to his legs. Then he would be thrown overboard where he would sink to the bottom of the sea and drown! And even if he didn’t (the judge was thinking of the botched smothering), he would certainly starve or die of thirst trapped in the sea for the rest of his life.

It was with some reluctance this time that the judge granted the prisoner’s last request. But grant it he did, and Han went home and explained everything to Larry who, I’d like to remind you, was not able to hold his breath indefinitely regardless of what the Judge believed. The next morning, Larry was led to a boat, taken out to sea, had his arms tied and the stone attached to his leg, and was dropped into the ocean where he did, indeed, sink to the very bottom…at which point he stretched his legs so that they were as long as the ocean was deep and he stood there, his head above the water which only came up to his hips…though it was still very hard to walk with that heavy stone around his ankles. Larry started to think that maybe he would die of thirst or starve to death.

“Hello!” said a voice. Larry looked around and saw the little boy who had started all this rowing over to him in a little dinghy. “Sorry I didn’t listen before,” said the boy, still thinking this was Jon from the beginning of the story, “but I was having so much fun walking around in the ocean. I thought I was a goner when all that water came rushing toward me. But when you swallowed the sea you also swallowed everything in the sea, including this dinghy that capsized and sank to the bottom a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve been trying to get back to shore. Hey, when did you get so tall?”

Larry explained the situation to the boy who felt very guilty about causing Jon, Don, Ron, Han and Larry so much trouble. The boy at once untied Larry’s arms and Larry was then able to untie the stone from his feet, at which point he climbed into the boat, returned his legs to their normal length and helped the boy row to shore.

Everyone was happy that the boy was alive and they reasoned that their inability to kill his “murderer” must have been a sign that he was innocent all along. Larry was released and returned home to his family, who lived very happily ever after.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchett-Bishop (1938) In this version, the brothers have no names and the little boy at the beginning actually does drown. I figured that if we were wiling to believe the incredible abilities of the brothers, there’s no reason we wouldn’t believe that the boy could survive being hit with the entire ocean.
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