Once upon a time there lived in China young man named Chang. He was intelligent and sincere, and more than anything, he loved flowers. Nothing pleased him more than watching the lilacs, lilies and peonies as they bloomed in the springtime. In the winter he anticipated the appearance of the beautiful narcissus. He could not choose a favorite flower, for he loved morning and evening glories, pomegranate and peach flowers, and the summer lotus that floated on the ponds. He enjoyed fragrant roses, hardy chrysanthemums, dazzling dahlias.
Chang admired the emperor of the land because he had heard he also loved flowers and supervised a beautiful garden on the palace grounds.
Now the emperor was growing old. He had no son, and so he had no successors. For many years he had carefully considered how to choose a man he might name as the next emperor. Then one day in early spring as he wandered through his garden, he came up with a most marvelous plan.
The very next day the emperor sent word to all the young men in the land, announcing that at the end of that week he would hand out seeds to anyone who wanted to grow a flower.
“Whoever grows the finest flower from among all those brought before me,” the emperor decreed, “will be my successor.”
When Chang heard the news, he filled a bright blue pot with moss and compost, topsoil and sandy loam. Satisfied that his soil was rich and moist, he carried it to the palace. There he stood in line among hundreds of others. Each young man held a pot — some huge, some tiny, some round, some tall and slender — and each received a seed from the emperor’s own hand.
Chang pressed the seed into the soil and carefully covered it with a light coating to keep it warm. Then he hurried home.
There Chang tended his seed with the same devotion he offered all his other plants. He was careful not to give it too much water or too little. At the proper times he treated it with fertilizers, and was careful to protect it, like all the others, from insects, dust and mold.
As the months passed, Chang’s other plantings burst through the soil and began to grow, but he was disappointed that nothing sprouted in his bright blue pot. “That’s odd,” he said. “Perhaps it does not need so much sun.” So he moved the pot to another room, but nothing happened. “Perhaps this room is too cool,” he said, and so he carried his blue pot into a warmer room. Still, nothing happened.
Now the time was nearing to visit the emperor again, and Chang’s bright blue pot stood empty. He was filled with despair each time he looked at it. “What could I be doing wrong?” he wondered. He visited every gardener he knew, and to each he told the tale of his seed. They shook their heads. No one knew what could be wrong.
Some said it was obvious that he was not meant to be the next emperor. Others told him he must add more soil, or more water, or to fertilize less. Others told him to forget his foolish plan.
But Chang’s parents listened to his worries and only smiled. “Do not worry, son. You are doing your best,” they said. “That is all any of us can do.”
“But I have failed,” Chang sighed as he stared down at the barren soil in his pot. “It is time to see the emperor, and I have let him down.”
“Simply tell him what has happened,” his father said. “Your only duty is to tell the truth.”
His heart nearly breaking with disappointment, on the appointed day one year later, Chang walked to the palace. When he arrived, tears fell from his eyes, for before him stood a sea of young men, each one holding a flower more exquisite than the one before. The orchids were delicate and elegant, the lilies fragrant and full, the peonies bursting with color. Their owners held them proudly. “Look at mine!” they called, holding their plants high as the emperor walked through the crowd. He nodded pleasantly as he passed by, noting the bellflowers, the forget-me-nots, the foxgloves, flowers in every shade of the rainbow.
Chang had never seen a sight so beautiful, and some of his sadness left him as he inhaled the fragrances and marveled at the size and variety of the blooms.
At last the emperor reached him. Chang bowed his head. “Where’s your flower, young man?” the emperor asked.
Chang looked up and saw a gleam in the man’s eye that surprised him. “Sir, I have failed you,” he said sadly. “I cared for my seed, but as you see, I was not able to grow a flower for you. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
But the emperor’s face lighted up with a smile brighter than even the flowers all around him. “You are my successor,” the emperor said, taking Chang’s hands in his.
“But sir, I am the only person here who failed.”
The emperor shook his head. “On the contrary,” he explained. “You see, I boiled these seeds before I handed them out. None of the seeds should have grown, but all these people were so eager for my position that they wanted only to please me with the beauty of their flowers and thereby gain my throne. They did not care enough for honesty, for truth. You alone have proven you are a worthy leader.”
And so it was that the boy with the empty pot became successor to the emperor of China.