Once upon a time a man named Chang was walking through the emperor’s forest when he came upon a stately deer standing as still as a stone; it was licking snow from the wintry ground.
Chang raised his bow and shot an arrow through the deer’s heart. The creature fell down dead.
At once Chang regretted his haste. Fearing someone would discover he had killed a deer roaming the emperor’s forest, he quickly buried it beneath ice and snow and over this he scattered pine needles. Then he hurried home.
As he trudged on, shivering with cold despite his heavy coat, he began to think about how delicious that deer would have tasted. At home he had nothing but rice and broth. Chang turned around and hurried back toward the place he had buried the deer, but he could not find it.
“I am so tired,” he said aloud. “Perhaps I only dreamed I shot a deer,” and soon he had convinced himself. “Yes,” he muttered, “I was walking through the emperor’s forest and I dreamed I killed a deer and hid it beneath snow and ice and pine needles. It was only a dream…”
Chang muttered on as he walked, and barely noticed a woodsman who walked past him.
The woodsman, overhearing Chang’s mumbling, felt sure that the man must have killed a deer. He began looking for it. Before long he spied a mound of snow and ice covered with pine needles. He dug down, found the deer, and carried it home.
Meanwhile, Chang sat shivering in his little hut, eating a bowl of rice and broth. He began to regret that the deer had been only a dream. “If only I had truly killed a deer,” he said sadly. Still cold and hungry, he lay down to sleep.
The moment his eyes were closed, Chang began to dream. In his dream he saw the woodsman passing, and he heard himself muttering.
When Chang awoke, he cried, “I must find that woodsman. He has stolen my deer.”
returned to the forest, he saw the woodsman’s footprints. “These are the footprints of the man who stole my deer in the dream,” Chang said, and he followed the footprints until he came to the woodsman’s house.
Chang smelled roasting meat wafting from the woodsman’s tiny hut. “So it was not just a dream. The woodsman stole my deer,” Chang said.
He hurried to the magistrate’s house.
When the magistrate opened his door, he asked, “What is it?”
“The woodsman has stolen my deer,” said Chang.
“I will hear your case,” the magistrate said, and the woodsman was called to court. When the woodsman arrived, the magistrate sat before them. “Tell your stories,” he said, and they did.
At last the magistrate called the court to order. “I have considered the many dreams. I judge the deer to be real, and therefore that it should be divided equally between the two men who found it.”
“What!” cried Chang, “that is unfair.”
And so Chang appealed to the great Emperor Zheng.
When the emperor heard both sides of the story, he laughed. “What we seek today is fairness, so I shall let the magistrate’s decision stand.”
And so it was that one man’s dream became, for two, reality.