The East Linthorpe Literary, Philosophical, and Debating Society, November, 1994


The Author was remarking that we had not yet debated St Anselm's ontological proof, when the Philosopher, feigning deafness, interjected: "I was wondering, my dear chap, if you knew anything further of the history of Ho Ping and Li Lao?" He had not miscalculated; with a gratified smile, the Author said, "Well, if you insist, here is the tale known as:


Li Lao Wraps It Up

Ho Ping gazed out of the window across his country garden, whose air of casual informality and unstudied neglect spoke loudly of careful design and assiduous maintenance, and mused upon the curious inconstancy of human ambition. Two years earlier, he had invented his Flagrant Sources, the commercial success of which had enabled him to retire to a well appointed estate with sufficient means to follow what activities he wished. He had always supposed that in such happy circumstances he would choose to spend his time cataloguing his collection of brightly coloured beetles. In the event, however, he found that he could not abandon the practical creativity that the development of his invention had entailed. Although it was no longer necessary, he still continued to experiment with new forms and additives to change the pattern and the colour of the Sources. His early use of the kitchen for these activities had soon led his otherwise tolerant spouse to suggest that he have a workshop built in the grounds, where his researches might be pursued in more tranquillity for himself and at less danger to his household. It was here that Ho now spent most of his waking hours, sometimes labouring at his bench, more often admiring the view. It was here that now he stood, pondering the unexpected turns of Fate and musing on the truth of a song made famous by the celebrated chanteuse Mai Lin, whose own sorry demise lent a tragic irony to the lyrics. In his mind's ear he could hear her gentle voice , breathily intoning: Following the successful attainment of that which one has hitherto conceived to be most greatly to be desired, it not infrequently comes to pass that one revises one's assessment of its value in a downward direction.

He caught sight of his former pupil, Li Lao, approaching across the bridge which spanned the lake. Now there, thought Ho, was another example of the same phenomenon. Li had once hoped to introduce innovations into the study of natural philosophy. Under Ho's sympathetic guidance, he had come to realise that such heights were beyond his reach and had realistically abandoned them in favour of more humble studies. He had not, however, been able to discard the prospect of winning the Emperor's Grand Award, on offer to anyone who might devise means to encourage the extravagant consumption of paper. This had been secondary to his academic ambitions, but after they had evaporated, it remained as his foremost thought and hope. He adopted the habit, as he moved about the City in the daily round of an impoverished student, of carrying with him a sheet of paper, in the hope that its constant presence would inspire him to discover a suitable use for it. For some time this stratagem was to no avail; such ideas as came to him were variously flawed. He had, for example, thought to cut long narrow strips of paper, steep them in honey, and roll them up. Unrolled and hung in a suitable place, the strips were intended to attract and ensnare small flying insects. Unfortunately, in practice it became evident that weather warm enough to hatch the insects was also sufficiently hot to melt the honey, and those few pests that fell prey to the devices seldom met their end adhering to the paper itself — the hair of a hapless individual seated beneath was a more common graveyard. Moreover, the Harmonious Society of Breeders and Rearers of Peacock Butterflies, Honey Bees, Silk Moths, and Related Beneficial Species claimed that the traps were insufficiently selective, and Li was compelled to abandon the scheme.

Late one afternoon following this setback, Li stopped on his way home to buy a modest portion of lichee nuts for his evening meal. It was not until the storekeeper held out the scoopful of nuts that Li remembered that he was without a receptacle to contain them. He had omitted to bring with him the small wicker basket in which he usually carried his purchases, and the purse around his neck was not large enough to hold more than a coin or two. It being summer, his tunic lacked the copious sleeves that might otherwise have served. All that he could find about his person was his sample sheet of paper. He laid it upon the counter, the merchant deposited the nuts in a small heap in the middle of it, and Li carefully folded up the corners of the sheet, twisted them together, and self-consciously carried his supper home so wrapped.

On the way he met a fellow student who, after an exchange of civilities, asked what it was that Li was carrying so neatly packaged. Upon being told that it was a portion of lichee nuts, he remarked that Li must indeed be financially favoured to afford such a superior brand of merchandise. Li went on his way amused by the reflection that in fact the nuts in question were the cheapest available in the market, being of the sort that had had remained unsold past the date by which their especial flavour and succulence were deemed to be on the wane. A little later he met another acquaintance, who likewise enquired the contents of the package, and who similarly supposed that only the highest quality of nuts would be so wrapped. When he reached his lodgings and was about to enter his room, his landlady emerged and asked what was in the folded paper. Li replied that it was a few nuts for his supper, whereupon the worthy dame expressed the hope that one who was able to shop from high class purveyors of provisions to the gentry might soon be able to reduce his arrears of rent.

Later, as he slowly ate the food in question (the mustiness, he decided, was an acquired taste, not dissimilar, perhaps, to truffles, a delicacy with which he was totally unfamiliar), Li wondered why the mere fact of wrapping a purchase in paper should lead observers to assume that the contents were of high quality. Gradually it occurred to him that this reaction could prove to be of some commercial value to merchants, in consideration of which they might be persuaded to buy paper containers for their goods.

Such indeed was the case. Within a month or two, Li was supplying most of the traders in the city with brown paper bags for their wares. His promotional literature explained that brown was most propitious, being the colour of earth, the original and ultimate container of all life. There were those who objected that in many provinces the earth was yellow or red, but Li ignored such quibbles. If the gods had not wished paper bags to be brown, why would they have made brown paper so much cheaper to manufacture than other colours?

At first the bags were made by sewing the edges with silk thread. Production increased in volume and decreased in cost when Li conceived the notion of fastening the edges with adhesive. The idea came to him while thinking of previous contenders for the Imperial Prize. One such had been the founder of Mao's Marvellous Memoranda, the small adhesive reminders consigned to History's dustbin under the ignominious label of The Yellow Peril. Li was able to purchase the whole enterprise from Mao for a modest sum, thus acquiring the formula for the adhesive. Of course, the new purpose of the undertaking made its original name unsuitable, but Li renamed it 3M, thus abandoning the inappropriate connotations without causing Mao to lose face.

For many months Li's enterprise flourished and expanded. With glued seams, the bags were now capable of holding products such as rice flour, for which the stitched bags had proved less than ideal. Li also found that paper of a stiffer kind could be fashioned into cartons, which were keenly sought by providers of products which could be made to appear of more generous proportions by being so packed. During this period many goods were offered for sale in a bag in a box in a wrapper, which combination would be carefully placed in a paper sack for the purchaser's further convenience. (This era was known as the Boxer Revolution, often confused by historians with an incident which occured much later, was comparitively unimportant, and had nothing whatever to do with boxes.) The noted philosopher Mak Lu Han observed at this time that "The packaging is the product", and the Emperor's advisers recommended that Li be awarded the Grand Prize.

Before this recommendation was promulgated however, the demand for Li's containers inexplicably dwindled. A distraught Li assiduously canvassed his former customers to encourage further orders, but with little success. What he learned was such as to send him hurriedly to consult with Ho, bearing conciliatory gifts of paper and adhesive for Ho's experiments.

After an exchange of civilities, Li broached the matter he had come to discuss. "Truly, my ancestors have turned their faces against me, for I find that there are two maggots independently gnawing at my business. First, the traders tell me that my packagings lent distinction to their goods only so long as their use was rare. Now that they are common-place, the merchants complain that their wares are rendered drably anonymous by being so wrapped. They ask me to have the containers painted with their names and sundry commendations for their products. However, they do not expect to pay any more for such enhancement, even if I could find enough scribes to undertake it. Second, the innate frugality of our countrymen, and more especially of our countrywomen, makes them reluctant to discard the packaging once they have unwrapped their purchases. They frequently re-use them for their next purchase, often with the encouragement of the shop-keepers, who thus unscrupulously avoid the necessity to purchase more from me. Either of these problems I might have overcome had they assailed me singly, but the double blow has left me in despair."

"I have always found, my dear Li, that the best way to handle situations of this sort is to make one problem the solution to the other. First, let us consider how to discourage the re-use of your packagings. Why not draw upon each bag and box a small panel, with the promise that if this be cut out and presented to the merchant when making another purchase, he will reduce the price by ten cash? If the panel were strategically placed, its excision would render the container unfit for further use."

"I see two objections to such a course, Ho. It is surely unlikely that the merchants would be willing to take less money for their goods?"

"Naturally, my dear Li, they will render the transaction less painful by having the foresight to increase their prices by fifteen cash before offering to reduce them by ten."

"That would indeed be a powerful incentive for them to co-operate in such a scheme. There remains, however, a further objection: how can these coupons be drawn upon the containers in sufficient quantity and at little expense?"

"That was already one of your problems, was it not? Now it is your only problem. Let us put our minds to it."

Before they could do so, however, they were interrupted by one of Ho's grandchildren, a lad of seven years who had inherited Ho's enquiring disposition. "Honourable grandfather, see what this unworthy descendant has found: a stone with writing on!" The boy handed to Ho a round stone with flat sides, sufficiently large to require the youngster to carry it in both hands, but small enough for Ho to take in one of his. It was a piece of sandstone with a vein of granite embedded in it; time and the elements had worn the softer stone down, leaving the other raised in relief, which, by a fluke of chance, was a good resemblance to the character for Fair spring of sparkling water.

"Why, that is indeed curious." Ho went to hand the stone to Li, but as he did so, his sleeve brushed a sheet of paper from his workbench, whence it fluttered to the floor. Ho made an ineffectual attempt to catch it, and inadvertently let go of the stone before Li had secured it. Li snatched at the stone to prevent it falling, but only succeeded in knocking it onto the bench, where it collided with the jar of glue, knocking it over. Ho lunged forward to save the jar from spilling; he failed in this purpose, but in the attempt spilled a bag of charcoal, into which the stone rolled after traversing the glue. Li clutched at the stone to stay its further progress, but it was by now so insalubrious to the touch that he swiftly released it again, and it fell to the floor, landing with a soft thud on the sheet of paper.

Suppressing a sigh, Ho bent and picked up the stone and the paper. His mask of impassivity slipped as he noticed that the paper now bore the imprint of a character, and he permitted himself to blink rapidly. Hoping that Li had not observed this unseemly display of emotion, he remarked "Here is something of interest to us," and passed the paper across. "Why," said Li, "it is the character for Disgusting pit of foul effluent."

"Naturally," Ho explained, "the character has become reversed in being transferred from the stone to the paper, just as an image is reversed in a mirror."

"I have been meaning to ask you about that," said Li. "Why does a mirror ....."

"You are missing the point," Ho interjected hurriedly. "Do you not see that here is the answer to our problem?" He picked up the stone and proceeded to stamp it alternately in the mess of glue and charcoal and on sheets of paper, rapidly producing a succession of imprints. "This is how to write upon your bags swiftly and cheaply."

"I doubt if many merchants would care for their bags to be inscribed with such a message," said Li doubtfully.

"Probably not; but if you were to use stones bearing their names and commendations for their produce, together with the cash reduction coupons .....?"

"Do you think it likely that your grandchild could find such stones?"

Ho sighed silently. "Perhaps, dear Li, one might prevail upon a stonemason to carve the necessary stones to order, and thus relieve Nature of the need to produce them fortuitously?" Anticipating Li's next objection, he added, "Of course, the stones would have to be carved with the reverse of the message to be imprinted."

Over the next several months, with Ho's patient advice and assistance, Li established a factory for producing the inscriptions upon his bags and wrappings. He was fortunate in finding a mason, Li Tho by name, who proved to have great skill for the work, and contributed many ideas for improving the method. It was he who, while visiting a rice mill to buy old millstones, conceived the idea of cylindrical printing stones. His son Set, who assisted him in his work, was equally ingenious. He suggested printing from one stone onto another, and thence onto the paper, thus allowing the printing stones to be carved without reversal. This technique was a great success, and was adopted henceforth, being universally known as the Process of Set-Li Tho. As Ho had predicted, the imprinted packaging restored Li Lao's business, to such good effect that the Emperor at last bestowed the Grand Prize upon him.

Meanwhile, prior to Set's invention, Ho had been considering ways to avoid carving the stones in reverse. He had recently become acquainted with a new method for inspiring creative thought, advocated by one Bo No, who referred to it as Diverting the Train of One's Cogitation in a Direction Tangential to the Main Thrust of One's Enquiry. Using this method, Ho reasoned that messages that suffered no change of meaning on being reversed would not need to be carved backwards. Unfortunately, he could think of no such messages; however, it did occur to him that, unlike writing, pictorial images survived reversal unimpaired. Was not the image of his face that he saw in a mirror the other way round to that which his friends saw when they stood before him? Yet did it not remain unmistakably the face of Ho? With this in mind, he commissioned Li Tho to engrave a portrait of his eldest daughter upon a printing stone. Deeming that pictures would be enhanced by being printed in a colour other than black, he also embarked upon a series of experiments to produce pigmented inks.

By the time that Li Tho had delivered the carved portrait, Ho had produced his first coloured ink. He could have wished for something more vibrant than a queasy shade of green, but at least it was not black. Alas, when he printed the image with the new ink, the result was disappointing. He had hoped that his daughter's portrait would be sufficiently ornamental to sell as an item of interior decor, but who would want a picture of a Chinese lady with a green face hanging on their living room wall? Perhaps a landscape would be more appropriate. He asked Li Tho to carve a suitable scene for him, and returned to his pigmentation experiments.

A few days later, Li Tho delivered the completed stone. It was late in the afternoon, and Ho was preparing to stop work after a day in which he had succeeded in producing a new colour of ink, a peculiarly intense blue which, he thought, would be particularly appropriate for seascapes. He examined Li Tho's latest production with satisfaction. It depicted the scene from the window of Ho's own workshop. He could discern the bridge across the lake, and the approaching figure of Li Lao, carrying the mandarin's staff to which the Emperor's Grand Award entitled him, and accompanied by two assistants bearing gifts of paper and glue. On the lake, one of his nephews was fishing; birds flew above; and the cherry trees were in bloom around the small shrines which adorned the garden. If it was this good in relief, Ho told himself, how much better it would look when printed! Should he print it now, or wait until the morrow? He considered the ancient saying: "He who defers action in order to cogitate upon the pros and cons sometimes finds that the opportunity to achieve something worthwhile has passed him by; sometimes, on the other hand, he thereby avoids precipitating a disastrous result; the wise man therefore does not waste time pondering proverbs, but makes his own decisions."  One of the advantages of old age, thought Ho, was that the time was fast approaching when he would be face to face with the ancient wise ones in the hereafter — there were one or two points he wished to raise with them.

Yielding to impatience, Ho swiftly inked the stone. Only the new blue ink was available; it was wholly unsuitable, but would have to do. He then found that he had no paper to hand. He looked around the workshop for an alternative, but nothing obvious was to be seen. If his robe had been of a plain colour, he could have printed upon its skirt, but being a birthday present from his loving spouse, it was patterned all over in a disquietingly gaudy manner. His eye alighted upon the platter from which he had eaten his midday meal. In desperation, he rubbed it clean with his sleeve. Nobody, of course, would ever want a landscape printed upon a plate, still less in so unsuitable a colour, but it would at least serve to give some inadequate indication. Hopefully he pressed the printing stone against the plate ....... "

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