Story From Ancient China: Wang Wei Identifies the Melon Thief

Illustration of an ancient Chinese scholar seated beneath a tree.
Wang Wei, a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty, came up with an ingenious method to identify a melon thief. (Image: Zhang Daqian via artnet)

Wang Wei (701-761) was a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty. Beyond his poetic prowess, he was an expert in music, painting, and calligraphy. As a child, he was not only bright, but he also possessed a strong sense of justice.

A melon mystery in the neighborhood

Near Wang Wei’s home lived an elderly man known as Elder Wang. In his garden, he grew a patch of sweet melons that matured to be large and round. One morning, Elder Wang woke up early, planning to harvest the melons and sell them at the market. But to his dismay, he discovered that someone had stolen them all. Distraught, he began to cry.

Hearing the commotion, young Wang Wei rushed to comfort him, saying: “Elder Wang, don’t worry. Whoever stole such a large quantity of melons will surely try to sell them at the market. Let’s hurry and see if we can spot them.”

Following his advice, Elder Wang and Wang Wei quickly made their way to the marketplace. And sure enough, they identified the melons at Wang Er Gou’s stall. Confronting Wang Er Gou, Elder Wang inquired: “Where did you get these melons?”

Melons for sale at a farmer's market.
Sure enough, when they got to the market, they identified Elder Wang’s melons at one of the stalls. (Image: Glanum via Dreamstime)

Avoiding eye contact and stammering, Wang Er Gou replied: “I grew them myself.” However, Elder Wang, confident in recognizing his produce, retorted: “These are clearly the melons I grew.” Wang Er Gou, in defense, mockingly questioned: “Who wouldn’t claim their melons are big and round like these?”

Seeing Wang Er Gou play the fool, the elder trembled with anger and accused him of theft. The confrontation escalated, drawing a large crowd. By coincidence, a county official happened to pass by. After hearing the story and noting Elder Wang’s lack of evidence, the official deemed him a troublemaker and ordered him to leave the market.

Wang Wei’s ingenious solution

Standing by the melon stall, young Wang Wei thought: “If these melons indeed belong to Elder Wang, then the stems should still be attached to the vines in his garden. Why not bring them as evidence?” Swiftly, he slipped out of the crowd, first visiting Wang Er Gou’s patch, where, unsurprisingly, the stems were still attached to the little melons he was growing. He then headed to Elder Wang’s garden, collecting the missing stems for the large round melons and rushing back to the market.

Wang Wei collected the melon stems and rushed back to the market.
Wang Wei collected the melon stems and rushed back to the market. (Image: Bernadinus Dwi Widodo Kurnianto via Dreamstime)

Presenting the stems before the county official, Wang Wei exclaimed: “I have proof these melons belong to Elder Wang!” Handing over the stems, he challenged: “Match these with the melons, and the truth will be clear.” The bystanders eagerly assisted, finding that the stems fit the melons perfectly. The crowd began praising Wang Wei’s brilliance, urging Wang Er Gou to produce his own stems.

Witnessing the undeniable evidence, Wang Er Gou was drenched in sweat, finally admitting his guilt with a loud plea for mercy. The county official ordered his arrest for theft.

Praising quick wit

Quick thinking is often commended, as it’s a trait commonly found in those who stand up for justice. Wang Wei’s clever use of the melon stems was a testament to his ingenuity.

Translated article

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