The Chinese Compressibility Parable

I read the story somewhere as a kid and can’t recall the source now (perhaps one of you can help me). It goes something like this.

There was once a Chinese emperor who wanted to know about everything that had ever happened. This was before Wikipedia, so he instructed his court scholars to go write it all down so he could read it. The scholars toiled for 10 years, and returned with a caravan of 20 camels.

“Here you go,” said the chief scholar. “Twenty camels, twenty beautifully bound volumes per camel. I think we got everything.”

“Are you kidding?” the emperor yelled. “There’s no way I’m going to get through that in one lifetime. Go write me a shorter version. Include only the important stuff that happened.”

Ten more years passed. The scholars returned with just two camels. But the emperor, now aging and tired from wars, and barely able to even sit through his PowerPoint executive briefings, let alone Chinese longform, was still unhappy.

He yelled at the head scholar, “What do I look like? A blogger? I have an empire to run here and Mongols to beat back and ships to burn and stuff. Go write me an actual short version for people with lives, and put in only the most important stuff.”

Skipping lightly over the one-camel and two-volume repetitions of the episode (you’d think the chief scholar would cut to the chase, but perhaps he enjoyed his sinecure), the day came when the emperor rejected even the one volume version. If you’ve been following the math, this was now 50 years into the project.

Said the chief scholar, himself an old man now: “I’ll get you what you need tomorrow morning.”

“Seriously? When each version took you ten years each time before? Sun Tzu hasn’t even invented agile product development yet.”

“You’ll have it tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, the chief scholar returned with a small slip of paper (this was also the first fortune cookie, sans cookie, which would be invented a few centuries later in San Francisco).

“Finally,” said the emperor, ever the optimist. “A tweet-sized tl;dr of everything I can actually get through.”

He unfolded the slip of paper and read: they were born, they lived, and they died.

The story ends there, and I suppose there is some sort of deep wisdom implied, with a chastened emperor giving the scholar the kingdom and becoming a monk himself. Or something. But if I’d been the emperor, I’d have said, “Off with their heads! Damn scholars wasting 50 years of my time.”

As a minimum-viable history of everything, they were born, they lived, and they died leaves something to be desired. While it has the sort of elegant fractal compression structure from which you could hope to generate a complex story, it lacks something in the actual content department.

It’s like taking a radio signal, stripping out all the modulation, and reporting on the carrier wave form as the “compressed content.” I expect my co-editor here, Sarah Perry, would argue that there is some sort of high-meaning, high-value ritual content in the phrase, and I’ll grudgingly grant that. Timeless cycle of life and death and stuff.

But to high-distractability atemporalists like me, that’s not enough to keep me interested.

While the compression is accurate, it lacks the punch of say, Jesus was born, and died for your sins. No wonder the first tl;dr of “everything that has happened” is a punchline of an obscure fable whose origins I can’t seem to google out, and the other is the historical-narrative premise of a major religion.

But there is a sense in which the first story does contain the (most) important events that have occurred, as asserted by the chief scholar. For the vast majority of humans, for most of history, there has been no surplus energy to do anything beyond being born, living and dying. That narrative fractal atom may contain no story, but that does not mean it contains no narrative energy. It contains most of the narrative energy of humanity. Narrative dark energy if you will.

If I may abuse the physics metaphor more, they were born, they lived, and they died is a WINP. A Weakly Interacting Narrative Particle.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think the fault lies in the ruler, not in the scholars: he didn’t think through his requirements and so asked for something stupid.

    To evaluate a complex domain down to a compressed “meaning”, you have to provide a context or focus to use to decide what the relevant gist is.

    The final answer is very apropos of the situation: the ruler has used up the time he had available to understand by avoiding doing what he needed to do to actually get any benefit from any understanding.

    I’m sure none of us have witnessed that in real life…

    • Marc Hamann says

      It occurred to me after I posted that my post compressed a very large number of things I know about software development, computation, semantics, Chinese history and literature (whether this story is authentically Chinese or not), and other things (such as many years of ribbonfarm posts).

      It also occurs to me that you probably can’t see that is so without possessing a non-trivial subset of that knowledge as well.

  2. When I first heard that story, the line was “Man is born, he suffers, and he dies.”

  3. “This too shall pass” was the final line in the version I heard. And the motive of the ruler in asking for knowledge about world history was to become a better, wiser, ruler.

    I think “This too shall pass” is a high-value compression of historical trends that does fulfill that requirement.

  4. This is probably a good test of someone’s thinking: have them make up their own final compression. Each of the variants people seem to have heard is kinda interesting.

  5. Geeks are people who spend 6 hours building a system to do an 8 hour task in one hour. The upside is that the next instance of the 8 hour takes also takes one hour.

    The parable points up the problem with that. If the Emperor had simply started reading the 20 camels of 20 volumes, he would have finished by the time the final fortune cookie arrived. Sometimes stupid code that implements the Flintstones[1] approach is a good thing.

    [1] It’s a car. Except that it’s powered by walking legs.

  6. B McDonald says

    I’ve heard that a main criticism offered to the inventor of the wheel was, “that thing needs to have feet added to it”

  7. ‘Everything is transitory’ is even shorter

  8. I believe the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament encapsulated the matter with: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    The more things change (“You cannot step into the same river twice.” Heraclites), the more they remain the same.

  9. I believe the narrators were mocking scholars by letting them finally state simple folksy wisdom, while not even attempting to pretend sounding like they were Lao Tzu, deep thinkers or particularly literate. They also refused to be outright funny, surprising and embarrassing but they couldn’t sent the emperor into a monastery for ’42’.

    Such stories might have served to relieve the tensions between those who had access to some formal education and those who hadn’t, invented by those who had as some form of self-deprecation. One gives the folks its due and this is then the moral.

  10. Daniel Young says

    This reminds me of a wisdom story, possibly Sufi, in which a ruler asks his wise men for something which will console him in bad times and keep him grounded in good times. His best minister gives him a ring on which is inscribed “This too shall pass.”

  11. Then there was Jack Kerouac’s family motto, “Love, Suffer and Work”.

  12. My formulation: “Sh*t happens”