Shao, Fish, and Men

Updated: Apr 14

An adaptation of a Hmong folklore about fish and men


Thousands of years ago, long before the great divide, all the creatures on earth spoke the same language. However, they could not communicate with the divine beings in the heavens. There was only one living creature appointed on earth who had the power to speak to all things on earth and in heaven, and their name was Shao (Saub in Hmong). Shao literally means Shao; one who knows all, sees all, and speaks to all.


One day, many fish in the sea gathered and approached Shao with a request.

“Shao,” said one fish. “We are in dire need of your help. Our kind are dying. Men are hunting us and eating us to extinction.”


“Please help us,” plead another fish.


Shao answered, “As Shao, I will help you.”


Soon, Shao appeared to the humans and told them, “The fish are dying. You and your kind are hunting and eating them to extinction. Mankind must stop or there will no longer be fish in the sea.”


“But the fish also eat their own kind, and we must eat as well,” replied a man.


“Yes!” shouted the humans, rallying behind one another. They were all screaming their concerns to Shao, speaking over each other; worried about their livelihoods and asking how their children will be fed.


One man suggested, “Shao, you must reason with them.”


Shao replied, “I shall speak to the fish again.”


So, Shao returned to the fish in the sea and told them, “The humans need to eat fish to survive.”


To which a fish replied, “The humans are greedy, they not only over hunt us for food, but for sport as well. They sell us by the masses for their own gain. And while their homes and children grow fat, we are dying. Won’t you help us?”

The words of this fish sunk deep in Shao’s heart. Once again, Shao returned to the humans and asked, “Is this true? Are you hunting the fish for more than just food?”

None can lie to Shao nor disobey Shao’s commands, so the humans replied, “Yes, it’s true.”

Shao spoke with command, “I have decided that—”

“Wait!” A man desperately stopped Shao from announcing the new decree.


The humans looked to one another for answers. Then one of them came up with a clever idea and quickly spoke, “Before you make up your mind, let us come visit you with a gift.”

“Please,” begged another man.


Many others pleaded with Shao. The crowd of people became overwhelmingly loud. The more they would shout, the more they would drown their words with ear-piercing roars.


“Very well,” said Shao, deciding to grant them more time.


Days later, the humans visited Shao with an attractive looking gift. It was a meal, prepared to perfection; laid on a bed of steamed rice and inside a woven basket. As Shao held the dish, the rising steam filled the air with a savory smell so captivating that Shao could barely hold a humble posture. Shao ate the entire meal, leaving nothing behind.


The humans felt confident as one of them asked Shao, “Did you like the food?”


“Yes. I enjoyed it,” said Shao.


“It was a fish that you ate, and so thoroughly enjoyed,” said another man. “We would like to continue to eat fish, if the heavens would allow it.”


Shao felt tricked. In seeking wisdom, Shao took a moment and decided, “Then, I shall ask the heavens.”


Upon returning to earth, Shao had the fish and men gathered in one place to make a grand announcement. “The divine beings have proclaimed that fish were created to eat one another and to also be eaten by men. To keep the balance, the humans must only hunt fish to eat for their survival and nothing else. That is the command.”


The fish and humans gazed at one another with anger and resentment. Both sides felt as though the new command seemed quite unfair to them. Fish and men started to argue; blaming the other for their problems.


There was nothing else Shao could do, but communicate the message once more, speaking with a powerful voice that reigned over all the creatures, “Fish must eat to survive, and humans must eat to survive. When all the fish disappear from the sea, all the humans will soon disappear from the earth.” Shao’s words left a grounding message to both fish and men. Both sides silently agreed to the command given by Shao that came from the heavens, for every creature wanted to exist and they would honor the command by keeping the balance.


Art by Bao Xiong

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