Chinese version of the Allegory of the Cave

I was looking over the Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic. The image described by Socrates of the cave and the shadows cast onto the wall by the fire far off in the distance surprisingly reminded me of a Chinese folk story I had read about a few years ago in a fiction novel.

The story was about a Chinese man once upon an ancient time who was lost in the wilderness one day during winter. He sought refuge inside near the entrance of a cave when it was approaching nightfall. When the night became darker, he built a fire to keep himself warm and well-lighted next to a rock of tremendous size, blocking the winds of the night. As the fire grew into a great flame, it cast onto the surface of the rock, shadows of the strangest shapes and sizes moving and flickering. He was so astonished at seeing the shapes on the wall and assumed that they were either goblins and apparitions, or some kind of deity from the super natural world. In either case he crouched into a tiny ball in fear throughout the whole night until the shadows passed away with the sun shining in replacing the light of the fire. After the night’s experience, he left the cave and was able to find the way back home. He never forgot those shadows on the wall and often told the story to his sons and grandsons. What he didn’t have the intelligence to realize was that those were only the shadows of ants and different types of insects that was dwelling within the cave.

This is really similar to the Allegory of the Cave in the way they both use shadows to demonstrate the limitations of our senses. In Socrates’ cave, the people have been living there without being able to turn their heads throughout their whole lives. It is clear that being in such a position, the people never understood the difference between what is tangible and what is not, as they would see the shadows cast on the wall by the people in front of them and the artifacts they carry and think those were the “real” objects, the actual things they think they’re seeing. It isn’t until a person escapes up to the sun above the cave tunnel that he saw the difference between what’s really there and what’s not. The Chinese tale also encompasses this concept of what’s real and what is not using shadows to represent the non-real and the sunlight to verify reality. Both cases suggests that life is full of illusions but that there is fundamental truth (in Socrates’s case: true knowledge) behind those imitation of truths.

There are also aspects of both stories that I find similarly hard to accept, and the difficulty lies in its unverifiable nature. In the Chinese tale for instance, I wonder if there are actual insects that are big enough to cast their shadows onto the wall to such a size that it frightened the man in the story. There’s no way to verify that this example can even happen in real life. It’s the same with Socrates’ Allegory. For example, how did he even come up with that image? How do we know we are really like those prisoners described in the cave, that we couldn’t turn our heads at all? Although the allegory made it much easier to comprehend what Socrates was trying to convey, it doesn’t have its basis on something that’s verifiable in life. There can be many questions about the setting of the image such as “Why were the people in the tunnel in the first place?” or “How come they just can’t turn their heads? How do they survive?”

Despite the unconfirmed nature of the stories, I do appreciate its efforts to convey that in many cases, our five senses aren’t as reliable as we think they are. There is this famous Chinese idiom and also an English expression which states “Seeing is Believing”. I used to think that was very true, until I accepted Christ. There are cases in the Bible that talks about what’s “real” in terms of what’s “everlasting” (God’s word, His Ways), and those things that may seem real but will pass eventually (the tangible world we see now).  I no longer believe that seeing is believing. There are such thing as a career as a magician because our eyes commonly fools us. Our senses CAN in fact often be deceiving. Either way, the stories intrigued me about the way people try to understand the nature of the shadow, the intangible. I guess it’s not a coincidence that many examples of tales and myths likes to use shadows to represent the illusional.

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