I first heard this story from Dr. Gail N. Herman, a wonderful storyteller who is known for "organic storytelling". She told "Four Wise People" in a storytelling class she taught in Charleston, South Carolina. I tucked this story away until I recently decided to pull it out to learn and tell to a group of students as a part of a character-building piece. This is my own version of the folktale, which originates in China.
Once there were four wise men who were considered to be the most clever and knowledgeable in all China. They learned everything they needed to know about almost anything and were often sought out for advice and to find solutions for the most complex of problems. One day there became a question of which of these men was the most clever of them all. This caused a great ruckus as each had his own explanation of why he should be considered the wisest of the wise. Their disputing caused so much confusion that one of the elders was called upon to find a test to settle the matter.
For weeks and weeks the wise men waited for the test that would prove the matter to all in the land. In the meantime, they continued to study. Three of those men buried themselves in their books of philosophy and mathematics and such thinking the villagers too common to be associated with. The fourth man, however, not only engaged himself in an array of books, but he walked among the villagers and sat with the elders for hours at a time. He learned much from the wisdom they had gained from life itself.
Nearly six months had passed and finally the perfect test was put before them. The four men were instructed to walk into the woods. The test would be found at the base of a single tree in a clearing. They started out early the next morning before day, for it took a half days journey for them to reach the tree. The only thing they found was a pile of bleached bones. They appeared to be those of some sort of animal.
The four stood and puzzled over the bones for some time before the first man spoke. "I will use my knowledge to put these bones back together. That will prove my status." He immediately went to work. After some time, the bones stood erect and interlocking.
The men examined the project closely. "Ah! I know where these bones came from. I can put flesh and fur back on them and restore the animals beauty." The second man began his work, and within a few hours a fierce-looking tiger stood before them.
The four men marveled at the animals beauty, but the two began to bicker about which ones work was best. Just then, the third man spoke up. "I think I can take this project to the next level. I can bring the animal back the life. Then I will be the greatest of all."
The fourth man was quiet up to this point. He had watched the other men argue and boast all this time. "Wait! I dont think our test was to see if we could bring the animal back to life." He pleaded, but the others would not listen. They thought he only wanted to trick them.
When he realized he was being ignored, he scrambled to the top of the tree. The third man got busy and soon had breathed life into the ferocious tiger. The tiger stretched and yawned. Then he began to chase the men growling and thrashing at them. He chased them all the way back to the village where they were finally rescued by one of the villages mighty hunters. They felt foolish for having brought the animal back to life. Later, the fourth wise man walked back to the village. Everyone had taken him for dead, the others were so busy fighting they did not see him climb the tree. It was then that everyone realized that he was indeed the wisest of all.
You see, he possessed common sense- and that kind of knowledge cannot be found in a book.