Locks in the Heart


WHEN a child, Master Liu was infected with polio, which left him lame in one leg. His disability decided him to become a locksmith, and he set up business on a street corner. Over time, Liu became skillful enough to spring any lock. Gradually, he became well known locally. The old and the young, men and women, everyone knew him and called him “the king of locks.” Even the police department sometimes asked Liu for his help. Master Liu was much respected, and lived a full life with his wife and son.


The idea of working as Liu’s apprentice appealed to quite a few people – some offered money, some tried to lure him, and some even threatened him. But Master Liu refused them all. As time went by, people stopped asking to be his apprentice. But Liu’s stubbornness didn’t affect his reputation as a kind, generous man. If you didn’t have money in your pocket, Liu would waive his fees. When you paid him the next time, he would say: “Really? I forgot all about it.” If someone happened to be in trouble, he would appeal to acquaintances to donate money. When Master Liu grew older, and his health deteriorated, people urged him to look for an apprentice, saying that it would be a real pity if his skills were not passed down. Master Liu agreed: Life would be less convenient if he refused. After rounds of selection, he took on two young men: Big Zhang and Little Li.


The two apprentices were elated. They were so eager to learn that they followed their master around all day long and regarded him as a guru. After a while, Big Zhang and Little Li both made progress. They could both make keys for different locks and repair locks. But all these skills were superficial, not core. Master Liu had his reasons: his unique skills could be passed down to only one person. In other words, only one of his two apprentices could be selected.


Big Zhang was smart and forthright, and Little Li was simple and kind. Both were good, but which one was better? Master Liu decided to challenge them with a lock-picking test. The winner would be the one to be taught his exclusive skills. So, Master Liu put a safe in each of two rooms and told the two apprentices to unlock them.


It took Big Zhang less than 10 minutes to spring the lock, winning cheers from people waiting on the scene for the result. Big Zhang’s confidence he would be selected beamed on his face. Little Li spent 15 minutes on the lock, obviously less competent than his fellow apprentice. He glanced at the Master and blushed. However, Master Liu didn’t say anything. People around whispered: Master Liu must select Big Zhang. They hoped Big Zhang would win, as he had lost his job previously and his wife was sick. Little Li’s life was relatively better.


Master Liu asked Big Zhang: Tell me what is in the safe.


Big Zhang lowered his voice: Master, there’s a stack of 100-yuan banknotes, a gold ring, a watch, and a necklace.


Master Liu turned to Little Li: So what is in the safe you unlocked?


Little Li mumbled, beads of sweat on his nose. “Master, I didn’t look in the safe. You just asked me to open it.”


Master Liu nodded and said: Good, good, good! Then he announced that Little Li was his choice. People were confused, especially Big Zhang. He asked: “Why? Is it because he is better than me?” Master Liu patted Big Zhang on the back: “You have skills, you are smart, and you are sure to have your own business in the future.” But Big Zhang was unconvinced, and still wanted an explanation from the Master. Master Liu sighed: “I didn’t choose you because you popped two locks.” Confused Big Zhang claimed: “No, Master, I just unlocked one safe.” The people around nodded: “Yes, Big Zhang did nothing wrong.” Someone asked: “Master, you must be muddled.” Master Liu smiled: “Yes, I am old, but my mind is clear.” He turned to Big Zhang: “Kid, if you want to do well in this business, you must keep locks in your heart and nothing else – like money!”


Realization dawned on the spectators and Big Zhang’s face turned red.