My informant told me that his mother used to tell him this story when he was younger, around the age of 6. The proverb goes “One monk will get two buckets of water, two monks will share a load of water, three monks will have no water.” The original proverb is here: “一个和尚挑水喝，两个和尚抬水喝，三个和尚没水喝。” (Yi ge he shang tiao shui he, liang ge he shang tai shui he, sang ge he shang mei shui he.)
Informant: “One monk lived on a mountain, and every day he went down the mountain with a stick with two buckets to haul water. However one day, another monk came to visit. The first monk made him help carry the stick, but the stick could only hold one bucket now. When the third monk came along, they all fought over who should go get the water. In the process, they knocked over a candle, and there was a fire in the temple. Finally, with a combined effort, they manage to put out the fire. Through this realization, they joined hands in fetching the water and the temple never lacked it again.”
Me: “What does the proverb mean to you?”
Informant: “Umm… hmmm…. I guess it means that you should always try to work together no matter what. But it’s weird… it suggests that people can’t work together. So I guess you need to stop being selfish and take responsibility?”
Analysis: The proverb suggests that with many people, no one wants to take the major responsibility. It can be related to the American proverb: “Too many cooks in the kitchen.” With too many people, it’s hard to divide responsibility because no one would feel right with someone resting. Like the story, with only two buckets it is impossible for all three monks to fetch water at the same time, but none of them were okay with one person resting. However with the story, it also shows that “many hands make light work”, or that unity can be harmonious and advantageous. In fact, after research, I discovered this story is often used as an anecdote or reference in books about people management.
This story was made into an animation in 1980 that contains no dialogue. Near the end of the animation, you see that the fat monk stays at the bottom to fill the buckets. The short monk then pulls the buckets upwards with a rope that has a hook attached to the end, and passes it to the tall monk. The tall monk then dumps it into the giant urn. This suggests dividing responsibilities up based on a person’s strength. The fat monk is not fast at running up a hill, so therefore it makes more sense that he stays at the bottom.
Annotation: Three Monks No Water. Perf. N/A. YouTube. YouTube, 21 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rolBiHfWokY>.