The Empty Truth

The Empty Pot by Demi, a Chinese folktale, is one of my go-to faves to illustrate and illuminate the importance of integrity. In this book, the wise emperor is growing old and must choose a replacement for his crown. The flower-loving ruler announces that each child will be given a seed to see who can grow the most beautiful flower. The most successful gardener in this challenge will be made his successor.

Ping, known for green thumb, is certain he can grow a great flower for the emperor, but despite his attentive care, Ping's seed will not grow. He tries a bigger pot and different soil, but to no avail. When the day finally arrives and the emperor orders all of the children to bring their flowers to be inspected, Ping is saddened and ashamed to see so many children with their beautiful flowers. He has nothing to show but his empty pot. (The last time I read this, many of the listeners said something along these lines . . . why doesn't he just go to WalMart and BUY some flowers? . . . talk about foreshadowing!)  His father tells him that he tried his best, and his best is good enough. 

The emperor looks with disappointment at the beautiful flowers before him. At last he approaches Ping and asks why his pot is empty. Ping explains that he did his best to grow the flower but it just would not grow. Then the emperor smiles and exclaims that he has found his replacement. Who? And why?

This book is not one that you want to read straight through. Stop at different spots in the narrative to ask comprehension and cognition questions like:

1. What did Ping think about the contest to grow the most beautiful flower at the beginning of the story?
2. Has Ping tried his best to help the seed to grow? How can you tell? 
3. Does Ping ever give up and stop trying? How do you know?
4. Why doesn't Ping just go out and buy a fully-grown, beautiful bouquet of flowers?
5. Do you think Ping's father gave him good advice? Why or why  not? What's the difference between doing your best and being the best?
6. Why do you think the emperor seems unhappy with all the beautiful plants?
7. What had the emperor done? Why? Do you think his "tricky" challenge seemed dishonest?
8. Whom do you think is the best choice for emperor? Why?
9. What is integrity?
10. What do we mean when we say Ping showed integrity?

For enrichment and follow-up, try these ideas:

1. Ask students to make posters illustrating moments when Ping showed integrity. For extension, have them also draw the ways in which he showed great responsibility in problem-solving. 
2. Challenge students to create a class "integrity" pledge. 
3. Help students to create a bibliography of books that remind them to act with integrity.
4. Have students author their own storybook about a time it was difficult to be honest or show integrity.
5. Ask students to evaluate the importance of sharing a story like The Empty Pot with other children their age. Would they recommend that other teachers (or parents) read this story to elementary-aged students? What about to older students? Let them explain their reasoning in a persuasive paragraph.
6. Ask students to journal the answer to the following prompts: Why might it be important that your friend have integrity? How would you know if a friend has integrity? Would you be able to be friends with someone who doesn't show integrity?
7. If you've got a community partner who might donate some seeds, send a packet home for students to plant as a reinforcement for the lesson.

8.  Use the story as a springboard to your Science unit on plant growth. Why would a cooked seed not grow? Let students experiment and see for themselves, then have them chart or map their observations.


  1. Aaahhhhh...
    What's the difference between doing your best and being the best?

    THIS is fabulous.

    This statement had me self-reflecting about my own skills and perceptions.
    And: This is a very interesting point to ponder before standardized testing begins...

    As usual, your post has me thinking "big thoughts."

    You're a marvel, Barbara-Dear.
    Happy Friday!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  2. I too use this book a lot. Besides integrity, I like to talk about Ping's courage. Kids really have a lot to say about it when I ask them questions like --Would you have had the courage to face the emperor with your empty pot? Would you have had the courage to tell the truth? Would you have had the courage to face your friends when you failed? One of the best books out there!

  3. This looks like a wonderful read. I've never heard of it. Thank you.


  4. I don't know this book, but it looks wonderful! I love all the ideas you posted. Thanks.

    Grade ONEderful
    Ruby Slippers Blog Designs

  5. Barbara,
    I don't have this book, but I have read it a few times before...always a great one! Thank you the reminder and great ideas!
    The Picture Book Teacher's Edition

  6. What a great lesson on integrity for the kids. I have heard this story before, but it had been filed away in my brain. Thank you for bringing it to the forefront. The questions you have are great for getting the kids to think. Wonderful post!

    Teaching in Room 6

  7. Thanks Barbara! I didn't know about this book. The questions are great!
    Literacy Minute

  8. I am putting this on my to read list immediately! It sounds like a treasure!!


I really enjoy hearing from my readers; thanks for sharing your reflections with us!