By Hans Christian Andersen
In China, you know, the emperor is a Chinese,
and all those about him are Chinamen also.
The story I am going to tell you happened a
great many years ago, so it is well to hear
it now before it is forgotten. The emperor's
palace was the most beautiful in the world.
It was built entirely of porcelain, and very
costly, but so delicate and brittle that
whoever touched it was obliged to be careful.
In the garden could be seen the most
singular flowers, with pretty silver bells
tied to them, which tinkled so that every
one who passed could not help noticing the
flowers. Indeed, everything in the emperor's
garden was remarkable, and it extended so
far that the gardener himself did not know
where it ended. Those who travelled beyond
its limits knew that there was a noble
forest, with lofty trees, sloping down to
the deep blue sea, and the great ships
sailed under the shadow of its branches. In
one of these trees lived a nightingale, who
sang so beautifully that even the poor
fishermen, who had so many other things to
do, would stop and listen. Sometimes, when
they went at night to spread their nets,
they would hear her sing, and say, "Oh, is
not that beautiful?" But when they returned
to their fishing, they forgot the bird until
the next night. Then they would hear it
again, and exclaim "Oh, how beautiful is the
Travellers from every country in the world
came to the city of the emperor, which they
admired very much, as well as the palace and
gardens; but when they heard the nightingale,
they all declared it to be the best of all.
And the travellers, on their return home,
related what they had seen; and learned men
wrote books, containing descriptions of the
town, the palace, and the gardens; but they
did not forget the nightingale, which was
really the greatest wonder. And those who
could write poetry composed beautiful verses
about the nightingale, who lived in a forest
near the deep sea. The books travelled all
over the world, and some of them came into
the hands of the emperor; and he sat in his
golden chair, and, as he read, he nodded his
approval every moment, for it pleased him to
find such a beautiful description of his
city, his palace, and his gardens. But when
he came to the words, "the nightingale is
the most beautiful of all," he exclaimed, "What
is this? I know nothing of any nightingale.
Is there such a bird in my empire? and even
in my garden? I have never heard of it.
Something, it appears, may be learnt from
Then he called one of his lords-in-waiting,
who was so high-bred, that when any in an
inferior rank to himself spoke to him, or
asked him a question, he would answer, "Pooh,"
which means nothing.
"There is a very wonderful bird mentioned
here, called a nightingale," said the
emperor; "they say it is the best thing in
my large kingdom. Why have I not been told
"I have never heard the name," replied the
cavalier; "she has not been presented at
"It is my pleasure that she shall appear
this evening." said the emperor; the whole
world knows what I possess better than I do
"I have never heard of her," said the
cavalier; "yet I will endeavor to find her."
But where was the nightingale to be found?
The nobleman went up stairs and down,
through halls and passages; yet none of
those whom he met had heard of the bird. So
he returned to the emperor, and said that it
must be a fable, invented by those who had
written the book. "Your imperial majesty,"
said he, "cannot believe everything
contained in books; sometimes they are only
fiction, or what is called the black art."
"But the book in which I have read this
account," said the emperor, "was sent to me
by the great and mighty emperor of Japan,
and therefore it cannot contain a falsehood.
I will hear the nightingale, she must be
here this evening; she has my highest favor;
and if she does not come, the whole court
shall be trampled upon after supper is ended."
"Tsing-pe!" cried the lord-in-waiting, and
again he ran up and down stairs, through all
the halls and corridors; and half the court
ran with him, for they did not like the idea
of being trampled upon. There was a great
inquiry about this wonderful nightingale,
whom all the world knew, but who was unknown
to the court.
At last they met with a poor little girl in
the kitchen, who said, "Oh, yes, I know the
nightingale quite well; indeed, she can sing.
Every evening I have permission to take home
to my poor sick mother the scraps from the
table; she lives down by the sea-shore, and
as I come back I feel tired, and I sit down
in the wood to rest, and listen to the
nightingale's song. Then the tears come into
my eyes, and it is just as if my mother
"Little maiden," said the lord-in-waiting,
"I will obtain for you constant employment
in the kitchen, and you shall have
permission to see the emperor dine, if you
will lead us to the nightingale; for she is
invited for this evening to the palace." So
she went into the wood where the nightingale
sang, and half the court followed her. As
they went along, a cow began lowing.
"Oh," said a young courtier, "now we have
found her; what wonderful power for such a
small creature; I have certainly heard it
"No, that is only a cow lowing," said the
little girl; "we are a long way from the
Then some frogs began to croak in the marsh.
"Beautiful," said the young courtier again.
"Now I hear it, tinkling like little church
"No, those are frogs," said the little
maiden; "but I think we shall soon hear her
now:" and presently the nightingale began to
"Hark, hark! there she is," said the girl,
"and there she sits," she added, pointing to
a little gray bird who was perched on a
"Is it possible?" said the lord-in-waiting,
"I never imagined it would be a little,
plain, simple thing like that. She has
certainly changed color at seeing so many
grand people around her."
"Little nightingale," cried the girl,
raising her voice, "our most gracious
emperor wishes you to sing before him."
"With the greatest pleasure," said the
nightingale, and began to sing most
"It sounds like tiny glass bells," said the
lord-in-waiting, "and see how her little
throat works. It is surprising that we have
never heard this before; she will be a great
success at court."
"Shall I sing once more before the emperor?"
asked the nightingale, who thought he was
"My excellent little nightingale," said the
courtier, "I have the great pleasure of
inviting you to a court festival this
evening, where you will gain imperial favor
by your charming song."
"My song sounds best in the green wood,"
said the bird; but still she came willingly
when she heard the emperor's wish.
The palace was elegantly decorated for the
occasion. The walls and floors of porcelain
glittered in the light of a thousand lamps.
Beautiful flowers, round which little bells
were tied, stood in the corridors: what with
the running to and fro and the draught,
these bells tinkled so loudly that no one
could speak to be heard. In the centre of
the great hall, a golden perch had been
fixed for the nightingale to sit on. The
whole court was present, and the little
kitchen-maid had received permission to
stand by the door. She was not installed as
a real court cook. All were in full dress,
and every eye was turned to the little gray
bird when the emperor nodded to her to begin.
The nightingale sang so sweetly that the
tears came into the emperor's eyes, and then
rolled down his cheeks, as her song became
still more touching and went to every one's
heart. The emperor was so delighted that he
declared the nightingale should have his
gold slipper to wear round her neck, but she
declined the honor with thanks: she had been
sufficiently rewarded already. "I have seen
tears in an emperor's eyes," she said, "that
is my richest reward. An emperor's tears
have wonderful power, and are quite
sufficient honor for me;" and then she sang
again more enchantingly than ever.
"That singing is a lovely gift;" said the
ladies of the court to each other; and then
they took water in their mouths to make them
utter the gurgling sounds of the nightingale
when they spoke to any one, so thay they
might fancy themselves nightingales. And the
footmen and chambermaids also expressed
their satisfaction, which is saying a great
deal, for they are very difficult to please.
In fact the nightingale's visit was most
successful. She was now to remain at court,
to have her own cage, with liberty to go out
twice a day, and once during the night.
Twelve servants were appointed to attend her
on these occasions, who each held her by a
silken string fastened to her leg. There was
certainly not much pleasure in this kind of
The whole city spoke of the wonderful bird,
and when two people met, one said "nightin,"
and the other said "gale," and they
understood what was meant, for nothing else
was talked of. Eleven peddlers' children
were named after her, but not of them could
sing a note.
One day the emperor received a large packet
on which was written "The Nightingale." "Here
is no doubt a new book about our celebrated
bird," said the emperor. But instead of a
book, it was a work of art contained in a
casket, an artificial nightingale made to
look like a living one, and covered all over
with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As
soon as the artificial bird was wound up, it
could sing like the real one, and could move
its tail up and down, which sparkled with
silver and gold. Round its neck hung a piece
of ribbon, on which was written "The Emperor
of Japan's nightingale is poor compared with
that of the Emperor of China's."
"This is very beautiful," exclaimed all who
saw it, and he who had brought the
artificial bird received the title of
"Now they must sing together," said the
court, "and what a duet it will be." But
they did not get on well, for the real
nightingale sang in its own natural way, but
the artificial bird sang only waltzes.
"That is not a fault," said the music-master,
"it is quite perfect to my taste," so then
it had to sing alone, and was as successful
as the real bird; besides, it was so much
prettier to look at, for it sparkled like
bracelets and breast-pins. Three and thirty
times did it sing the same tunes without
being tired; the people would gladly have
heard it again, but the emperor said the
living nightingale ought to sing something.
But where was she? No one had noticed her
when she flew out at the open window, back
to her own green woods.
"What strange conduct," said the emperor,
when her flight had been discovered; and all
the courtiers blamed her, and said she was a
very ungrateful creature.
"But we have the best bird after all," said
one, and then they would have the bird sing
again, although it was the thirty-fourth
time they had listened to the same piece,
and even then they had not learnt it, for it
was rather difficult. But the music-master
praised the bird in the highest degree, and
even asserted that it was better than a real
nightingale, not only in its dress and the
beautiful diamonds, but also in its musical
power. "For you must perceive, my chief lord
and emperor, that with a real nightingale we
can never tell what is going to be sung, but
with this bird everything is settled. It can
be opened and explained, so that people may
understand how the waltzes are formed, and
why one note follows upon another."
"This is exactly what we think," they all
replied, and then the music-master received
permission to exhibit the bird to the people
on the following Sunday, and the emperor
commanded that they should be present to
hear it sing. When they heard it they were
like people intoxicated; however it must
have been with drinking tea, which is quite
a Chinese custom. They all said "Oh!" and
held up their forefingers and nodded, but a
poor fisherman, who had heard the real
nightingale, said, "it sounds prettily
enough, and the melodies are all alike; yet
there seems something wanting, I cannot
exactly tell what."
And after this the real nightingale was
banished from the empire, and the artificial
bird placed on a silk cushion close to the
emperor's bed. The presents of gold and
precious stones which had been received with
it were round the bird, and it was now
advanced to the title of "Little Imperial
Toilet Singer," and to the rank of No. 1 on
the left hand; for the emperor considered
the left side, on which the heart lies, as
the most noble, and the heart of an emperor
is in the same place as that of other
The music-master wrote a work, in
twenty-five volumes, about the artificial
bird, which was very learned and very long,
and full of the most difficult Chinese
words; yet all the people said they had read
it, and understood it, for fear of being
thought stupid and having their bodies
So a year passed, and the emperor, the
court, and all the other Chinese knew every
little turn in the artificial bird's song;
and for that same reason it pleased them
better. They could sing with the bird, which
they often did. The street-boys sang,
"Zi-zi-zi, cluck, cluck, cluck," and the
emperor himself could sing it also. It was
really most amusing.
One evening, when the artificial bird was
singing its best, and the emperor lay in bed
listening to it, something inside the bird
sounded "whizz." Then a spring cracked.
"Whir-r-r-r" went all the wheels, running
round, and then the music stopped. The
emperor immediately sprang out of bed, and
called for his physician; but what could he
do? Then they sent for a watchmaker; and,
after a great deal of talking and
examination, the bird was put into something
like order; but he said that it must be used
very carefully, as the barrels were worn,
and it would be impossible to put in new
ones without injuring the music. Now there
was great sorrow, as the bird could only be
allowed to play once a year; and even that
was dangerous for the works inside it. Then
the music-master made a little speech, full
of hard words, and declared that the bird
was as good as ever; and, of course no one
Five years passed, and then a real grief
came upon the land. The Chinese really were
fond of their emperor, and he now lay so ill
that he was not expected to live. Already a
new emperor had been chosen and the people
who stood in the street asked the
lord-in-waiting how the old emperor was; but
he only said, "Pooh!" and shook his head.
Cold and pale lay the emperor in his royal
bed; the whole court thought he was dead,
and every one ran away to pay homage to his
successor. The chamberlains went out to have
a talk on the matter, and the ladies'-maids
invited company to take coffee. Cloth had
been laid down on the halls and passages, so
that not a footstep should be heard, and all
was silent and still. But the emperor was
not yet dead, although he lay white and
stiff on his gorgeous bed, with the long
velvet curtains and heavy gold tassels. A
window stood open, and the moon shone in
upon the emperor and the artificial bird.
The poor emperor, finding he could scarcely
breathe with a strange weight on his chest,
opened his eyes, and saw Death sitting
there. He had put on the emperor's golden
crown, and held in one hand his sword of
state, and in the other his beautiful
banner. All around the bed and peeping
through the long velvet curtains, were a
number of strange heads, some very ugly, and
others lovely and gentle-looking. These were
the emperor's good and bad deeds, which
stared him in the face now Death sat at his
"Do you remember this?" "Do you recollect
that?" they asked one after another, thus
bringing to his remembrance circumstances
that made the perspiration stand on his
"I know nothing about it," said the emperor.
"Music! music!" he cried; "the large Chinese
drum! that I may not hear what they say."
But they still went on, and Death nodded
like a Chinaman to all they said. "Music!
music!" shouted the emperor. "You little
precious golden bird, sing, pray sing! I
have given you gold and costly presents; I
have even hung my golden slipper round your
neck. Sing! sing!" But the bird remained
silent. There was no one to wind it up, and
therefore it could not sing a note.
Death continued to stare at the emperor with
his cold, hollow eyes, and the room was
fearfully still. Suddenly there came through
the open window the sound of sweet music.
Outside, on the bough of a tree, sat the
living nightingale. She had heard of the
emperor's illness, and was therefore come to
sing to him of hope and trust. And as she
sung, the shadows grew paler and paler; the
blood in the emperor's veins flowed more
rapidly, and gave life to his weak limbs;
and even Death himself listened, and said,
"Go on, little nightingale, go on."
"Then will you give me the beautiful golden
sword and that rich banner? and will you
give me the emperor's crown?" said the bird.
So Death gave up each of these treasures for
a song; and the nightingale continued her
singing. She sung of the quiet churchyard,
where the white roses grow, where the
elder-tree wafts its perfume on the breeze,
and the fresh, sweet grass is moistened by
the mourners' tears. Then Death longed to go
and see his garden, and floated out through
the window in the form of a cold, white
"Thanks, thanks, you heavenly little bird. I
know you well. I banished you from my
kingdom once, and yet you have charmed away
the evil faces from my bed, and banished
Death from my heart, with your sweet song.
How can I reward you?"
"You have already rewarded me," said the
nightingale. "I shall never forget that I
drew tears from your eyes the first time I
sang to you. These are the jewels that
rejoice a singer's heart. But now sleep, and
grow strong and well again. I will sing to
And as she sung, the emperor fell into a
sweet sleep; and how mild and refreshing
that slumber was! When he awoke,
strengthened and restored, the sun shone
brightly through the window; but not one of
his servants had returned- they all believed
he was dead; only the nightingale still sat
beside him, and sang.
"You must always remain with me," said the
emperor. "You shall sing only when it
pleases you; and I will break the artificial
bird into a thousand pieces."
"No; do not do that," replied the
nightingale; "the bird did very well as long
as it could. Keep it here still. I cannot
live in the palace, and build my nest; but
let me come when I like. I will sit on a
bough outside your window, in the evening,
and sing to you, so that you may be happy,
and have thoughts full of joy. I will sing
to you of those who are happy, and those who
suffer; of the good and the evil, who are
hidden around you. The little singing bird
flies far from you and your court to the
home of the fisherman and the peasant's cot.
I love your heart better than your crown;
and yet something holy lingers round that
also. I will come, I will sing to you; but
you must promise me one thing."
"Everything," said the emperor, who, having
dressed himself in his imperial robes, stood
with the hand that held the heavy golden
sword pressed to his heart.
"I only ask one thing," she replied; "let no
one know that you have a little bird who
tells you everything. It will be best to
conceal it." So saying, the nightingale flew
The servants now came in to look after the
dead emperor; when, lo! there he stood, and,
to their astonishment, said, "Good morning."