Reader Question: "What's the difference between a fable and a parable? How should the Chinese 寓言 be put into English? Is it a fable, or a parable?"
Both can be correct. However, parable is preferred to fable when it comes to the Chinese 寓言.
Both a fable and a parable are a narrative, a tale that tells a story and at the same time convey a hidden meaning. Both are intended for instruction, elucidating some moral, social or spiritual truth.
Parable comes from Latin 'parabola', meaning comparison. Any time you have a tale that tells an event, real or fictitious, but at the same time offers a lesson for people who may encounter comparable events in real life, you've got a parable.
Fable comes from Latin 'fabula', meaning conversation. Fables are supernatural happenings. In other words, tales in fables are not real. Also, fables generally use animals as characters speaking and acting like human beings.
The parable, on the other hand, usually uses humans as characters. This is the crucial difference. Most of the Chinese 寓言 stories are parables.
Here's a Chinese parable about the Foolish Man who tried to move mountains:
Once upon a time there was a foolish man living in a village at the foot of two big mountains. Every time he made a trip abroad he found the mountains in his way. Finally, the foolish man grew tired of scaling the mountains every day and decided to remove them by hand. He was ninety years old at the time.
So shovel by shovel the foolish man and his family worked on the job. Each bushel of rock they dug out of the hills they took to bury at the seas in the Far East. Each round trip takes a year to complete.
There was a wise man living in the same village. Upon seeing the foolish man at work, the wise man said disdainfully: "I've never known you to be smart, but I never realize you're stupid to this degree. Do you know how old you are? You'll be dead before you can alter an ants' nest, talking about moving mountains, indeed!"
To this the foolish man replied: "I might be dead alright, but the job will be done. I have sons and grandsons to carry on the work when I am gone. And they have sons and grandsons to carry on the work when they are gone. Little by little we are going to get it done."
When the gods governing the two mountains heard about this, they grew worried that the foolish man would be digging at their territories for ever without cease. They reported the foolish man to the God of Heaven.
The God of Heaven, touched by the very ceaselessness of the foolish man, had the mountains relocated in settling the dispute. The foolish man never found the two mountains in his way again.
The mountains, by the way, are the Taihang and the Wangwu mountains we know of today.
The moral of this story: Miracles may happen if you know what you're doing and keep doing it.