The Gold Colt and the Fire Dragon Shirt
March 5, 2011 in World Stories
|There once lived a landlord who loved money as he loved his own life. In his eyes the smallest coin seemed as large as a millstone. He was always on the lookout for some new way of making money and was very mean to his peasant tenants. They all called him “Skinflint.”
One year a long spell of drought devastated the area, ruining the entire crop. The peasants, who were used to living from year to year, and never had a reserve of grain to fall back on, were reduced to eating bark and roots to survive, and now even these were all consumed. Starvation drove them to ask for a loan of grain from Skinflint, whose granaries, big and small, were filled to overflowing. Although the grain was sprouting and the flour was swarming with maggots, he was such a miser that he wouldn’t part with a single speck of either. His peasants went away seething with anger and resentment, and resolved to find some way to teach him a lesson.
They put their heads together and came up with rather a good plan. They collected together a few tiny silver ingots and also managed to procure a scraggy little horse. They stuffed the silver up the horse’s behind and bunged it up with a wad of cotton floss. Then they selected one of their number, a peasant whose gift of gab had earned him the nickname “Bigmouth” and who was credited with the power of talking the dead out of their graves. They sent him to Skinflint with the horse. Seeing them enter, Skinflint flew into a rage. His whiskers bristled.
He glowered at Bigmouth, pointing at him angrily and shouting, “You damn fool! You have fouled my courtyard enough. Get out of my sight!”
“Please keep your voice down, Master,” said Bigmouth with a cunning smile. “If you frighten my horse and make him bolt, you’d have to sell everything you’ve got to make good the damage.”
“There you go, Bigmouth, bragging again!” said Skinflint. “What can this scraggy little horse of yours possibly be worth?”
To which Bigmouth replied, “Oh, nothing, except that when he moves his bowels silver and gold come out.”
In an instant Skinflint’s anger evaporated and he hastened to ask, “Where did you get hold of this beast?”
“I dreamt a dream the night before last,” began Bigmouth. “I met a white-bearded old man who said to me, ‘Bigmouth, the colt who used to carry gold and silver ingots for the God of Wealth has been demoted and sent down to Earth. Go to the northeast and catch him. When he moves his bowels, silver and gold come out. If you catch him, you’ll make a fortune.’ Then the old man gave me a push and I woke up. I didn’t take it seriously, thinking it to be nothing but a dream. I turned over and fell asleep again. However, as soon as I closed my eyes, the old man reappeared and urged me to hurry up. ‘The horse will fall into another’s hands if you delay!’ he said, and gave me another push which woke me up again. I put on my clothes and ran out. In the northeast I saw a ball of fire. When I ran over, sure enough, there was the colt, grazing contentedly. So I led him home. The following day, I set up an incense burner and as soon as I lit the incense, the colt began to produce silver ingots from its behind.”
“Did it really?” asked Skinflint eagerly.
Bigmouth replied, “There’s an old proverb which says, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ If you don’t believe me, allow me to arrange a demonstration.”
He asked Skinflint to set up a burner and light some incense. Meanwhile, he himself held a plate below the horse’s behind. He secretly pulled out the wad of cotton and the tiny silver ingots fell jingling onto the plate. On seeing the horse perform like this, Skinflint asked avidly, “How much does he produce a day?”
“Three or four taels a day for us less lucky folk,” replied Bigmouth. “But the old man in my dream said that if he meets a really lucky person he produces thirty or forty.”
Skinflint thought to himself, “I must be one of those. Supposing I get the horse, he is bound to produce at least twenty taels a day. That means six hundred taels a month and seven thousand two hundred taels a year.”
The longer his sums became, the fonder he grew of the horse. He decided that he must buy him, and talked it over with Bigmouth.
At first Bigmouth pretended to be unwilling. Skinflint tried again and again to persuade him and promised to pay any price he asked. In the end Bigmouth sighed and said, “Oh well, so be it. My luck is evidently worse than yours. I’ll sell. But I don’t want silver or gold, just give me thirty bushels of grain.”
Skinflint considered the price very cheap and readily agreed. They made the exchange then and there.
Bigmouth hurried back with the grain and distributed it among his fellow peasants. They were all very happy to have it. Skinflint, for his part, felt even happier to have the horse, and just couldn’t stop chuckling to himself. He was afraid of losing the horse, however, and tried to tie him up in a great many places, but none of them seemed safe enough. Finally, he tied him up in his own living room. He laid a red carpet on the floor and set up an incense burner. The whole family watched the colt in eager anticipation, expecting him any minute to start producing silver and gold.
They waited till midnight. Suddenly the horse opened his hind legs. Skinflint sensed that he was about to “produce.” He quickly brought over a lacquered tray and held it right below the horse’s behind. He waited for ages, but nothing happened. Skinflint was so anxious by now that he lifted the horse’s tail, bent down and peered upwards to keep an eye on further developments. There was a sudden “splash,” and before Skinflint could do anything about it, the horse had splattered him all over his face. The “liquid gold” ran down the back of his head and down his neck, covering his whole body. The stench was so vile that Skinflint started jumping and shouting and then felt nauseous and began to vomit again and again. Next the horse urinated in great quantity, ruining the lovely red carpet. The whole room stunk to high heaven. Skinflint realized that he had been cheated, and in a fit of rage, he killed the horse.
The following morning, first thing, he sent some of his hired thugs to track down Bigmouth. But the peasants had already hidden him away. Skinflint’s men searched for him high and low but always came back empty handed, to his fury and exasperation. There was nothing he could do except send out spies and wait.
In the twinkling of an eye, it was winter. One day Bigmouth failed to hide properly and was caught by one of Skinflint’s henchmen. When he came face to face with his foe, Skinflint gnashed his teeth with rage and without saying a word, had Bigmouth locked up in his mill. He had him stripped of all his padded clothes and left him with nothing but a cotton shirt, hoping to freeze him to death. It was the very coldest season of the year. Outside, snow was falling and a bitter wind was blowing. Bigmouth sat huddled up in a corner, trembling with cold. As the cold was becoming unbearable, an idea suddenly occurred to him. He stood up at once, heaved a millstone up off the ground and began walking back and forth with it in his arms. He soon warmed up and started sweating. He passed the entire night in this way, walking around with the millstone and occasionally stopping for a rest.
Early next morning Skinflint thought Bigmouth must surely be dead. But when he unlocked the mill door, to his great surprise, he found Bigmouth squatting there in a halo of steam, his whole body in a muck of sweat. Bigmouth stood up at once and begged him, “Master, take pity on me! Quick, lend me a fan! Or I shall die of heat!”
“How come you are so hot?” asked the dumbfounded Skinflint.
“This shirt of mine is a priceless heirloom,” Bigmouth explained. “It’s called the Fire Dragon Shirt. The colder the weather, the greater the heat it gives off.”
“When did you get hold of it?”
“Originally it was the pelt cast off by the Lord Fire Dragon. Then the Queen of the Western Heaven wove it into a shirt. Later on it somehow fell into the possession of my ancestors and became a family heirloom. It has been passed down from generation to generation until finally it came into my hands.”
Seeing how unbearably hot he was, Skinflint swallowed the whole story. He was now set on getting hold of this Fire Dragon Shirt and had completely forgotten the episode of the gold colt. He insisted on bartering his fox-fur gown for the shirt. Bigmouth absolutely refused at first, but when Skinflint added fifty taels of silver to the price, he said with a sigh, “Alas, what a worthless son am I, to have thus lost my family’s treasured heirloom!”
Having said this, he took off his shirt and put on Skinflint’s fox-fur gown. Then he pocketed the fifty taels of silver and strode away.
Skinflint’s joy knew no bounds. Several days later his father-in-law’s birthday came round. In order to show off his new acquisition, he went to convey his birthday greetings wearing nothing but the Fire Dragon Shirt. In the middle of the journey, a fierce wind came up and it began to snow. Skinflint felt unbearably cold. The place was far from village or inn, and there was no shelter of any sort to be found. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a tree by the roadside, half of which had burnt away in a fire. It was hollow in the middle and the space was wide enough for a person to stand up in. Skinflint hurried over and hid inside. Shortly afterwards his whole body became numb with cold, and soon he died.
Several days later the family found his body. They knew that he had been cheated again by Bigmouth, and sent men to seize him.
“My precious shirt burns whenever it comes into contact with kindling, grass or timber,” explained Bigmouth. “The master must have been burned to death in this way. I am not to blame. I never told him to hide inside a tree. If you look, you will see that half of the tree has been burnt away.”
When the family examined the tree and saw that it was indeed as Bigmouth had described, they had no choice but to set him free.
â€¢ Source: Favourite Folktales of China, translated by John Minford (Beijing: New World Press, 1983), pp. 39-48. No copyright notice.