The Golden Horse

A carpenter and a blacksmith had an argument. Each of them insisted that he was more skilful than the other. Who was actually the more skilful of the two? They disputed this question for a long time without reaching any conclusion. Finally they agreed, "Let's go to the king and ask him to be the judge."
So they came to the king who asked them, "What have you come for?"
"I am a carpenter," said the one. "And my handiwork is more ingenious than the handiwork of any other carpenter in the world. But he said that I cannot match him in skill."
The blacksmith said, "Whoever sees my work praises it. But he insists that my skill is inferior to his."
"We want Your Majesty to be our judge and tell us whose skill is truly superior," the two pleaded. This put the king in a difficult position. "How can I form a judgement without seeing a single thing you have made?" said he. "I'll give you ten days. In that time you must each make a sample of your work and bring it here."
The two went home and each set his hand to his task. Ten days later, they came to the king again. The blacksmith brought with him a huge iron fish. "What can this do?" asked the king.
The blacksmith told him, "This iron fish of mine can float in the sea loaded with a hundred thousand sacks of grain."
These words made the king laugh inwardly. "This fellow is bound to come out the loser," he said to himself. "Such heavy iron will definitely sink when put in the water. How can it possibly float? But anyway, they may as well put a hundred thousand sacks of grain into the thing and see what happens." On his orders, the iron fish was launched. Strangely enough, it moved through the water with speed and without the least trace of clumsiness. It caused quite a sensation among the spectators. The king was most impressed and even promised the blacksmith an official post. Later he actually made him beadle of one of his districts.
The carpenter came with a wooden horse slung over his shoulder. When he saw it, the king pulled a long face, "Surely this is a child's toy? How can it compare with the iron fish?"
"Oh, it's even better than the iron fish," said the carpenter. "It has twenty-six screws on it. When you loosen the first screw, the wooden horse will fly into the sky; when you loosen the second screw, it will accelerate. If you loosen all the twenty-six screws, it will fly more quickly than any bird and take you around the world."
The young prince happened to be present while they were talking about this. His curiosity was greatly aroused when he heard that the wooden horse could fly. How he wished he could fly up into the sky and have a look at the world! He turned to the king and asked him to let him have a ride. The king said, "No, it's out of the question. Are you even sure that it can really fly? What if it rises into the sky and then falls to the ground?"
"Don't worry," said the carpenter. "There is no chance of that ever happening."
The little prince kept pestering his father. Since the king doted on him and had never refused him anything, he got his way in the end. "But you can only try it out," said the king. "You must fly slowly and only loosen the first screw." Agreeing to this, the little prince mounted the horse. He loosened the first screw, and sure enough, the wooden horse rose into the air. He looked down and saw everything beneath him moving further away: the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the towns, the crowds of people. He was so delighted that he loosened one screw after another. The wooden horse flew faster and faster and soon crowds, trees, towns were all out of sight. As he flew, the little prince became hungry. He looked down and saw another city beneath him. He tightened the screws one by one. The wooden horse slowed down and gradually landed. The little prince had a meal and put up for the night at an inn. What fun! To arrive like this, in the twinkling of an eye, in a new town, a town he had never seen before!
The next day the little prince went sight-seeing. Having strolled along several streets, he found himself in a square filled with people gazing up into the sky. "There must be something fascinating up there in the sky," he thought. He elbowed his way into the crowd and looked up, but there was nothing to be seen.
"What are you looking at?" he asked a man beside him. The man gave him a scrutinizing glance and replied, "Our king has a princess. No one in the world can match her in beauty. The king loves her so much that he will not let anybody look at her. The princess used to live in the palace, but the king thought that she was not safe enough there, so he has had a mansion built in the sky and the princess lives there all by herself. Every day, when the court is dismissed, the king goes up to see her. He has been there for quite a long while and is expected to return at any moment. That's why everyone is here, waiting for him."
This sounded quite strange to the little prince.
"Surely it's impossible to build a palace in the sky?"
"The palace was built by an immortal, and only the king can go there," said the man.
The little prince bore these words in mind. That night he mounted his wooden horse and flew up into the sky, where sure enough, a magnificent palace greeted his eyes. He flew directly to the door, dismounted from his horse and walked in. Seeing a man come in, the princess at first took him for her father. When she discovered her mistake, she thought he must be a god come down from heaven and hurriedly stood up to greet him. "What a lovely young lady!" thought the prince. "What a handsome young man!" thought the princess. They fell in love at first sight and without knowing what they were doing, they walked up to each other and embraced.
The following morning the little prince returned to the inn on his horse, and later that day, the king came to the palace in the sky as usual. The first thing he did was to weigh the princess. He used to do this every day, for he knew that a woman would put on weight if she had touched a man. As he weighed her that day, he found the princess two pounds heavier than usual. He flew into a rage, he scowled and his beard stood on end. People were very puzzled that day because the king returned to his palace rather early. Seeing that he was in a bad mood, his courtiers came forward to ask what was troubling him. The king told them what had happened. "Who else can go up there but me?" he asked, and then added, "You must find me a way to arrest this man."
One of his courtiers made a suggestion, "We have four mighty warriors in our kingdom. Your Majesty can send them up to stand at the foot of the four walls of the palace. When the man turns up, they wil1 he sure to catch him." The king thought this an excellent idea. That evening he personally took the warriors up and showed them where to hide and keep watch. When everything was set, the king went down to his palace. But, unfortunately for his plans, the warriors were inveterate sleepy heads and soon fell asleep at their posts. The little prince came again and stayed with impunity until dawn.
When the king arrived and weighed the princess, he discovered that she had put on weight again. He was speechless with rage.
He called in another courtier for consultation. The courtier said, "Why not apply a coat of paint to the bed and chairs of the princess? Then tomorrow we can search the city and whoever has paint on his clothes is our man." The king followed his advice and had the princess' bed, chairs and all her other furniture painted. In the evening the little prince came again. On his way back, he noticed that his clothes were badly stained with paint, so he took them off and threw them away.
It so happened that in the town there lived a poor old man who got up before dawn every day and went from door to door waking people to go to mosque. While he was on his rounds that day, something dropped from the sky. He picked it up and found it to be a set of very fine clothes. "I have been serving Allah all my life and this must be my reward!" the old man thought to himself and took the clothes home.
That evening, when the whole town came to the mosque to pray, the king secretly sent his men to search for the suspect. The old man who was happily wearing his "reward from Allah" soon got into trouble. In the middle of the service, he was arrested and brought to the king. "Why are your clothes stained with paint?" the king questioned him. The old man answered, "I picked these clothes up off the ground and they were like this when I found them." The king didn't believe his story and sent him to prison to be interrogated under torture. Without much trouble, they managed to extract some sort of confession from him, and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
The whole town was abuzz with this affair, and everyone was curious to know what this man was like who had succeeded in getting into the palace in the sky. When they saw this old man being led to the scaffold, no one thought he could possibly have done it. They began to talk about the case, and all felt that he must have been falsely accused. When the news reached the ears of the little prince, his conscience drove him to intervene. Carrying the wooden horse under his arm, he dashed to the execution ground where the noose had already been tied around the man's neck.
"Don't hang him! He is innocent!" shouted the prince. "It is I who went to the palace in the sky. The paint-stained clothes are mine. If you want to hang someone, hang me and let him go!"
The king, who was watching from a distance, saw the execution come to a halt and sent someone to ask what had happened. The hangman told him, "A young man has just come forward and confessed the crime. Which of them should be hanged?"
"Hang the one who has pleaded guilty," ordered the king. So the old man was released and went home, thanking his lucky stars for this narrow escape. The little prince, meanwhile, just as the hangman came over to bind him for the hanging, mounted his wooden horse, loosened the screws and rose into the air before everyone's eyes. Seeing that all his men could not even deal with this one youth, the king fainted with rage.
The little prince arrived at the palace in the sky and said to the princess, "Our love is so deep that we can never part. Now that we have been detected by your father, I am sure he won't allow me to stay here any longer. There is only one way out. Come home with me. I know my father will like you."
The princess agreed and said, "Wherever you go, I will go too." The two hurried out of the palace in the sky and flew away on the wooden horse. They had been flying for a long time when the princess suddenly cried out, "I forgot to bring the two precious stones my mother gave me when I was a little girl. Let me go back and get them. I should like to give them to your parents at our wedding."
"We are already a long way from the palace," said the little prince. "Let's not bother with them now." But the princess insisted on going back, and in the end, the little prince had to give in. He tightened the screws and the wooden horse landed.
The prince said, "I'll wait for you here. Go to the palace on the wooden horse and come back as soon as you have collected the precious stones." The princess mounted the wooden horse and flew away.
Meanwhile, the king, who had been brought round by his courtiers, feared the worst for his daughter. He hurried up to the palace in the sky and, just as expected, found the place empty. He was at his wits' end when suddenly the princess arrived on the wooden horse. His men captured her and took her down to his palace, where they locked her up in an empty room. The wooden horse also fell into the hands of the king, but he had no idea how to use it and just stored it in another empty room.
Long before all this, there had been another king who, hearing of the beauty of the princess, had asked for her hand for his own son, only to be rejected by the princess' father. After this affair, however, it suited him to marry her to someone who lived a long way away, and he sent a message to this king, saying, "My daughter has reached the age of marriage, and I am therefore willing to marry her to your son. This will make our two families closely related and will bring an enduring peace to our two kingdoms. Please let your son come and take his bride."
But let us leave aside the king and his daughter and turn once more to the little prince.
He waited for a long time, but there was no sign of the princess. Looking around, he found himself in a boundless stretch of desert with towering sand dunes in every direction. The sand was blowing in the wind, the scorching sun was directly over head and there was not so much as a single blade of grass to be seen. Time passed, and he became hungry and thirsty. But when he rose to his feet and went in search of water, there was not a drop to be found. "I may be able to see something from the top of those dunes," he thought, but as he climbed, the shifting sand buried his feet, making every step a struggle. With great difficulty he finally reached the top. As he raised his head to look around, the sand underneath gave way like melting ice in spring. He slipped over and downward and when he came to a stop, he saw before him a lush orchard filled with all kinds of fruit trees. The ripe fruits, red and green, hung heavy on the trees. His mouth watered. He ran in, picked several peaches and began gobbling them up. He ate his fill of the sweet, juicy fruits and then fell asleep against a tree.
When he woke up, he felt his chin and found his whole face covered with a growth of beard. As he was wondering what had happened, he felt hungry again but did not dare to eat any more peaches. He suspected them of being the cause of his beard. Then he saw a pear tree. Pulling down a branch, he picked a few large succulent pears. The more he ate, the more delicious they tasted. When he was sated with the pears, he fell asleep again and did not wake till dusk. Stretching himself, he bumped his head against a tree. His head seemed heavier than usual and when he felt it, he discovered that he had grown a pair of thick horns and his chin was covered with a snowy white beard more than a foot long. "How terrible I look!" thought the little prince. "Even if the princess returns, she will never recognize me and will never love me again. What can I do?" The more he thought the more wretched he felt, and he burst into tears. After a while, exhausted with weeping, he fell into a deep sleep.
He dreamed that an old man came to see him. "My child, why are you so sad?" he asked, stroking the little prince's head. When the little prince told him what had happened, the old man said, "Don't worry. Go and pick up some of the dried peaches and pears that have fallen under the trees and eat them, then your beard and your horns will disappear. Leave quickly! This place is inhabited by demons. They are now asleep. When they awake, they will devour you."
The words startled the little prince from sleep. He rubbed his eyes. A cool breeze was blowing, carrying away with it the heat of the desert. Following the advice of the old man in his dream, he gathered a handful of dry peaches and a handful of dry pears and chewed them slowly. Sure enough, when he finished eating and felt his chin and head again, the beard and the horns had vanished. He pondered for a while. Then, breaking some willow twigs, he wove a basket and filled half of it with dry peaches and pears and half with fresh. He hurried from the demon's orchard.
He wanted to go home, but had no idea in which direction home lay. "The important thing is just to keep going!" he thought to himself. Everywhere he went, it was desert with no sign of human habitation. He had only the dry peaches and pears to allay his hunger and the vast desert to sleep on. He walked like this for seven days and nights and saw not even a bird, let alone a human being.
Finally he reached a highway. Breathing a sigh of relief, he sat down by the roadside to rest.
Presently he saw a man driving a donkey along the road. From him the little prince learnt that his home lay to the east, while the kingdom of the princess lay to the west. "How can I go home now, having lost both the princess and the wooden horse?" he thought to himself. So he chose to go west along the road. As he was walking, he heard the sound of men shouting orders. A great cortege caught up with him. The men were in full armor, the horses likewise; it was a most impressive sight.
In the middle was a carriage intricately inlaid with gold, with glass windows on all four sides. Four elaborately caparisoned horses led the way. The little prince had stepped aside to watch, but to his surprise the carriage came to a halt in front of him and a man came up and asked him, "What are you selling?"
"Nothing," replied the little prince.
But the man pointed to his basket and said, "Aren't these peaches and pears? After a hard day's journey, our prince is thirsty and hungry. Please be so good as to sell us some of your fruit."
"This fruit is not for sale," said the little prince. "It is food for my journey. Can't you see that there is not even a blade of grass to be found on this road? Where can I find food to eat if I sell this to you?"
Meanwhile the prince inside the carriage was shouting to his men to hurry up. "Pay whatever he asks!" he cried, handing them out an ingot of gold.
"Where are you going?" inquired the little prince.
"Our master is on his way to his wedding," answered the men. "His bride is the princess in the town ahead." So saying, he pointed to the west. The little prince was shaken by the news, but he managed to maintain an unruffled appearance. After he had asked some more detailed questions and was sure that the bride was none other than the princess he loved, he accepted the gold, chose two especially red peaches and two especially big pears from his basket and handed them to the men.
The prince inside the carriage was delighted to have the fruit and devoured it ravenously. The cortege then continued on its way, and with the rocking of the carriage, the prince gradually fell asleep. When he awoke, he gave a great start and began crying out loud. His escort gathered around him to inquire what the matter was. When they looked inside the carriage, they saw no prince but a monster with a white beard on its chin and two horns on its head. They were panic stricken. The whole cortege came to a halt to wait for the fruit seller.
After a short while, when the little prince caught up with them, they stopped him and asked, "What kind of fruit did you sell our master?"
"Fruit that grows on trees."
"But why does he have a beard on his face and horns on his head after eating your fruit?"
The little prince saw the strange-looking creature in the carriage and felt inwardly delighted, but he concealed his feeling and calmly said in reply, "I've been eating them every day. Why has nothing happened to me?" There was nothing the courtiers could say to this.
How could the prince marry the princess now that he looked like a monster? They put their heads together to find a way out. "We'd better turn back," one of them suggested. "They'll definitely drive us out if we go." But the prince would rather die than go back.
Finally, his father's favorite courtier came up with an idea. "We must find a handsome young man and disguise him as the prince. If the princess falls for it and we manage to get her back to our kingdom, she'll be at our mercy." This plan was generally acclaimed and they began to look around for a likely candidate. In the end they agreed that the fruit-seller was the most handsome young man present, and they asked him to do the job.
Pretending to be coy, he said, "This is your affair. See to it yourself. I have my own business to attend to." The courtiers begged him again and again, offering him five golden ingots as reward.
"That's not enough," said the little prince.
"Seven then," said the courtiers. They told him to sit upright in the carriage, like a real prince. Their own master, the prince with the horns, was told to ride on a horse. They bound his head in a piece of cloth, put a veil over his face and advised him that once they were in the capital, he should hide indoors and not on any account let anyone see him. When everything was satisfactorily arranged, the cortege continued on its way. They arrived to find the king waiting for them outside the town gates. Seeing so handsome a son-in-law and so many betrothal gifts, the king was overjoyed. At the same time, he was very concerned that the marriage might be ruined if his daughter's story became known, so preparations for a four-day wedding banquet got under way immediately. The old were entertained outside while the young were asked to stay inside to wait on the prince and princess. The king's whole purpose was to keep the guests so busy that they would have no time to learn his shameful secret.
Throughout the first three days of the wedding, the princess did nothing but weep and kept her face veiled. She wouldn't even raise her head to look at the bridegroom for her heart was set on another -- the little prince, the only man she truly loved. When the fourth day came, the king was still worried and sent a trusted old woman to spy on the bridegroom and see whether he really loved the princess. That evening, at the banquet in the palace, the little prince sat beside the princess.
When no one was looking, he told her in a whisper, "It's me! I've come back!"
The princess immediately put aside her veil and glanced at him. "Heavens!" she thought to herself. "Is this a dream? What could be in father's mind to bring him back to me like this?"
Afraid that the princess might reveal his secret, the little prince whispered the whole story to her, telling her to act as if she knew nothing. While they were dancing together, they discussed how to escape. The little prince's idea was that after the wedding, when she was supposed to leave with him, she should ask her father for the wooden horse. She must tell him that she would never leave without it. "No matter how he threatens you, don't be afraid."
The old woman came to the king and reported, "The young couple are very fond of one another, Your Majesty. They have been dancing and singing together the whole evening." This pleased the king greatly.
The next day many distinguished guests gathered in front of the palace, waiting to see the princess off. The prince's men were also ready with their horses. But inside the palace the princess was still clinging onto her father and pestering him with her request for the wooden horse In a rage the king called in the hangman to threaten her with death, but the princess was not in the least afraid, saying that if she couldn't have the wooden horse, she would die.
The king was at his wits' end. When the distinguished guests, tired of waiting, came in to ask the reason for the delay, the king said to them, "The naughty thing! She is behaving just like a child. She has a wooden horse which she desperately wants to take with her."
Hearing this, the guests burst out laughing. "A toy! Why not let her take it with her?" The king felt too embarrassed to say anything. He took out the wooden horse and gave it to her and amid much pomp and ceremony the cortege left the capital.
The journey took them several days. During this time their escort attended to them with great devotion, never giving them one minute to themselves, which made it impossible for them to escape. As they were approaching their destination, the young couple became desperate. At the last moment, the little prince thought of a new ruse. He told the princess, "When we arrive at the palace gates, you must say that you will get out of the carriage on one condition only: they are to bring you seven plates piled high with gold. You must then scatter the gold on the ground for the people to pick up."
The princess followed his instructions carefully. As soon as she scattered the gold about, people stampeded to get it. Seizing this opportunity, the little prince helped the princess onto the wooden horse, loosened one screw, and in the twinkling of an eye they were up in the air. There was no mishap on their journey, and they landed safe and sound in the prince's home.
The king, the little prince's father, had been missing his lost son day and night. He blamed his disappearance on the carpenter and was about to put this unfortunate man to death. The carpenter had been nailed to the end of a bridge for three days and nights. The little prince, when he returned, saw the king and said to him, "Father, the carpenter's wooden horse has been of great service. Without it I would not have been able to see so many countries, find such a beautiful bride and come back to you again safe and sound. You should give the carpenter a handsome reward." The king listened with great shame and felt compelled to tell his son what he had done to the carpenter. He sent his men to the bridge at once. They found the carpenter still alive, untied him and brought him back to the palace.
The little prince personally took good care of the carpenter until his wounds were healed. Then he gave him a large sum of money to enable him to perfect his craft. The little prince and the princess held a second wedding, and in the course of time the prince succeeded to the throne.

Source: Favourite Folktales of China, translated by John Minford (Beijing: New World Press, 1983), pp. 101-121. No copyright notice.


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