The Iron Ring by A. L. O. E.

CHANG WANG was a Chinaman, and was reputed to be one of the shrewdest dealers in the Flowery Land. If making money fast be the test of cleverness, there was not a merchant in the province of Kwang Tung who had earned a better right to be called clever. Who owned so many fields of the tea-plant, who shipped so many bales of its leaves to the little island in the west, as did Chang Wang? It was whispered, indeed, that many of the bales contained green tea made by chopping up spoiled black tea leaves, and coloring them with copper—a process likely to turn them into a mild kind of poison; but if the unwholesome trash found purchasers, Chang Wang never troubled himself with the thought whether any one might suffer in health from drinking his tea. So long as the dealer made money, he was content; and plenty of money he made.

But knowing how to make money is quite a different thing from knowing how to enjoy it. With all his ill-gotten gains, Chang Wang was a miserable man; for he had no heart to spend his silver pieces, even on his own comfort. The rich dealer lived in a hut which one of his own laborers might have despised; he dressed as a poor Tartar shepherd might have dressed when driving his flock. Chang Wang grudged himself even a hat to keep off the rays of the sun. Men laughed, and said that he would have cut off his own pigtail of plaited hair, if he could have sold it for the price of a dinner!

Chang Wang was, in fact, a miser, and was rather proud than ashamed of the hateful vice of avarice.

 Chang Wang had to make a journey to Macao, down the great River Yang-se-kiang, for purposes of trade. The question with the Chinaman now was, in what way he should travel.

“Shall I hire a palanquin?” thought Chang Wang, stroking his thin mustaches; “no, a palanquin would cost too much money. Shall I take my passage in a trading vessel?”

The rich trader shook his head, and the pigtail behind it—such a passage would have to be paid for.

“I know what I’ll do,” said the miser to himself; “I’ll ask my uncle Fing Fang to take me in his fishing-boat down the great river. It is true that it will make my journey a long one; but then I shall make it for nothing. I’ll go to the fisherman Fing Fang, and settle the matter at once.”

The business was soon arranged, for Fing Fang would not refuse his rich nephew a seat in his boat. But he, like every one else, was disgusted at Chang Wang’s meanness; and as soon as the dealer had left his hovel, thus spoke Fing Fang to his sons, Ko and Jung:—

“Here’s a fellow who has scraped up money enough to build a second Porcelain Tower, and he comes here to beg a free passage in a fishing-boat from an uncle whom he has never so much as asked to share a dish of his birds’-nests soup!”

“Birds’-nests soup, indeed!” exclaimed Ko; “why, Chang Wang never indulges in luxuries such as that. If dogs’ flesh were not so cheap, he’d grudge himself the paw of a roasted puppy!”

“And what will Chang Wang make of all his money at last?” said Fing Fang, more gravely; “he cannot carry it away with him when he dies.”

“O, he’s gathering it up for some one who will know how to spend it!” laughed Jung. “Chang Wang is merely fishing for others; what he gathers, they will enjoy.”

It was a bright, pleasant day when Chang Wang stepped into the boat of his uncle, to drop slowly down the great Yang-se-kiang. Many a civil word he said to Fing Fang and his sons, for civil words cost nothing. Chang Wang sat in the boat, twisting the ends of his long mustaches, and thinking how much money each row of plants in his tea-fields might bring him. Presently, having finished his calculations, the miser turned to watch his relations, who were pursuing their fishing occupation in the way peculiar to China. Instead of rods, lines, or nets, the Fing Fang family was provided with trained cormorants, which are a kind of bird with a long neck, large appetite, and a particular fancy for fish.

It was curious to watch a bird diving down in the sunny water, and then suddenly come up again with a struggling fish in his bill. The fish was, however, always taken away from the cormorant, and thrown by one of the Fing Fangs into a well at the bottom of the boat.

“Cousin Ko,” said the miser, leaning forward to speak, “how is it that your clever cormorants never devour the fish they catch?”

“Cousin Chang Wang,” replied the young man, “dost thou not see that each bird has an iron ring round his neck, so that he cannot swallow? He only fishes for others.”

“Methinks the cormorant has a hard life of it,” observed the miser, smiling. “He must wish his iron ring at the bottom of the Yang-se-kiang.”

Fing Fang, who had just let loose two young cormorants from the boat, turned round, and from his narrow slits of Chinese eyes looked keenly upon his nephew.

“Didst thou ever hear of a creature,” said he, “that puts an iron ring around his own neck?”

 “There is no such creature in all the land that the Great Wall borders,” replied Chang Wang.

Fing Fang solemnly shook the pigtail which hung down his back. Like many of the Chinese, he had read a great deal, and was a kind of philosopher in his way.

“Nephew Chang Wang,” he observed, “I know of a creature (and he is not far off at this moment) who is always fishing for gain—constantly catching, but never enjoying. Avarice—the love of hoarding—is the iron ring round his neck; and so long as it stays there, he is much like one of our trained cormorants—he may be clever, active, successful, but he is only fishing for others.”

I leave my readers to guess whether the sharp dealer understood his uncle’s meaning, or whether Chang Wang resolved in future not only to catch, but to enjoy. Fing Fang’s moral might be good enough for a heathen, but it does not go nearly far enough for a Christian. If a miser is like a cormorant with an iron ring round his neck, the man or the child who lives for his own pleasure only, what is he but a greedy cormorant with the iron ring? Who would wish to resemble a cormorant at all? The bird knows the enjoyment of getting; let us prize the richer enjoyment of giving. Let me close with an English proverb, which I prefer to the Chinaman’s parable—“Charity is the truest epicure, for she eats with many mouths.”