Once upon a time, a poor farmer was making his way to market when he came across an old woman who was sitting by the road wheezing. He asked if she needed help and he offered to share his meagre food and drink with her. When she had rested and eaten a bit and was refreshed with the farmer’s water, she stood up to continue her journey. The farmer, seeing that she was going in the same direction, suggested they travel together. And so they walked and talked until they came to a crossroads and parted ways. Before they parted the old woman said, “let me give you something for your kindness.” And she handed the farmer a small ring. “This ring will grant the wearer one wish. Use it wisely,” she said. The farmer accepted the gift and the two travellers bid farewell. The farmer didn’t think much about the ring to begin with. He wasn’t sure it was real. But he had a good day at the market and, it being too late to make the journey home, he stopped at an inn for the evening. As he ate a small meal, the innkeeper sat and they chatted about the day. The farmer mentioned his encounter with the old woman and the strange gift of the wishing ring. The innkeeper asked him what he planned to do and the farmer said that he would take it home to his family and discuss it with his wife. The innkeeper eyed the ring closely as the farmer tucked it away in his shirt pocket.
That evening, once the farmer lay sleeping, the innkeeper snuck over to where the farmer had lain down. Slowly and carefully he found the shirt pocket, slipped out the farmer’s ring and replaced it with one that was almost identical. When the farmer woke, he was none the wiser even after taking the ring out for a look. The farmer continued his journey home. Meanwhile the innkeeper closed up the inn for the day and put up signs on the road so no one would come near. When he was certain he would not be disturbed, he sat at a table and said, “I wish for one million gold coins.” Instantly, a gold coin appeared and fell onto the table before him. He was overjoyed. As he examined the coin, two coins appeared and fell to the table and then four and then eight and before long hundreds and thousands of coins were raining down upon him. Before he knew it his legs were trapped by the weight of the coins which, of course, continued to pile up. Before long he was buried and very soon suffocated and crushed to death. After many days his relatives came to see what had happened and discovered the innkeeper’s gruesome fate. They collected all the gold and divided it amongst themselves.
Now, when the farmer returned home, he told his wife what had happened. They discussed what they should do and how, if the ring was actually a wishing ring, they should make their wish very carefully. The wife suggested that they wish for additional land which would help them be more prosperous. But as they pondered this, they agreed that if they worked hard and were lucky enough to have a good growing season, they might have enough to buy the land for the following growing season. And so it was. After some time, they spoke again about the wishing ring and thought about buying a cow and a horse. Again they decided instead to work hard and trust in the weather for a good crop and indeed, with good weather and the additional land that they had bought, they were able to acquire both horse and cow. And so it was that year after year they considered making their one wish and always decided on a different course. Always preferring to save the wish for when they thought they really needed it. When their great-great-grandchildren were going through their great-great-grandparents’ things they came across an old ring that looked like it was made of gold. No one knew the story of the ring though everyone in the family knew that it had been a favourite of their great-great-grandparents.
I came across this story many years ago while researching stories for some popular economics curriculum me and the Catalyst Centre were developing. One of my many sub-interests in storytelling is stories about economics, its ethics and practices. As many of my friends know, i have a particular interest in the economics of the gift. I find that when we recognize gift-giving as an economic practice, we see it in many places in our lives (though it tends to be seriously crowded out by the dominant capitalist economy) and we see it in abundance in folktales.
image: Ring Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE
image: Ring Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE