In a small village, two homes lay side by side. One humble home belonged to the Yi family; the other, to the wealthier Jia family.
One day old Farmer Yi took ill. He lay on his bed, unable to get up.
"Son, I need to eat fish. Get me some fish," he told his oldest son.
The son then went twenty li to Black Dragon Lake, where he caught a few fishes. He rushed home as quickly as he could with his catch. His mother then cooked the fishes and made them into a delicious and nutritious soup. She fed her husband the soup, and, by and by, he soon recovered.
The man next door, Mr. Jia, heard about Yi's illness and his complete recovery by eating fish.
"Huh!" he grunted. "That poor egg of a Mr. Yi can't even afford a noodle, let alone a fish!"
He immediately stormed over to his neighbor's house and banged on the front gate.
"Yes?" asked old Yi.
"I heard you were ill and got better by eating fish," said Jia.
"That's true. What of it?"
"Did you smell any fish being cooked?" asked Jia.
"As a matter of fact, I did."
"Well, Mr. Yi, I'm here to collect some money from you."
"What?" cried the old farmer. "Money from me? What for? I don't owe you anything!"
"Well, " replied Jia, "you smelled the fish that we had been cooking. You owe us for the fish that we had bought and cooked."
"We cooked our own fish!" protested old Yi.
"Liar!" screamed the neighbor. "I demand that you pay me for my fish, or else I'll take this up with the yamen!"
"Get out," said the old farmer, slamming the gated door in the neighbor's face.
Mr. Jia did not let the matter go. He marched right down to the magistrate of the local yamen, the government house and court, and filed a complaint. A yamen runner then gave old Yi a summons to appear the next day and pay old Jia for the cost of the cooked fish the scent of which had healed him.
"Now what shall I do?" moaned the old farmer. "I don't have any money or time for this nonsense!"
"Leave it up to me, Father," replied the oldest son. He then went into town, where he borrowed a few coins from friends.
When his father had seen the coins, he asked, "What good shall these coins do us?"
"Tomorrow morning, Father, you shall see."
Early the next morning Farmer Yi and his son went straight to the yamen, where old Jia had already been waiting. The three stood before the local magistrate, a mandarin, who sat behind the judge's desk.
The magistrate turned to the young man and his father and said, "I trust you are ready to pay what you owe Mr. Jia."
"Yes, Your Honor," replied the young man. He then stretched out his arm and opened the palm of his hand, revealing four coins. Mr. Jia took a step towards the coins.
"Not so fast!" snapped young Yi, closing his fist and then shaking it. The coins, of course, jingled. Then turning to Jia, he asked, "Can you hear this sound?" He shook his closed hand once more, jingling the coins.
"Certainly I hear the sound, you idiot!" Jia replied. "I'm not hard of hearing. It is the sound of coins. Now give me my money!"
"Not so fast, not so fast!" replied young Yi. "You've already been paid."
"'Already been paid'? What are you blathering about?" sneered Jia. "Since when is listening to coins jingle the same as being paid?"
"Since when is smelling fish the same as eating fish?" retorted young Mr. Yi. "Since my father can be cured by smelling your fish, you can be paid by hearing the jingling of my money."
Mr. Jia's face turned scarlet as he choked on his words. "Why . . . !"
"The case is hereby dismissed!" said the magistrate. "Good day, gentlemen!"
(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)
Heilongjiang minjian gushixuan, p. 237-238.
See Creeden for an American version and a list of variants from Japan, France, Burma and Africa (27-30). Motifs: J1172.3, "Payment with clink of money"; J1551, "Imaginary debt and payment."