The Chinese phrase “Horse-Tiger,” 馬虎 (mǎhū), also doubled 馬馬虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū), refers to a task done carelessly, hastily, or not taken seriously. This phrase is derived from a tragic story in Chinese history.
An eccentric artist lived during the Song Dynasty. One day, he was painting a tiger, and just as he was finishing its head, a man approached him and offered him money to paint a horse. Instead of grabbing another canvas, the artist simply left the head of the tiger there and added a horse’s body.
The man refused to buy the ridiculous painting, so the artist hung the Horse-Tiger painting on the wall of his living room. The artist’s oldest son saw the painting and asked:
“Father, what were you trying to depict in this painting?”
His father became angry and said:
“Why are you so dumb? It’s obviously a tiger. A tiger is a fierce animal that eats men. Hide right away, or try your best to kill it if you ever see one.”
The son left believing that the painting depicted a tiger. While walking in the woods one day, he saw a horse. He took out his bow and arrow, and killed it. He was very excited:
“My father is going to say that I am a hero who killed a tiger!”
Suddenly, the man who owned the horse appeared. He grabbed the son and dragged him home to his father, and demanded compensation for the dead horse. The artist was very upset that the Horse-Tiger painting got him into this much trouble. While still angry, his younger son saw the painting and asked him what it was:
“Are you dumber than your older brother? I told your brother that was a tiger and he shot a horse. This is a horse!”
he said while pointing at the painting. So the son walked away believing the painting depicted a horse. One day, he ventured into the mountains and saw a tiger. He thought that it was a horse, and started to walk towards it. But before he could mount the “horse,” the tiger killed and ate him.
After the artist learned about his younger son’s death, he was distraught and cried every day. He blamed the painting for costing him so much money and the life of a son. He burnt the painting and wrote:
“Because of the Horse-Tiger painting, my eldest son killed a horse and my youngest son was eaten by a tiger. That is why I burned the painting. My advice is that no one be as careless as I.”
From then on, “Horse-Tiger” has been used to express a careless or sloppily done task.
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