In the Ming Dynasty, there was a young man named De Yuan. He lived a very poor life and sometimes had nothing to eat for several days. But he liked to read, and he studied very hard to prepare for the Imperial Examinations, which were held only once every three years. Although he could not afford the fee for his trip to the capital, he did not give up his diligent study. De Yuan had a good friend named Wang Sheng, who was also preparing to take the Imperial Examinations. Wang Sheng’s family was rich, and he himself was very kind and generous. He suggested to De Yuan that they go together and offered to pay all the expenses.

Ming Dynasty candidates for civil servant positions gathering around the wall where the results of the Imperial Examination are posted, circa 1540. (Public Domain)

When they arrived in the capital city, Jinling, they heard that there was a fortuneteller who was very accurate in predicting people’s fates. Thus, together with six other students, De Yuan went to the fortuneteller. The fortuneteller gave detailed descriptions of the lives of the six other students and, sure enough, they were very accurate.

When it came to De Yuan’s turn, the fortuneteller asked several questions and bent his fingers to count. Then he told De Yuan to go home immediately. All of them were shocked. The fortuneteller continued, “You will die within five days in a kind of accident while on your way somewhere.”

Wang Sheng and all the others asked the fortuneteller if there was any way to undo this fate. The fortuneteller said, “Life and death is a major issue. If one’s de [merit, virtue] is used up, no one can help. There is nothing I can do in such a short period of time.” All of them were disappointed and returned to their inn with heavy hearts.

So as not to bother the others, De Yuan planned to return home. Wang Sheng felt very sad and showed his sympathy by paying for the boat and also giving him 10 taels of silver just in case he needed it on his way home. After saying goodbye to all of them, De Yuan boarded the boat and headed home. The boat moved along the Yangtze River for about 10 miles but stopped because of the strong wind. The boatman moored the boat and four days quickly passed, but the wind only became stronger.

De Yuan thought about how there was one more day left before his fated death and how the boat could not move. Was it really like the fortuneteller said? Was he going to die while on his way somewhere?

At this time, De Yuan was waiting for death and had nothing in his mind. He went ashore and wandered around. Out of the blue, he saw a pregnant young woman with three children walking down the road while crying. In such a sparsely populated area, he wondered where she was going. Suspicious, he hurried over to her and asked if she needed any help. The woman told him that she sold two pigs and the price was 10 taels of silver, but instead of getting 10 taels of silver, she received 10 taels of copper. She was so afraid of being beaten that she did not dare go home. Finally, she decided to take all of her children to jump into the river and commit suicide.

Upon hearing this, De Yuan felt very sad. He figured he would die soon anyway and would not need his silver anymore. He secretly exchanged her copper coins with his silver coins. Then he said to the woman, “My goodness! You almost made a big mistake! This is real silver; how come you said it was copper?”

The woman said angrily, “I went to several merchants and they all told me they are copper coins. How can they be silver now?”

De Yuan said, “That’s because they saw you are a woman and wanted to cheat you. If you follow me and ask, they won’t dare to cheat you.” Then the woman followed De Yuan to one nearby silver merchant to check. The merchant told her that the coins were real silver; they went to several other merchants, who all told her they were real silver. The woman was so excited, she happily took her children home.

A Ming Dynasty exam paper. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

After De Yuan saved the woman and her children, it started getting dark. He had to stay under the eaves of a shabby temple. Exhausted by the excitement of the day, he fell asleep as soon as he sat down. In the distance, he heard someone call to him. He raised his head and saw a big hall with bright lights all over. There were two guards on either side of the throne where a king-like person sat. He looked like the deity known as Lord Guan. Suddenly, Lord Guan gave an order: “Someone at the riverside saved five lives today. Go and find out who the person was, and this person will be rewarded with good fortune.”

One officer reported the details about De Yuan, and Lord Guan asked if De Yuan would pass the Imperial Examinations this year. The officer replied, “De Yuan’s good fortune has all run out and his life expectancy has gone. He will be crushed by the wall of the temple and die at midnight.”

Lord Guan said, “If this happens, how can we advise people to do good for others? Change the record! Let him be the champion of the Imperial Examinations.”

Another officer on the side added, “It was Wang Sheng who gave De Yuan the money that helped him do such a good deed. I think Wang Sheng should also be rewarded.”

Lord Guan approved immediately.

While De Yuan was listening intently, suddenly someone called, “Come out! Come out!” Shocked, De Yuan awoke immediately and found that he was still huddled under the eaves of the temple. In the darkness, he could hear the wall falling down, so he hurriedly got up and ran away. Only a few steps away, the wall of the temple crashed down and buried the spot where he was just sleeping.

At dawn, he went to pray to the statue of Lord Guan, and then he returned to the boat. He still remembered the conversations he heard, and he was determined to return to the capital to attend the Imperial Examinations. When De Yuan appeared in the hotel, all the students were shocked to see he was still alive. Wang Shang said happily, “Not tragically dying must mean you’ll have good fortune later.” All of them prepared dinner to welcome him back.

The next day, out of curiosity, they all went to see the fortuneteller. As soon as the fortuneteller saw De Yuan, he was very surprised and said, “Are you still alive?” The fortuneteller found that in just the few days since he had last seen him, De Yuan’s bone structure had changed and thought he must have done an extraordinarily good deed—only by saving someone’s life could he have had such a big change. The fortuneteller also predicted that De Yuan would pass the Imperial Examinations and take first place for that year, and that in the next year, he would be promoted to an officer of the National Academy. His position would be ranked highest, and he would live up to 80 years old. The fortuneteller told Wang Sheng that he would also pass the examination. Wang Sheng smiled and said, “How come? I did not do any good deeds.”

The fortuneteller said, “You did good deeds with no selfish motive. Only this kind of deed is called de!”

Returning to their inn, De Yuan told Wang Sheng all about what happened, and also told him that if he had not given him the silver, he could not have saved the family’s lives. De Yuan said that Wang Sheng received protection from the Gods because of his selflessness in aiding him.

Surprised, Wang Sheng said, “No. This is because of your kind heart. I should thank you.” Both were being modest, and their hearts were like shining gold and like the lotus unstained with mud and embodying holiness.

After the Imperial Examinations ended, just as was expected, De Yuan took first place and Wang Sheng’s name was also listed as passing. The following year, both of them were promoted to officers of the National Academy.

Translated by Dora Li into English, this story is reprinted with permission from the book “Treasured Tales of China,” Vol. 1, available on Amazon.