There is a Chinese legend about a man, let’s call him Li, who was enjoying a long and happy old age. His life had not always been so blessed, however. When he was a young scholar, a fortune teller told him that he would die during his first year exams.
He refused his classmate’s invitation to join the exams, saying that he had no money for the journey.
His classmate, Wang, who was wealthy and believed in honoring friendship and being loyal, tried to persuade Li: “Never mind what the fortune teller said to you. If you don’t have enough money, I’ll help you with that!” Li was grateful for Wang’s generosity and righteousness, so he agreed to join.
When the classmates all arrived in Jinling (Jiangning), they heard about a famous physiognomist in Chang En Temple who told very accurate fortunes by reading faces. They decided to seek advice from him. As soon as the fortune teller saw the boy, he said: “You look haggard, and there are dark lines on your forehead. You will die within five days. You should go home immediately. Even if you leave right away, you might die on the way.”
Wang and the rest of the class were very shocked, and asked if there was any solution. The face reader told them: “It’s a matter of life and death. There is no solution unless he has great virtue.” Everyone was speechless.
Li said to Wang and his other classmates: “I’m not afraid of death. But if I die here, it will impact you terribly during your exams. I better leave right now; at least that way I will still have a chance to die at home.” Everyone agreed.
Wang sympathised with his friend and hired a boat for him. Then Wang gave him 10 silver taels (ancient Chinese currency) and said: “Keep this, just in case.” Li smiled and thanked him: “This is my funeral expenses given to me by my best friend, so how could I refuse? If there is awareness after death, I will definitely ask the King of Hell to help you with the exam, in order to thank you for your kindness!”
Then Li said goodbye to them and got on the boat.
The boat travelled more than 10 miles down the Yangtze River. It became very windy, so the boat had to anchor close to shore. After four days of waiting, the wind became even stronger. Li realized that the 5-day deadline was approaching.
He decided to go for a walk on shore. He came across a pregnant, middle-aged woman who was walking towards him, and she was struggling to manage her three little children. They were all crying bitterly, and seemed heartbroken.
Li asked: “Is there anything I can help you with? The woman told him: “I am married to a butcher who is very violent. Today, I sold a pig for 10 silver taels. But I just found out that the money is counterfeit and only made of copper. I couldn’t catch the man who gave me the money. My husband will kill me when he finds out what has happened. If I’m going to die, I would rather kill myself and my children than leave them alone to face his horrible abuse.”
Li felt terribly sad for her. Considering he was going to die soon, he decided he had no need for Wang’s money. He secretly switched the counterfeit coins with his real ones and exclaimed: “This is real silver, not copper!”
The woman said angrily: “It’s not! I had it verified by several silver stores! Why would you lie to me?” Li said: “They were wrong. Let me come with you and we’ll check once more. You can still choose to end your life if it is copper!”
They walked back, and the first store confirmed that it was real silver. The next silver stores also verified that it was indeed silver.
“Sir, I was so lucky to meet you,” said the woman. “You’ve saved me from making a terrible mistake.” She thanked him again and went home with the money.