adapted by Denise Kaisler
from Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, v3. pg 282
I-Hsing was a great astronomer of the Tang dynasty (600-900 A.D.) who came from very poor circumstances. In his youth, his neighbor Wang-Liao, did him many great favours. Wang-Laio was so generous that I-Hsing swore to help him, however he might.
Many years later, Wang-Liao was imprisoned for having killed a man. I-Hsing traveled a great way to visit his former benefactor.
"I-Hsing," pleaded the condemned man, "your have risen high in the Emperor's court because of your great learning. The Emperor himself finds favor with you. Can you not aid me?"
But I-Hsing was not moved. "I can get you gold and silver aplenty, but I cannot change the law," he said.
At that, Wang-Liao's anger burst forth "What good was it to me that I ever knew you!"
I-Hsing left the prison, but with a heavy heart. For many days afterwards he thought about this grave situation. He was deeply indebted to Wang-Liao and was well aware of his own oath. But to ask the Emperor to pardon a condemned murder? How was it possible?
At last, I-Hsing came up with a plan. He summoned two of his most loyal servants to a room of his house, where there was nothing but a large iron pot.
"I have a task for you which is of greatest importance. Hear me well, and do not fail me, or you shall receive the harshest punishment. Now take this bag and go to the ruined garden, beyond the palace walls. There, you must hide yourselves from noon to until midnight. Listen closely now. If something should appear that numbers seven, you must take it with you and store it in this pot. Mind you get all seven! If even one is lost, we are undone."
Though it was an exceedingly strange request, the servants did as they were told.
It came as a great surprise to them when, at six o' clock in the evening, a herd of seven pigs wandered past their hiding place. Immediately the two sprang out and ran after the pigs. Now, as anyone knows it is a great labour to catch and hold seven, squealing, struggling pigs, but the servants did not wish to be punished. When the animals had been dragged home and stored in the pot, the servants ran to fetch I-Hsing, who covered the pot with a lid and wrote Sanskrit symbols upon it in red.
That very evening, I-Hsing was summoned by the Emperor himself. The Son of Heaven was pacing back and forth, clearly in a state of great agitation.
I've just received a message from the head of the Astronomical Bureau," he said. "They have informed me that the Great Bear is missing from its usual place in the sky! Oh, I-Hsing, what can it mean?"
I-Hsing replied, "This sort of thing has happened before. In the Later Wei dynasty they even lost the planet Mars. But there are no previous records of the disappearance of the Great Bear. Heaven must be giving your Majesty warning of an impending disaster."
"I knew it! The Emperor exclaimed. "But tell me, what can be done?"
"Your Majesty, a display of virtue by the Son of Heaven can surely influence the stars. It is my opinion that a decision in favor of life, rather than death, would affect them most."
And so it came to pass that the Emperor issued a general amnesty and all prisoners were freed. Later, the seven stars of the Great Bear reappeared in the heavens. And when the pot which had contained the pigs was opened, it was found to be empty.