In the old days, few people anywhere in the world could read or write. In China, parents hoped they could make a little bit more money so they could send their sons to a teacher to learn how to read and write. If they studied very, very hard and passed the Imperial Examinations, they could win posts in the government. This brought respect, glory, and power to the whole family. However, the examinations were extremely difficult. Many students took the examinations over and over until they were old men, but never passed.
One year, the brothers Sung Chiao and Sung Chi went to the capital together to take the examinations. On the way, they met a monk, who looked carefully at Sung Chiao and exclaimed, “I can tell by looking at your features that you have saved many, many lives. According to your original fortune, you should fail in the imperial examinations, but because you have saved so many lives, this year you will win the highest place in the entire empire. Let this poor monk be the first to congratulate this future official.”
Sung Chiao thought this was strange. “When did I ever save many lives?”
The monk said, “Once you saved ants in distress.”
“What? You mean saving some measly ants means saving lives?”
“Exactly. All living creatures have lives and fates, even a bug as lowly as an ant. Your brother was originally destined to win the top score in these examinations, but you will not do worse than he.”
The Sung brothers could hardly believe this. As they walked away, Sung Chi asked Sung Chiao, “Did you really save a bunch of ants?”
“Yes,” his brother answered, “Once I saw some ants about to get drowned, so I made a little bridge out of a piece of bamboo and they got away.”
The imperial examinations were more important to them than any ants or monk’s predictions, and they forgot all about it as they made their way to the capital and did their last minute cramming.
When all of the test papers had been graded, the results were announced to the Emperor. Sung Chi had won the highest score in the entire empire. Sung Chiao was in tenth place – of course this was also a very high score. The Emperor examined the list of the highest scores.
“This will not do,” the Emperor said, “Sung Ci has won first place, ranking higher than his elder brother, Sung Chiao. It is not natural for the younger brother to be exalted above the elder brother. Switch Sung Chiao to the first place, and rank Sung Chi tenth.”
The Emperor’s command was carried out. When the brothers heard about the switch, they remembered what the monk had said, and burst out laughing. On their way home to tell their parents the wonderful news about the examination, they made a special trip to give their thanks to the old monk, and compliment him on his wisdom.
Before long, the story spread all over China, and everyone knew about the brother who ants boosted to first place.