Stories from Ancient China: Death from Starvation at Copper Mountain

Deng Tong was from Na An, of the Shu prefecture. Before he became rich, he was just an ordinary boatman. One day, Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty had a dream. In the dream, he wanted to go to heaven but couldn’t succeed no matter how hard he tried. It was then that a boatman wearing a yellow hat pushed him up to heaven on his back. Han Wen Di turned around and saw the boatman’s clothing. After waking up, Han Wen Di wanted to find the boatman who pushed him up to heaven. Before long, Wen Di met Deng Tong and found Deng Tong’s clothing was the same as the boatman’s in his dream. After asking Deng Tong’s name, Wen Di became greatly delighted (translator’s note: in Chinese, Deng means “climbing” and Tong means “through”). He gave Deng Tong over 100,000 strings of coins and named him a royal counsellor.

The Emperor had a very good relationship with Deng Tong and visited him often. One day, he ordered a famous fortune-teller to tell Deng Tong’s fortune by reading his face. The fortune-teller said that Deng Tong would die from starvation and exposure to the cold. The Emperor said with great anger, “I am the one who turned Deng Tong into someone rich and honoured. How can I let him die of poverty and starvation?” He then bestowed the Yandao Copper Mountain in the Shu prefecture to Deng Tong along with the authority to mint coins. The copper coins that Deng produced circulated widely. The amount of currency in circulation and its value have an enormous influence on a society, so the authority to mint coins has always been controlled by governments throughout history. However, the Emperor granted Deng Tong the power of mining the copper and minting coins, which made Deng Tong wealthier than all the princes and dukes in the land. The Emperor was very pleased with himself believing that Deng Tong wouldn’t die of starvation with such a great amount of wealth. Deng Tong himself also thought that with so much money and the Emperor to rely on, his position was so solid, and the prophecy of his death from starvation wouldn’t come true. He then fawned on the Emperor even more.

One day, the Emperor grew a boil and it was festering. Deng Tong sucked the pus out with his mouth. Later on to test the loyalty of the crowned prince, the Emperor asked him to suck pus out with his mouth, but the prince hesitated. The Emperor then told him that Deng Tong had already done it this way. This made the prince feel embarrassed and feel resentment against Deng Tong.

Several years later, the Emperor died. The crown prince succeeded to the throne and became Emperor Jing of the Han dynasty. Deng Tong suddenly lost favour in the royal court. Then somebody reported to Emperor Jing claiming that Deng Tong had committed the illegal act of transporting copper from Shu Mountain to foreign countries and minting coins there. Emperor Jing was happy to use it as an excuse to confiscate all the properties of Deng Tong. Later, Deng Tong indeed died of poverty and starvation.

The arrangement of one’s destiny is truly curious! It is true that a human mind’s intention can never contest heaven’s decision. It is so even with an emperor. There is a poem that describes this incident, “Death of starvation at the copper mountain, determined by heaven// When a human wants to fight a god, it will be in vain even for an emperor.”

(Source: “Shi Ji”, Volume 125 - Collected Biographies of Ning Xing)

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