During the Tang Dynasty, it was reported that in the temple of Pang-ko in Shin province was an ornately carved room called the Place of the Two Absent Monkeys which possessed an interesting property.
The room - whose walls were a complex mosaic of carved ivory and white laquered wood - had this peculiarity: while if it was measured, it was clear that it could house no more than thirty people by volume standing in reasonable proximity – if people entered it determinedly, a full thirty two could enter. However if thirty two were to do so, while thirty two people would then leave, two of the people would have changed utterly. Their height, their sex, the language they speak, their memories, all metamorphasised in an instant. The room was widely regarded as cursed for this reason; and for obvious reason its strange nature was rarely tested.
When the wayward grand nephew of the Emperor Xizong, together with thirty dragooned peasants and his bodyguard the Samuri Ro, assayed the feat of putting the room to the test, and the young Prince and his muscular body guard were transformed into two surly old men in rags, the matter came to the attention of the court in Chang’an.
Xizong dispatched his mathematician and investigator Li Po with strict instructions to restore the Prince to himself.
Li Po first talked to the thirty who were unchanged. He discovered that while thirty two people had entered the room, no one within the room had, at any one time been able to see the Prince or his bodyguard. He therefore reasoned that the room in its ‘empty’ or condition, had been so built as to have the quality of possessing minus two persons. When thirty two entered and moved around, the two minuses are ‘raised’ above ‘zero’ and may mix freely with the others, their places taken by two hapless visitors until the moment comes to leave the room. The room therefore did not transform, but rather held as a prison two of its newest entrants, while releasing those it had rendered into 'zeroes', perhaps years before. He confirmed this by talking with the villagers around Pang-Ko who, with the assistance of coin, were able to bring to mind the disappearance years before of the two men, who had now come to light. Within the room they had not aged, and the villagers were on the whole displeased to see them, remembering them as surly ragged ruffians even ten years before.
Li Po sent to the magistrate, and emptied the jail until he had a sufficiency of people to fill the room, for he reasoned that as with the motion of tea-leaves on the surface of a white china bowl, there would need to be a sufficiency of motion to stir up the numbers. And thus he recovered the Prince and his servant.
Even now if you travel to Shin Province and the Temple of Pang-Ko you will be permitted to enter the Room only in numbers below ten, for fear of freeing two feared criminals of the Tang dynasty.
Simon BJ [Post for the 9th May 2009]