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The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China.

How are people led to be good? Societies on our planet have devised a variety of goads and rewards, some religious, some philosophical, some legal. In a wide-ranging study, of admirable clarity, Cynthia Brokaw describes what must certainly be one of the more unusual methods, the Chinese ledgers of merit and demerit, a sub-type of the many kinds of Chinese morality or instructional books (shanshu) designed to help people realize the good in themselves. The ledgers flourished during the late imperial era, roughly from the Song to the early Qing, and are still found in simplified form on Taiwan today. Brokaw's well-organized narrative of the ledgers' development builds on recent Japanese scholarship on the same subject, for instance that of Sakai Tadao, who in 1960 published a book on the ledgers.(1) To this Brokaw adds research and insights of her own, particularly on how the later ledger authors slanted their works to meet the varying needs of their times.

The ledgers of merit and demerit (gongguoge) incorporated the ancient Chinese belief that heaven's retribution would surely reward the good and punish evil-doers. Brokaw finds that the concept of retribution originated well before the arrival of Buddhism, beginning with the Chou requirement that the Mandate of Heaven be conferred only on wise rulers. Later came the Han belief in "action and response" (ganying), that human action provokes a cosmic response, as illustrated by the view that disastrous floods directly reflected a ruler's failure to listen to ministerial counsel. But both the nature of the cosmic rewards and the prescribed paths to goodness changed over time. Brokaw makes effective use of two twelfth-century Sung works that were frequently reprinted in later dynasties to explain the basic operation of the ledger system.

The Tract of T'ai-shang on Action and Response (Taishang ganying pian), a brief work of only 1280 characters, described the mechanisms of retribution, particularly how an individual's acts were regularly reported to heaven: "Inside a man's body there are the Three Worm Spirits (Sanshi shen) who on every fifty-seventh day of the sixty-day cycle report a man's crimes and transgressions to the Heavenly Tribunal. On the last day of each month the Kitchen God (Zaoshen) also makes such a report" (translated, p. 36). The honorable deeds of the good man--acts of filial piety, compassion, generosity, and so forth--are also reported. Three hundred good deeds were necessary for earthly immortality, thirteen hundred for immortality that would be enjoyed in heaven.

Ledgers provided guidance to the specific actions that would reap benefits. The earliest surviving ledger, The Ledger of Merit and Demerit of the T'ai-wei Immortal (Taiwei xianjun gongguoge), listed 36 approved and 39 proscribed acts, with the exact number of pluses and minuses attached to each. As the work explains: "Those who would practice the true way should write out the days and the months of the year, and record under them their merits and demerits. Each month and then each year a comparison of merits and demerits should be compiled, so that the user can know himself the total number of his merits and demerits, and can make these totals agree with those recorded in heaven." Enthusiastic adherents of the system were advised to keep the Ledger next to their beds for convenience in looking up the merits awarded for various acts and toting up each day's merits and demerits.

The kinds of merits and demerits listed reflect the mixed Taoist and Confucian outlook of the ledgers. Applying charms and incantations for cures netted five merits for a slight illness, ten for a major one (but no merits at all if payment was received), while ancestor veneration brought ten merits, and burning incense for the sake of country and people, two. But Brokaw generally avoids distinctions among the Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian elements in the system, wisely preferring to perceive the amalgam presented in the ledgers as an indivisible mix of "Chinese" moral values. There was also an emphasis on performing one's acts of goodness without publicity or praise; as Brokaw wittily exclaims, "one was never recompensed twice".

Such were the early morality prescriptions of Sung times. It was not until the sixteenth century that a more widespread movement got under way, particularly in the provinces of the middle south, spurred by the Taoist monk Yun'gu and his disciple Yuan Huang. Their chief contribution was to compose a manual that expanded the goals of ledger-keeping from a preoccupation with other-worldly rewards of immortality or better rebirths to fulfillment of such personal ambitions as an improved career status in one's own lifetime. Yuan Huang not only encouraged the faithful to follow the ledgers for the sake of status advancement but even promised "control" over one's own fate. Brokaw connects these new rewards to contemporary social decline: "It is easy to see why the message of Yuan's system was such a popular one in the late Ming. At a time of political weakness, increased economic opportunities, and social upheaval--when much of life seemed out of human control--Yuan's claim that man could direct his own fate must have been comforting, particularly since he also supplied quite specific instructions as to how such an effect was to be achieved". The appearance of Yuan's ledger sparked what became the burgeoning ledger movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a trend that was marked by scholarly debates and further evolution of thinking about the ledgers.

Brokaw takes the reader down the tortuous paths of scholarly debates over Yuan's prescriptions, in particularly stressing two objections. Certain late Ming thinkers protested the self-interest and ambition apparently promoted by Yuan's system. The principal philosophical adjustment that resulted was a renewed recourse to Mencius' concept of the "undivided mind," which stressed disinterested moral behavior without calculation of profit or reward. Another facet of the opposition to Yuan Huang's system is revealed in the penultimate chapter, where Brokaw advances the hypothesis that late Ming and early Qing ledger authors, anxious about the social disorder of their times, designed their works to remedy unsettled conditions. Ignoring Yuan Huang's promise of status advancement in one's own life, they instead preached a gospel of social stability, emphasizing the importance of acting morally within one's allotted station in life without hope of advancement in this world--rewards being expected to accrue to one's descendants. In accordance with these prescriptions the official career channel was preserved for the few while others were encouraged to stick with agriculture:

Outside of the scholarly profession, nothing is so good as farming.... Plant mulberry in the garden and cotton in the fields, and you have clothing. Raise fish in ponds and cattle at home, grow vegetables in your garden, and you have food ... Never setting eyes on a government office ... you are a prime minister of the mountains, an immortal in this world. This is the best life. Why would you want to be an official?

In socially disturbed times the ledgers even attempted to influence servants, prescribing that they be loyally obedient to employers and awarding extra points for putting up with a master's bullying without resentment. Other ledgers displayed the influence of the late Ming Donglin party by writing prescriptions for the realization of their aims, such as good works in the community.

Readers who have not previously heard much about the morality books may question their significance and ask about the extent of their use. If the ledgers were employed by members of the elite, with the mass of the people left out, then surely they must be regarded as a curious product of only one very small part of Chinese society. But Brokaw argues that by the late Ming, literacy was more widespread than before, with the result that ledger use was within reach of people of many occupations at many levels of society. As a result we see the prescriptions prepared especially for farmers and servants, which I cited above. Indeed, Yuan Huang had contended that his work might be read and used by all.

At the same time, Brokaw balances this picture with the admission that whether or not the ledgers were widely used is still a matter for conjecture. Numerous reprints and simplified classical language do not necessarily make a compelling argument for universal use. Understandably Brokaw was not able to scan the vast mass of late Ming and early Qing literature for references to ledgers, relying instead on a limited investigation of this question. Accordingly she is forced to conclude that "|e~vidence for ledger use is scattered and limited".

This book rescues the ledgers from oblivion and describes them for English-speaking audiences. It thus makes a useful contribution not only in its account of ledger development but also in its clear presentation of the debates which touch on many matters of intellectual history. Attention to two lacunae might have further justified and improved the work. One is the lack of all argument for the significance of the topic: were the ledgers merely an odd curiosity or are there compelling reasons why we should heed them? The other, a related point, is an account of previous scholarship, making clear the author's view of her own contribution to it. Nevertheless, it is not often that an intellectual historian is able to show how beliefs were translated into action. The particular strength of Brokaw's work lies in her combining these two strands of historical investigation.

1 For an English-language summary of Sakai's work on the ledgers, see his essay, "Confucianism and Popular Educational Works," esp. pp. 341-66, in Self and Society in Ming Thought, ed. deBary (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1970).
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Author:Bartlett, Beatrice S.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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