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

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

by Cynthia Joanne Brokaw

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The ledgers of merit and demerit were a type of morality book that achieved sudden and widespread popularity in China during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consisting of lists of good and bad deeds, each assigned a certain number of merit or demerit points, the ledgers offered the hope of divine reward to users "good" enough to accumulate a substantial sum


The ledgers of merit and demerit were a type of morality book that achieved sudden and widespread popularity in China during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consisting of lists of good and bad deeds, each assigned a certain number of merit or demerit points, the ledgers offered the hope of divine reward to users "good" enough to accumulate a substantial sum of merits. By examining the uses of the ledgers during the late Ming and early Qing periods, Cynthia Brokaw throws new light on the intellectual and social history of the late imperial era. The ledgers originally functioned as guides to salvation for twelfth- century Taoists and Buddhists, but Brokaw shows how the literati of turbulent sixteenth-century China began to use them as aids in the struggle for official status through civil service examinations. The author describes how the responses of some Confucian thinkers to the popularity of the ledgers not only refined the orthodox Neo-Confucian method of self-cultivation but also revealed the serious ambiguity of the classic Confucian understanding of the relationship between fate and human action. Finally, she demonstrates that by the end of the seventeenth century the ledgers were used not so much to facilitate upward mobility as to promote social stability by prescribing standards that encouraged people to keep to their social places.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit

Social Change and Moral Order In Late Imperial China

By Cynthia J. Brokaw


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05543-5


Merit Accumulation in the Early Chinese Tradition

At the religious and philosophical heart of the system of merit and demerit lay the belief in a supernatural or cosmic retribution, a belief that has been a fundamental, at times the fundamental, belief of Chinese religion since the beginning of recorded history. In the simplest terms, the belief in retribution is the faith that some force—either a supernatural force like heaven or the gods, or an automatic cosmic reaction—inevitably recompensed human behavior in a rational manner: it rewarded certain "good" deeds, be they religious sacrifices, acts of good government, or upright personal conduct, and punished evil ones.

Oracle bones testify that as early as the Shang (1766–1025 B.C.?) men believed in a system of recompense between the king and the gods, including both the ancestors of the ruling lineage and Di, the highest god. In return for the appropriate prayers and sacrifices, these beings were expected to provide anything from the cure of a royal toothache to victory in battle. The Zhou (1025P–256 B.C.) conquerors of the eleventh century also held this faith in the reciprocity between the ruler and the supernatural powers but gave it a moral dimension not present in the Shang: heaven, the new god, bestowed the mandate to rule (tianming) on the man who had proven himself capable of ruling virtuously, and he and his descendants held their mandate only as long as they continued to rule virtuously. The king and his ministers were thus squarely responsible for their own political fate: as King Mu of Zhou warned his officials, "You should ever stand in awe of the punishments of heaven. It is not that heaven does not deal impartially with men, but that men ruin themselves."

This view of fate as moral retribution dominates the earliest Zhou texts, including those later incorporated into the Confucian canon. The Classic of History warns, "On the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities." A constant refrain of the dynastic poems in the Classic of Songs is the ruler's need to live up to heaven's moral expectations: "The charge is not easy to keep. I Do not bring ruin on yourselves. / Send forth everywhere the light of your good fame; / Consider what Heaven did to the Yin." The Conversations from the States (Guoyu) predicts that a "licentious, lazy, rude, and careless" ruler will suffer the vengeance of supernatural beings: "spirits ... go to watch his dissoluteness and send down calamity." The Zuo commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals is full of cautionary tales of kings defeated ultimately not by a human enemy, but by their own misdeeds.6 All these texts assume the existence of a heaven or a group of spirits fully conscious of human actions and vigorously active in their punishment or reward. This is fate acting truly as heaven's command.

Later, Han (202 B.C.–A.D. 220) writers, while still holding to the basic concept of retribution, developed a somewhat different cosmological foundation for the belief. Retribution was not necessarily dependent on a morally conscious and actively judgmental heaven or group of spirits. Rather, the cosmos responded automatically and naturalistically to human actions through the movements of qi, the "subtle and pervasive pneuma" that constituted all things. A human deed, as a movement of qi, influenced or acted on (gan) the qi of the cosmos around it, evoking a response (ying) exactly appropriate to its own quality and magnitude. Ganying, "action and response," later one of the key terms of the system of merit and demerit, referred in the Han to retribution as a cosmological process operating through the intricate system of correspondences that existed between the human and the suprahuman realms. Applied to the political sphere, this doctrine meant that natural disasters or natural benefits were interpreted as cosmic "responses" to specific "actions" or policies of the emperor. Gale-force winds in the summer could be taken as a sign that the ruler or his ministers had violated the rules of propriety; floods in the spring and summer, as a warning about the ruler's failure to listen to his ministers.

Nor was the belief in retribution limited solely to Confucian political theorists. Han seekers of immortality believed that the performance of good deeds was one means of attaining their goal. Adherents of the Huang-Lao cult of immortality in the Eastern Han (25–220), for example, practiced a variety of charitable acts—the feeding of orphans, the repair of roads and bridges, and so forth—in their quest for eternal life. Zhe Xiang, a master of magical arts in the Eastern Han, distributed his family fortune to others, in order to ward off misfortune. "My family has prospered for a long time, and Daoists (Daojia) detest the crime of prosperity," he explained. "In this generation my family will decline, because my sons are not talented. It is said that it is unlucky to lack virtue and have wealth—when a wall is cracked yet tall, its fall will be sudden." Both the followers of the Way of Great Peace (Taiping Dao) and the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice (Wudoumi Dao) believed that illness was a punishment inflicted by demons on wrongdoers; they would be cured only after confessing their misdeeds.

A belief in some form of cosmic retribution was thus at the heart of the earliest indigenous Chinese religious and political visions. This belief was given even greater currency with the introduction of Buddhism to China during the Han. Buddhist doctrine asserted that all the events of a man's life (as well as of the world at large) were subject to the law of cause and effect (yinguo or ganying): each event grew out of a specific cause as naturally and inevitably as a particular plant grew from a particular seed. The response or effect was inherent, in embryo form, in the action or cause; no outside agent, no morally sensitive heaven, no movement of pneumas needed intervene in the process. A good action would inevitably produce a good effect, a bad action a bad effect. This relationship extended through the whole series of rebirths a man or creature might experience. Thus an individual's karma—that is, his deeds and intentions—in one life would naturally, through the process of cause and effect {yin-yuan), determine his status in his next life. While the operation of Buddhist retribution was quite different from that of the action-and-response process or the mandate of heaven, the final message of these concepts was essentially the same: good begets good, evil begets evil.

By the early medieval period, then, the major Chinese schools of belief—Confucianism, the immortality cult, and Buddhism—all shared, whatever their other philosophical or ethical differences, a basic faith in some form of cosmic retribution. Later sixteenth-century authors of the ledgers of merit and demerit were quick to make use of this fact to assert wide-ranging support for their texts; in particular they liked to claim sanction for the belief in the Confucian Classics, notably the Classic of History, the Classic of Songs, the Classic of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Although there is considerable justice in these claims, the ledgers of merit and demerit in fact assumed a process of retribution quite different in its complexity and religious implications from that found in early Confucianism, or for that matter, in the immortality cult or Buddhism. The ledgers, unlike the texts cited above, set forth an elaborate, rational, and comprehensive method—the method of merit accumulation—for the human manipulation of the process.

Hints that storing up merit might bring long life and good fortune can be found in texts dating from as early as the Han, but there is no evidence for the existence of a numerical method or organized "system" of merit accumulation until the fourth century A.D. Such a system appears, albeit in a rudimentary form, in the Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi) of Ge Hong (c. 283–343), where it is simply one of many different techniques designed to aid in the attainment of immortality; 300 merits will make one a "terrestrial" or earthbound immortal; 1,200, a "celestial" immortal, one capable of ascending to heaven. An advocate of "nourishment of life" (yangsheng) and himself an aspirant to immortality, Ge also describes a bureaucracy of spirits and astral deities who watched over the human practice of merit accumulation. Thereafter the system of merit accumulation took on a wide variety of forms in the scriptures of certain Daoist and Buddhist sects of the fourth through the sixteenth centuries. Different texts addressed different pantheons of spirits, claimed different purposes for merit accumulation, or developed different standards of reward and punishment. The sects that produced these texts freely borrowed both concepts and gods from one another; Daoist scriptures warned against the consequences of evil karma, and Buddhist sutras included prayers to Daoist spirits. It is thus virtually impossible to associate either the concept or the system of merit accumulation exclusively with any one school or sect; both seem to have entered the generally shared vocabulary of medieval religious thought.

The Basic Principles of Merit Accumulation

The great range in the early versions of the system of merit accumulation notwithstanding, it is possible to detect certain underlying principles generally accepted by almost all, if not all, the advocates of the system. Most texts agreed that merit-earning activities had to be done in secret, for if the individual received public praise or remuneration for a deed, he could no longer expect any rewards from the gods—one was never recompensed twice. Goodness and evil were seen as qualities subject to enumeration and measurement; every act of good or evil, no matter how small, added to the individual's total. The Classic of Changes explains: "If acts of goodness be not accumulated, they are not sufficient to give finish to one's name; if acts of evil be not accumulated, they are not sufficient to destroy one's life. The small man thinks that small acts of goodness are of no benefit, and does not do them; and that small deeds of evil do not harm, and does not abstain from them. Hence his wickedness becomes great until it cannot be covered, and his guilt becomes great until it cannot be pardoned." Retribution was also precisely weighed; rewards and punishments were doled out to match exactly the value of the individual's accumulated merit or demerit. Thus one early Tang Daoist scripture explained that a man who had committed 530 evil deeds could expect his children to be stillborn, while he who had done 720 would be cursed with an even graver misfortune—many daughters, but no sons.

A vast bureaucracy of gods and spirits was needed to oversee this complex process of observing human behavior, to count and measure each individual's deeds, to record them in the heavenly registers, to total up his final score, and to distribute the appropriate rewards and punishments. While the Zhou kings feared the judgment of a rather vaguely defined heaven, believers in the system of merit accumulation suffered the scrutiny of a bewildering (and ever-changing) array of spirits, drawn from both Buddhist and Daoist pantheons. These spirits were everywhere, in heaven, on earth, and even in man—no one could escape their observation. Here retribution was not a spontaneous process unmediated by external agents; rather, rewards and punishments were consciously engineered by an extensive network of interfering gods and spirits.

This relatively sophisticated administration was needed to keep track of all the various factors that entered into the calculation of each man's just recompense. For retribution was not based on the individual's behavior alone. First, it operated very much within the context of the family system. The Classic of Changes set this principle forth quite clearly: "The family that accumulates good will have abundant good fortune. The family that accumulates evil will have abundant bad fortune." This meant that the individual carried with him the burden of his ancestors' accumulated merit; he might have to work particularly hard at being good just to overcome a heavy legacy of demerit. Thus one Zhe Hui (fourth century), a follower of the early Mao Shan sect and an aspiring immortal, was warned by the Shangqing Immortals that, because of his father's crimes, he would find it very difficult to earn his goal:

Zhe Hui's father massacred hundreds of people without pity and seized their property. The spirits of the dead disapprove profoundly. Those whom he injured are always bringing suit and denouncing him before the Heavenly Tribunal (Tiancao); already they are naming Hui [the one now responsible for his father's crimes]. According to the law we should exterminate his whole family. But because Hui has cultivated virtue so assiduously, he alone will get away with his life. But how can there be any security for his descendants? Hui will keep the number of years bestowed on him by heaven, but he is far from achieving immortality.

Naturally, the individual would also want to accumulate as much extra merit as possible to pass on to his descendants, to ensure the continuation and prosperity of the family line.

The calculation of retribution was further complicated by the belief that each man was given a set allotment at birth, a real number (shu) representing his lifespan and the general tendencies of his life. While this allotment could be altered (for better or worse) by the man's behavior, it nonetheless affected his life quite significantly—clearly, someone born with an "original fate" (benming) of twenty years was going to have to work much harder to live a long time than one with an allotment of sixty. Of course it was important to know the exact sum and constitution of one's allotment; "eight-character" (bazi) fortune-telling, based on the eight cyclical characters of the time of birth, became the most popular means of uncovering one's original fate.

Finally, a man might find that his karma from a previous life determined his situation in his current existence. He had no control over this karma—he simply had to accept the inevitable consequences of his past acts. Indeed, the Buddhist term suming, used to designate these consequences, quickly took on the meaning of predetermined fate, a fate that the individual had no power to alter. But a man could of course see to it that his current behavior earned him at least a better future rebirth; it might also counteract or modify some of the effects of his previous acts.

All of these contingent factors, then, influenced the disposition of each individual's fate in the world. They also went a long way to explain delays in retribution or apparent inequities in the system. It could be observed all too commonly that good men did not receive rewards for their deeds, while evil men enjoyed all the blessings of good fortune; reference to one's "original allotment" (benshu), the inheritance of merit and demerit, or transmigration could easily explain away these apparent discrepancies.

The final human goal of this system was the attainment of certain spiritual rewards—rebirth in a higher plane of existence for the Buddhists, and immortality (or longevity and good health) for the Daoists. Good behavior, consisting largely of charitable deeds, personal restraint, and, particularly in the Buddhist texts, acts of religious faith like the recitation of sutras, was thus rewarded with spiritual benefits; evil was punished with rebirth in animal or insect form or suffering the tortures of hell. Through the Song at least, the aim of the system was deterrence: the deeds listed were largely evil ones, and the greatest emphasis was placed on the horrible punishments awaiting the man (and his family) who failed to avoid these. Indeed, the system of merit accumulation was often seen as a kind of complement to the human judicial system (the wangfa), a means of checking to see that those who deserved punishment really got it through the divine application of the "hidden statutes" (yinlü): "He who does what is not good in clear and open view will be seized and punished by men. He who does what is not good in the shadow of darkness will be seized and punished by ghosts."


Excerpted from The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit by Cynthia J. Brokaw. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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