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The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit

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

CYNTHIA JOANNE BROKAW
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 300
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztpxw
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    The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit
    Book Description:

    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.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6194-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-27)

    The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were times of considerable political, economic, social, and intellectual insecurity in China. The corruption in the central government, the rapid growth of the commercial economy, the breakdown of preexisting rural status relationships, the widespread questioning of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy—all made the Ming-Qing transition a period of both great opportunities and great anxieties. The magnitude of these changes was by no means lost on contemporary observers: gazetteers, letters, essays, and even poetry from the period often wistfully contrast the order, calm, and stability of life before the Jiajing era (1521–1566)—apparently the major dividing line...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Merit Accumulation in the Early Chinese Tradition
    (pp. 28-60)

    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 timesthefundamental, 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....

  7. CHAPTER TWO Merit Accumulation for Status Advancement
    (pp. 61-109)

    It was not until four centuries after the appearance of theLedger of Merit and Demerit of the Taiwei Immortalthat the system of merit-demerit calculation began to attract widespread notice among Chinese literati. This “morality book movement” began in the sixteenth century, reaching its peak in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.¹ While the forces behind the revival of interest in the morality books and ledgers were many and complex, linked to the great social, economic, and intellectual changes of the period, one man in particular did come to be closely associated with the new popularity of the texts: Yuan...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Debate over Supernatural Retribution and Merit Accumulation
    (pp. 110-156)

    Yungu and Yuan Huang were quite successful in their efforts to persuade their peers of the legitimacy of merit accumulation. Contemporary observers assure us that theirLedger of Merit and Demeritwas indeed popular among scholars studying for the examinations. Zhang Lixiang, the late Ming social critic, complained that examination candidates studied it as seriously as they did the Four Books, the Five Classics, and Zhu Xi’sReflections on Things at Hand (Jinsi lu), the fundamental texts of examination study: “It is Yuan Huang’sLedger of Merit and Demeritthat serves as the sacred text for today’s scholars,” he lamented.¹...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Preserving the Social Hierarchy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
    (pp. 157-228)

    Far from turning people away from the ledgers of merit and demerit, the debate over their usefulness and validity seems rather to have stimulated interest in the texts. Certainly literati were more than ever interested in producing them: through the seventeenth century at least ten new ledgers were published after the appearance of Yuan’s “Determining Your Own Fate”; in addition to these extant texts, we can find references to many other titles in the writings of the day. This boom in ledger production continued into the early eighteenth century, though by the end of the century very few original texts...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 229-240)

    The ledgers of merit and demerit are texts that in their very form express certain basic beliefs about moral (and immoral) action and its consequences. As lists of specific deeds to be followed or avoided, they reveal a faith in a prescriptive morality, a goodness formed through the practice of many different, discrete good deeds of varying value. And as texts that promise rewards for good behavior and punishments for evil, they reflect a belief in supernatural retribution, in a heaven and/or an assembly of gods and spirits who watch over men and consciously recompense their acts with good or...

  11. APPENDIX Extant Morality Books and Ledgers of Merit and Demerit Published in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
    (pp. 241-242)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 243-260)
  13. Sources Cited
    (pp. 261-276)
  14. Index
    (pp. 277-287)