Ledger of Merits and Demerits

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Originally, Ledgers of Merits and Demerits ( 功過格 Gonguoge ) referred to ledgers in which Daoist priests registered their good and evil doings every day in order to spur and examine themselves. Later, when they became popular among the people, they referred generally to a type of moralistic storybook which gave grades to characters according to their degree of good or evil conduct, in order to give concrete instructions to the practice of doing good works and guard against evil.


This type of moralistic storybook lists the Ledger of Merits ( 善行 Shanxing ) (good deeds) and the Ledger of Demerits ( 惡行 Exing ) (evil deeds) respectively, and marks them with positive and negative numbers. Those who pursue it examine themselves every evening, compare their conduct of the day with the relevant item, give themselves positive marks for their good conduct and negative marks for their evil conduct, and record only their marks in the ledger, instead of the actual conduct. At the end of each month, they make a small calculation on a piece of paper, and bind the paper in a book. They follow such practice each month, and at the end of the year make a general calculation of merits and demerits. Then the merits and demerits are balanced, and the merits or demerits accumulated are shifted to the next month or year, in the hope that the followers would engage in diligent cultivation incessantly.

Origin and development

In attempting to explain the Daoist practice of recording merits, demerits, kindness and evil, we should begin with the idea of merit and demerit. The Chinese idea of merit and demerit came into existence quite long ago. The Book of Changes ( 易經 Yijing ) says, "the family having accumulated merit will certainly have surplus happiness while the family having accumulated demerit will certainly have surplus misfortune". Daoism and popular beliesf hold that spirits such as the Spirit of Heaven, the Spirit of the Earth ( 天地 Tiandi ), the Kitchen Spirit ( 灶神 Zaoshen ) and the Controller of Destinies ( 司命 Siming ) supervise human kindness and evil and give deserved rewards and punishments. The Book of Supreme Peace ( 太平經 Taiping Jing ) of the later Han dynasty contains the argument of exhorting people to do good works and avoid evil, and the Ledger of Merits and Demerits is also related to the "Heavenly Certificates ( 天劵 Tianquan )" mentioned in the Book of Supreme Peace. The third scroll "Response to Laymen ( 對俗 Duisu )" and the six scroll "Subtle Guidelines ( 微旨 Weizhi )" of the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity ( 抱朴子內篇 Baipuzi Neipian ) by Ge Hong of the Jin dynasty records substantial materials on the idea of merit and demerit. "Response to Laymen" says that one should accumulate 1,200 merits to become a Heavenly Immortal ( 天仙 Tianxian ) and 300 merits to become an Earthly Immortal ( 地仙 Dixian ). The idea of calculating human misfortune and good fortune, long life and short life by the accumulation, increase and decrease of one's good works and evil doings, merits and demerits is also seen in The Great Collection of Daoist Rituals ( 道門科範大全集 Daomen Kefan Daquanji ) by Du Guangting of the Five Dynasties, in which "The Two Books of Good and Evil ( 善惡之二書 Shan’e Zhi Ershu )" and "The Two Ledgers of Merit and Demerit ( 功過之兩簿 Gongguo Zhi Liangbu )" are recorded in scrolls 73 and 81. "Ledger" indicates a standard. The good and evil, merit and demerit of words and actions become the standard according to which blessings are bestowed or misfortune befall. This way of calculating merits and demerits developed into the moralistic storybooks of the Ledgers of Merits and Demerits after the Song dynasty. Therefore, one may well say that the Ledger of Merits and Demerits mixes together the ideas of the Three Doctrines ( 三教 Sanjiao ), namely the accumulation of good and elimination of evil of Daoism, the ethics and morals of Confucianism, and the karma of Buddhism.

The oldest extant Ledger of Merits and Demerits is the Ledger of Merits and Demerits of the Immortal Sovereign of Supreme Subtlety ( 太微仙君天功過格 Taiwei Xianjun Gonguoge ), which was published in 1171 (included in the Commandments subsection of the Pervasive Perfection ( 洞真 Dongzhen ) in the Daoist Canon ( 道藏 Daozang )). It is a ledger of the personal records of good and evil of the Daoist priests of the Pure Brightness sect ( 淨明道 Jingming Dao ). In the Selections from the Daoist Canon ( 道藏輯要 Daozang Jiyao ), one finds the Ledger of Merits and Demerits to Admonish the World ( 警世功過格 Jingshi Gongguoge ) and the Ledger of Merits and Demerits of the Ten Commandments ( 十戒功過格 Shijie Gongguoge ), which were the Ledgers of Merits and Demerits compiled in Patriarch Lu's name. Later, after being popularized by Yuan Huang (1533-1606), Zhu Hong (1535-1615) and the like, the Ledgers of Merit and Demerit came in vogue during the period from the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century, when a variety of Ledgers of Merits and Demerits were compiled, including not only ones rich in Daoist flavor, but also Buddhist "Ledgers of Good Deeds and Demerits ( 善過格 Shanguo Ge )" (with Zhu Hong's Records of Self-knowledge ( 自知錄 Zizhi Lu ) as the representative work), and Ledgers of Merits and Demerits related with popular morals (such as the Corpus of Ledgers of Merits and Demerits ( 匯纂功過格 Huizuan Gongguoge )). After the 17th century, not only Daoist priests but also scholars, people worshiping and observing Buddhist commandments, and the populace began to gradually pursue Ledgers of Merits and Demerits. Moreover, there emerged the Ledger of Merits and Demerits for Officials ( 當官功過格 Dangguan Gongguoge ), the Ledger of Merits and Demerits for Ignorant Children ( 童蒙功過格 Tongmeng Gongguoge ) and the Ledger of Merits and Demerits for Women ( 婦女功過格 Funu Gonguoge ), which were aimed at specific objects of admonishment. The Ledger of Merits and Demerits of Patriarch Lu Chunyang, Immortal Sovereign of Supreme Subtlety ( 太微仙君呂純陽祖師功過格 Taiwei Xianjun Lu Chunyang Gonguoge ), published in 1734 during the Qing dynasty, was recently reprinted by the Hall of Embracing Dao ( 抱道堂 Baodao Tang ) in Hong Kong.

The significance of the circulation of Ledgers of Merits and Demerits

The Ledger of Merits and Demerits is a book instructing the moral practice of Daoist priests, who record the good and evil of their conduct in a book of marks just as shopkeepers keep accounts in their account books. Some scholars hold that this style of keeping moral accounts is related to the prosperity of Chinese commercial bookkeeping, so they call it "Moral Book-keeping ( 道德記帳法 Daode Jizhang Fa )". A Japanese scholar comments on it, saying, "The emergence of the Ledger of Merits and Demerits indicates that the Chinese realized they could change their destiny and alter good or ill luck with their own hands. This is an epoch-making achievement in their cultural life."

A brief conclusion

In short, the Ledger of Merits and Demerits specifies and itemizes the teachings of moralistic storybooks, such as that of "never do evil but do good" advocated in the Tablet of Correspondence ( 感應篇 Ganying Pian ). It can be used as a guide to action for daily cultivation, examination, and reduction of demerits. This kind of moralistic storybook is not only an important material for the study of Daoist ethical ideas, but also helpful to the understanding of the ethical norms of Chinese society since the Song and Ming dynasties.