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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 4

Merit has been a central concern in China since before the more than millennium-long period of the Imperial civil service examination system through to the current day. No matter whether often more ideal than reality, opportunity to succeed in government and society was to be based on ability. This Issue discusses the theme of merit in other, related aspects of Chinese history.

  • Seeking Merit in Ancient and Modern China

  • One More Thought (Britain 1783 – America 20??)


Seeking Merit in Ancient and Modern China

Merit is ingrained in Chinese society. During the first half of the first millennium CE, merit and karma were key in the new practice of Buddhism in China. More than 1,000 years later, ledgers of merit and demerit were influential in China’s sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Today, in the first half of the twenty-first century, the government wants to strengthen a focus on merit in a proposed Social Credit System.

Dipankara Buddha (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Buddhist Merit. Karma (known as karman in Sanskrit and kamma in Pali) means willful action or deed (The Buddha used the term, volitional). It is neither good nor bad per se. If we perform good deeds, the effect of karma is that we will acquire and build up merit (also known as credit) that can help us (or our families) in this life and in later lives. If we perform bad deeds, the opposite will result.

Merit (credit) was thus an important aspect of early Buddhist religious practice, and it took off in China after arriving from India during the late Han Dynasty (about 150 CE). Buddhism is a religion, a belief system, an all-of-society cultural framework. Buddhists believe in reincarnation. We live along a continuum of life and rebirth until and unless we can get off the cycle by foregoing desire and achieving nirvana. Earning credit is one big way to help towards this goal.

There were many ways to obtain good credit (merit). One was by doing, thinking, and being good and wholesome in life. Another was by donating to build monasteries, stupas, and Buddhist statues and images; by providing funds for monks’ and nuns’ daily needs; and by constructing wells, hostels, and other services for travelers. Some credit-seekers would donate generally, while others would specify that their gift giving was to earn credit in this life or the next for themselves or their parents or their family. Monks also sought to “elicit blessings” or merit in their actions and thoughts. There were critics who felt the above deeds were self-serving; however, they were a well-accepted practice in China (and elsewhere where Buddhism was practiced).1

1646 Excerpt - Baoyingji (Record of Moral Retribution)(Harvard-Yenching Library)

Ming-Qing Ledgers of Merit and Demerit. The Chinese have long held that one’s actions lead to good or bad outcomes. “Cosmic retribution” for offending the gods and doing vice was a real worry. The social and cultural dimension to this idea permeates Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (tangentially related to karma discussed above). During the late Song Dynasty, two early Daoist texts appeared. The first outlined the merit issue (Tract of Taishang on Action and Response), and the second quantified good and bad actions and established a scoring system (Ledger of Merit and Demerit of the Taowai Immortal). The latter included 36 items that earned merit and 39 items that resulted in demerit.

Fast forward several centuries and ledgers became an important part of the morality book genre of literature during the long collapse of the Ming Dynasty and rise of the Qing Dynasty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond. At a time when the world seemed out of whack and out of control, the popularity of ledgers outgrew the traditional audiences of the Imperial Court and officials and spread more broadly to the literati. These elite members of society believed that goodness and evil could be enumerated and measured. By focusing on the positive and limiting the negative, their lives could be stabilized and given meaning. There was a catch, however. The activities usually had to be done in secret in order to count.

The ledgers became ever more complex and more prescriptive during this time. Do this and you earn “good” points. Do that and you earn “bad” points. There were set values for each specified deed, good or bad. There was belief that each person was born with a certain number (their original lot in life) and could go up or down from there. Some believed that one could in this way change one’s fate. Others disagreed. There were Daoists who thought that doing good would help achieve immortality. There were Buddhists who thought one could help oneself in this life or the next by scoring higher. There were Confucians who felt that they could improve their personal morality and thus their virtue in this life. The ledgers were important in ordering and improving a tumultuous society.2


China Social Credit System. Like most modern societies, China has a financial credit system in place to evaluate borrowers’ and customers’ potential risks for personal and business loans and credit. The Chinese government wants to expand this established system to also include indicators of social, cultural, and personal risk and reward. The nascent Social Credit System, a digital moral system (think of a 21st century Ledger of Merit and Demerit), is as yet a patchwork of government aspiration that is being tested here and there in the country.

The goal of the Social Credit System is to encourage and incentivize good behavior and build trustworthiness in the private and commercial sectors. The carrot and stick approach is an integral component of such a system. An individual (or a company) earns points for doing and acting good and is penalized for doing and acting bad. Just as the sixteenth century ledgers assigned categories of merit and demerit, so too would the Chinese government under the Social Credit System.

The State Council has referred to this as a “personal integrity score management system.” People, businesses, and even government offices would be ranked, rated, and scored. High scores might lead individuals to discounts, greater access, and opportunities, and businesses to acquire needed licenses and eligibility for government support. Low scores might lead to higher interest rates, slower internet speeds, limits on education and employment opportunities, and blacklisting from travel and other activities. Proscribed behavior might include bad driving, high debt, smoking in non-designated zones, posting fake news, buying or playing too many video games, inappropriate social media activity, and misbehaving in public places. The list would be extensive.

The Social Credit System has been reported as controversial, though apparently more so outside of China than inside. While there will certainly be abuses and many Chinese people will not like the system (either piecemeal as now or nationwide in the future), the Social Credit System recalls echoes of the long tradition of seeking merit and credit in Chinese history.


One More Thought (Britain 1783 – America 20??)

American Brig Hero (right) battling British Frigate Milford 1776 (www.allthingsliberty.com)

In speaking on his new book examining the role of privateers in the American Revolution earlier this week, historian Eric Jay Dolin commented on the stunning political and military arrogance of the British in the years leading up to and throughout the war. This arrogance led the arguably strongest nation in the late eighteenth-century world to make repeated strategic and tactical blunders that ultimately squandered goodwill, efficacy, and success. I wonder if twenty-third century historians will look back at the America of the twenty-first century and say the same thing.


1 John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Princeton UP, 2003

Walpola Rahula, What The Buddha Taught, Grove Press, Inc., 1974

2 Cynthia Joanne Brokaw, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order

in Late Imperial China, Princeton UP, 1991