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Thai Shang Kan Ying Phien -
Tractate of Actions and their Retributions

Lao-TzuWhat it was before Lao-tze cannot be ascertained, and in his chapters it comes not as a religion, but as a subject of philosophical speculation, together with some practical applications of it insisted on by Lao-tze himself. The brilliant pages of Kwang-tze contain little more than his ingenious defence of his master's speculations, and an aggregate of illustrative narratives sparkling with the charms of his composition, but in themselves for the most part unbelievable, often grotesque and absurd.

Later Taoist literature is voluminous and reflects that medley of subjects which make up Taoism, such as the search for immortality (which Chu Hi singles out as its main object), the conquest of the passions, alchemy, amulets, the observance of fasts and sacrifices, ritual and charms, and the multiplied objects of worship. Much of present-day popular hortatory literature may be reckoned as Taoist.

Probably the most popular of all Taoist writings is The Tractate of Actions and their Retributions, which dates from the Sung dynasty. According to the original text, retribution takes effect in this world. The practise of virtue indeed not only may receive earthly happiness but also may hope as the culmination of his reward to become immaterial and immortal, hsien-jen (-risi of Buddhism). As for the transgressor, he suffers in his person and fortune, and, if at his death guilt still remains unequated by punishment, judgment extends to his posterity. Of this retribution Heaven and spiritual beings are recognized as the agents. In the illustrative anecdotes added in many editions to the original text the stage of retribution includes the other world and successive rebirths in this world. The inculcated morality has many excellent details, but extends also to tabus—e.g., striding over a well or leaping over food.

This treatise is more of a sermon or popular tract. It eschews all difficult discussion, and sets forth a variety of traits of character and actions which are good, and a still greater variety of others which are bad, exhorting to the cultivation and performance of the former, and warning against the latter. It describes at the outset the machinery to secure the record of men's doings, and the infliction of the certain retribution, and concludes with insisting on the wisdom of repentance and reformation. At the same time it does not carry its idea of retribution beyond death, but declares that if the reward or punishment is not completed in the present life, the remainder will be received by the posterity of the good-doer and of the offender.

A place is given to the treatise because of its popularity in China. The various editions of it are innumerable; it has appeared from time to time in almost every conceivable size, shape, and style of execution. Many commentaries have been written upon it, and it is frequently published with a collection of several hundred anecdotes, along with pictorial illustrations, to illustrate every paragraph seriatim. It is deemed a great act of merit to aid by voluntary contribution towards the gratuitous distribution of this work.

The author of the treatise is not known, but it appears to have been written during the Sung dynasty. The earliest mention of the treatise is in the continuation of Ma-twan Lin's encyclopedic work by Wang Kih, first published in 1586, the fourteenth year of the fourteenth emperor of the Ming dynasty. In Wang's supplement to his predecessor's account of Taoist works, the sixth notice is of 'a commentary on the Thai Shang Kan Ying Phien by a Li Kang-ling,' and immediately before it is a commentary on the short but well-known Yin Fu King by a Lu Tien, who lived 1042-1102. Immediately after it other works of the eleventh century are mentioned. To that same century therefore may reasonably refer the origin of the Kan Ying Phien.

Translation in the case of the Tractate of Actions and their Retributions' is easy. It was Remusat who in 1816 called attention to the Kan Ying Phien in Europe, as he did to the Tao Teh King seven years later, and he translated the Text of it with a few Notes and Illustrative Anecdotes. In 1828 Klaproth published a translation of it from the Man-chau version; and in 1830 a translation in English appeared in the Canton Register, a newspaper published at Macao. In 1828 Julien published what has since been the standard version of it; with an immense amount of additional matter.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:22 ZULU