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Truthfulness as key to social peace: views expressed in the Scripture on Great Peace (Taiping jing 太平經) 诚信是社会安宁的关键:太平经中阐述的观点之一

来源:道教之音     作者:Barbara Hendrischke     时间:2015-01-12 16:19:54      繁體中文版     

Materials in the Scripture on Great Peace are situated at the origins of religious Daoism. These origins are multifaceted, which is reflected in the diversity of the texts that make up the Scripture. Most of them go back to the second century CE. In the sixth century adherents of Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456–536) put these materials together and thus created the Scripture on Great Peace that was accepted into the Daoist Canon (Daozang 道藏) and has been transmitted. Parts of it have been lost but it is still a very long text. This paper relies on a part of the Scripture that can be put under the title “Personal Transformation” or, to use a religious term, “Conversion.” Here salvation from illness, premature death and death altogether is promised to believers who lead a life that agrees with heaven’s commands. These commands contain much that in Han dynasty times would have been part of anyone’s good conduct, for instance, to love one’s parents, respect the social hierarchy and, most importantly, practice a regimen of self-cultivation.

The group of materials here entitled “Conversion” consists of 24 of the 129 sections of quite unequal length that make up the transmitted text of the Scripture on Great Peace.[ These are sections 179–190 and 192–203 of the transmitted text. One part of section 188 belongs elsewhere. For an introduction to these sections see Espesset (2002b) and Hendrischke (2012). “Conversion” stands for da hua 大化 “transformation” that the authors of these materials see as resulting from a person’s newly found belief in heaven. See, for instance: “Deep in my heart I have always been intent on the great transformation and desirous of the dao of life.” 心常思樂大化貪慕生道 (TPJ 198.610).] It is written in the slightly colloquial style that is characteristic of the whole of the Scripture.[ See Espesset (2002a).] It consists of short treatises that by means of repetition, simplification, direct threats and direct promises often gain a sermon-like intensity. Some of these treatises contain passages of direct speech. The main speaker is depicted as situated in an intense process of conversion. He starts as someone aware of the fact that having sinned he will soon meet his death and ends in expectation of complete redemption and the ascent to heaven in broad daylight. The starting point is a monologue, or what seems to be a monologue, in which he ardently complains about his fate. In the world here described the omnipresence of spirits is such that whatever someone says they hear, register and evaluate. This transforms the process of self-cultivation into a ritual of interchange between human and superhuman players. The outset of the sinner’s conversion is when his monologue of complaints turns into an address to heaven and becomes a proclamation of faith combined with much self-accusation.

What is the role of “truth” in this scenario? Truth will here be understood in the sense in which it is used in the Forum’s topic: “Preserving Truth and Dispelling Falsity: Themes of Sincerity and Trust in Taoist Religious Thought.” So the interest is in moral truth, or truthfulness, which can be defined as “the correspondence of the outward expression given to thought with the thought itself” or “the correspondence of the outward expression of thought with the thing as conceived by the speaker.”[ See entry on “Truth,” Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org/cathen/15073a.htm accessed 2/07/2014.] Truthfulness is seen to be situated at the centre of inner self-cultivation. Without it personal vitality is lost. The texts often express this in negative terms, stating that someone will, if false, become emaciated by illness and die before their time. Falsity thus blocks any chance for redemption. This is a common element of religious thought and the authors of “Conversion” make much of it.[ See F.J. Streng, “Truth,” in M. Eliade (1987), Vol. 14: 63–72.] However, they also propose that truthfulness is of great social benefit. This position will be central to this paper. The paper’s first part will be on the authors’ understanding of truthfulness. The next part will deal with trust, in which the social impact of truthfulness becomes manifest. Finally there will be a brief glimpse of the question of factual truth and the benefit said to accrue from adhering to it. This will confirm the social importance of truthfulness.

The authors’ starting point accords with the topic of this paper. They pay great attention to the benefits of being true. Their approach is practical. They show how individual and communal life is expected to change once truth has come about and move from this perspective to advise how a man can become truthful. In following their argument we cannot rely on the guidance of a Chinese term that would contain in full what we are looking for. The authors of “Conversion” provide descriptions of moral truth but there is no single Chinese term that would be its equivalent.[ In the Scripture the term “true” (zhen 真) occurs mainly to define the rank of “perfected” (zhen ren 真人), which is the title of the disciples of the Scripture’s Celestial Master (tian shi 天師). When used elsewhere zhen refers to teachings, for instance to the belief that a man’s fate is fixed at birth, see TPJ 186.576: “Ordinary men don’t know and say instead that it is not true.” 俗人不知,反謂無真. The term qingshi 情 實 is dealt with below. It is reserved for factual truth, which is a distinct concept and not identical with “moral truth” that we are here concerned with. However, the two share some common ground as qingshi can be seen to matter in what men say: “If someone does not confess the truth but does so on being interrogated he is demoted even further.” 不首情實,考後首便見下 (TPJ 188.579). It is not just the authors of “Conversion” that have little use for the concept of truth in factual or semantic sense, see Harbsmeier 1998: 200–207.] However, there are terms that cover some of its ground. “Integrity” (cheng 誠) and “faith” or “trust” (xin 信) belong here. The term “trust” is crucial since from its appearance in a man’s attitude and conduct one may conclude that he is veracious. The term is used in this sense in the Analects and the authors of “Conversion” leave no doubt that they agree.[ See Lun yu yin de 論語引得 1.4, 1.6 and 1.7. The concept of “trust” (xin 信) is seen as important in evaluating a man’s conduct (2.22).] We may take it as one of their preconditions that truthfulness gives birth to trust. Another precondition is the internal coherence of the world they deal with. Considering that they deal with existential border situations like the origins of life and death and with superhuman powers like heaven and its spirits, they proceed with remarkable confidence in their own judgement or in what one could term common sense. They propose that all players share one identical set of values. Heaven and its spirits look for truth in men and will take them on only if they are so, and men trust in heaven because it is true. Heaven is expected to act predictably and may on this basis rightfully demand men’s trust and belief.[ This topic is of such importance for the authors of “Conversion” that they actually attempt to discuss it, as we will see below.]


So what does truthfulness consist of? One aspect is the full identity between what is said and what is thought and felt. “Men of antiquity” are, for the authors of the Scripture, usually ideal figures. They are said to have been “true”:

In early antiquity men expressed with their mouth what their heart had spoken.

上古之人,心言口語. (TPJ 179.536)

The same is said about the believer. He “offers his heart in speaking.”[ See TPJ 197.609: “The disciple says: ‘This is very important for me and is what I desire. This is the only thing I have set my heart on and pay respect to.’ Great Spirit says: ‘If this is indeed what a man desires he must offer his heart in saying so.’” 生言:「是大重,如使如願,必親心恭而已.」大神言:「是亦其人願,所當承心而言.」 The translation is tentative.] That speaking the truth is not seen as easy becomes clear from its consequence:

If someone’s words are trustworthy he stands a chance to obtain fame and praise for himself. If not, he will in the end lose years off life.

所言所信,可可以得名譽,及其身無信,久亡人年. (TPJ 179.529)

Words, we may take it, are trusted to the extent to which they are presumed to represent a person’s beliefs.

The passage just quoted invites the reader to move one step further, beyond the act of speaking. Someone’s words are trusted because it is assumed that he means what he says and also that he will act accordingly. Truthfulness involves the full complexity of being a person. The identity that is here expected pertains to words and feelings as well as to actions:

Deeds must follow what has been said. Thought must not be separated from the heart. Separating them causes a loss that cannot again be made good.

行順所言,可思無離於心,離之為敗,不可復理. (TPJ 179.527)

This explains the difficulty of speaking. The need to implement what has been said makes it essential to control what one says:

Pay careful attention to what you say. Ponder over your words and you will be able to implement them.

宜詳慎所言,出辭當諦思之,令可行. (TPJ 179.537)

The authors point to this difficulty in a manner that is deeply embedded in their own and, in a wider sense, the Daoist understanding of self-cultivation. For them to become true is to unite with oneself. A true person is not “of two hearts”:

But if a man does not in his own person trust heaven, when would heaven have ever trusted a man with two hearts?

但人自不信天,天何時當信有二心之人乎? (TPJ 180.545)

Expressed in positive terms the believer must “maintain unity” (shou yi 守一):

Therefore, someone who maintains unity will in person finish the years destined by heaven. By maintaining unity and thinking of his trespasses he will, moreover, have them extended.

使守一,身軀竟其天年,守一思過,復得延期. (TPJ 185.566)

To “maintain unity” consists mainly of undertaking meditation practice. It changes a person’s conduct, attitudes and way of thinking. This shows that the ability to speak the truth has deep roots and involves much more than the brief act of speaking.

The authors’ approach is always practical. For them self-cultivation is linked to a regimen of control and supervision and they see multiple motivations, without making much evaluative distinction between different motivational layers. The believer will be true from his heart because he is grateful to heaven, and he will be true because he wants to live long and because the spirits who occupy his body will tell on him should he err. This multiple approach is crucial for fixing the Scripture’s place in intellectual and social history. “Conversion” and other materials in the Scripture are among the first texts where spirits are seen to be situated in the human body as a visual reminder of its vitality and also its vulnerability.[ Spirits (shen 神) are said to have two functions. They write reports, as in “Conversion,” and they maintain life, as in a group of texts in the Scripture on Great Peace that can be entitled “Maintaining spirits” (shou shen 守神), in particular, sections 107–111 and 151–154. ] Their presence guarantees life and helps to keep a believer’s attitude and conduct geared to heaven’s patterns. Their departure can be deadly. This belief must be seen to assist the Scripture’s teachings to reach a wider audience than does advice for self-cultivation rooted in the moral philosophy of the classics. The authors here create a broad road of access to moral conduct where the believer faces simplified decisions and is supported by a supposed net of direct reward and punishment. The believer is told:

Although thinking comes forth from inside yourself, heaven’s spirits know about it. You must not become weary.

思從中出,天神知之,勿倦也. (TPJ 179.536)

What the spirits report, the believer must always accept as correct and as demanding his attention:

Whenever what is said does not match what [spirits] have recorded, it must be feared that outer and inner realms are not in agreement.

常言苦無應書者,恐外內不相副也. (TPJ 183.558)

The “outer realm” in contrast to a man’s inner persona includes what he says as well as what he does. The authors stress repeatedly that truthfulness lies in making actions agree with what has been said. Another aspect of this division is the need to make full use of one’s inner self: at one point—the authors of the long text do not always move into the same direction—the authors go so far as to argue that adherence to commands does not suffice as it does not involve sufficient personal commitment:
Why is it that we make commandments scarce? What you think about on your own you understand deeply.

何惜禁戒乎?想自深知之. (TPJ179.536)

The full moral weight of truthfulness comes to the fore when it is juxtaposed with other relevant concepts:

To cleanse one’s heart, return to integrity, be truly faithful and not turn one’s back on what one has said is what is meant by repaying [heaven for the gift of life].

但寫心歸誠,自實有信,不負所言,是為有報. (TPJ 179.542)

This makes truthfulness a component of repaying heaven. The authors of “Conversion” argue that throughout his life a man must see his main aim as gratefully repaying heaven for the gift of life that he has received. The concept of integrity is used here as another word for truthfulness. It points to the identity between a person’s inner and outer realm, brings about faith and therefore imbues a person with authority.[ As the term is used, for instance, in the Huainanzi, see J.S. Major 2010: 871.]


“Conversion” has little to say on the concept of integrity. What the authors dwell on is “faith” (xin 信) in a range of meanings. By showing and receiving faith and trust a person documents his moral truth. In the process of exchanging faith the inner quality of truth gains visibility and social impact. This is how “men of antiquity” conducted their affairs, as can be seen in the following passage the beginning of  which has been quoted above:

In early antiquity men expressed with their mouth what their heart had spoken. They all knew what others were feeling. Order was installed without texts. What was presented was the contents and the outside was the inside. Everyone showed his faith and did not turn his back on anyone else.

上古之人,心言口語,皆知人情,無文而治,表裏外內,具見其信,各不相負. (TPJ 179.536)

This passage is basic to the argument that truthfulness is a social necessity. Men must be truthful to know each other and can only then trust each other. So truthfulness is the condition of trust. In the following passage the authors go one step further and propose that trust or faith is the condition for social peace:

But when a man withdraws faith from an oath the two parties involved lose faith in each other. Therefore security will be missing. In heaven, on earth and in the space in between those situated above and those situated below will each have their own faith. Men will be unable to understand what is essential and will say: “How should it be the case that some are good and others are evil?” This is where disasters come from.

但人負信於誓言,兩不相信,故有所不安.天地中和上下各自有信,人不得知其要而言何獨有善有惡耶?災異悉所從生. (TPJ 179.524)[ Other translations of this passage see the two parties that lose faith as men and heaven, see Yang 1994: 516, Luo 1996: 882 and Long 2000: 1038. This is possible. Faith of heaven in men and vice versa is often mentioned as a good thing, although usually expressed in a more one-sided fashion as heaven showing faith in a person of moral truth and the believer showing faith in heaven in gratitude for the gift of life. The expression xiang xin points to a more regular partnership, as used TPJ 179.533: “In affairs there must be no private exchange of trust” 所案行不得有私相信. This is said by Lord of Heaven who warns Great Spirit to refrain from privileging the believer,

who is his student.]

Lack of truthfulness, initially in dealings between men, is seen as initiating a general lack of faith and trust that spreads to the relationship between men and heaven. For the authors of “Conversion” the distinction between good and evil that results from faith in heaven’s system of rewards and punishments is an essential element of social order. The loss of faith is therefore seen to trigger a breakdown of social cohesion. Although this statement remains rather isolated, it agrees with the general tenor of “Conversion.”

For most of the material in “Conversion” the partners who must rely on trust in order to have a working relationship are heaven and men. Both must be truthful so that trust is mutual. This comes to the forefront when doubts arise whether heaven will fulfil its promises. The point in question is the believer’s delivery from the trespasses that, being born as a human being, he has inherited. On his first meeting with Lord of Heaven he is told that this load will be removed. Close to the end of his life the issue reappears. Great Spirit (da shen 大 神), who mediates between the believer and Lord of Heaven, mentions the following:

Now [Lord of Heaven] has commanded that spirits bury [the believer’s inherited trespasses]. They have not been buried. Since they have not yet been buried we must fear that things are occasionally not as has been said.

乃令神收藏不藏者.其主未藏者,時恐不如所言也. (TPJ 179.534)

Lord of Heaven, thus reprimanded, reacts instantly and commissions spirits to finish the job. That heaven is in fact trustworthy is an often repeated statement, in “Conversion” as well as throughout the Scripture.[ See Hendrischke 1985.

Factual truth

Feelings of trust that prevent resentment and tie social strata together are said to derive, as we have seen, from personal truthfulness. Someone’s truthfulness brings about trust. To encourage and maintain his personal conduct the believer is expected to live in a world of truth. The ritual of confession is a constant feature in “Conversion.” Moreover, the believer is advised to accept reports produced by body spirits as true since such acceptance proves his own truthfulness. The truth entailed in prognostication also develops in close neighbourhood to truthfulness since to know the future is seen as a gift from heaven and reserved for the believer. So someone who intends to be truthful must take adherence to factual truth into consideration. For public proceedings this situation is seen to be similar. If these proceedings show respect for truth they will be beneficial. In the following passage the authors talk about a ruler who spreads religious teachings. He is, as they put it, obliged to tell the truth:
The ruler over a country’s people must instruct them in dao and guide them through good and evil. It is his task to comprehend the truth so that nobody suffers the fate of dying before their time and humankind is not cut off.

君國子民,當為教道,導其善惡,務得情實.無夭人命,絕人世類. (TPJ 186.568)
Here qingshi 情 實 is the word for the correct teachings that encompass dao. To spread this truth is of social benefit. In “Conversion” this topic is rare. In other parts of the Scripture the authors have much to say on the new teachings that a ruler must perceive, follow and spread so that all will hear the good news and become part of a salutary movement to change the world. If we wish to tie the above passage to what has been said before we can argue that a ruler’s respect for objective truth can be seen as part of his personal truthfulness.

Respect for factual truth is said to help towards cooperation between social strata. When those in charge do not respect it, resentment and distrust must be expected to follow. The passage below, if read correctly, juxtaposes the relationship between spirits and men with that between a ruler and the people. Truth is important, or the people will not be cooperative. So men must accept that what spirits initiate is certainly true and must not refuse to cooperate. The authors of “Conversion” differ somewhat from those of other textual units of the Scripture by taking an intense interest in relations between men and spirits and also between the spirits themselves. So instead of using patterns of transhuman activities to explain how men should act, they point to conduct among men to show how human beings should relate to spirits:

Announcements made by spirits are not thoughtless and offensive. Fellows in the realms in between, below heaven and above earth are indeed without self-respect. They must not resent heaven and accuse earth. If [spirits] up above and [men] down below were to move into each other’s realms this would be as if what the people’s laws and commands have to say were not seen as true and would be met with resentment by those below. This would not last long.

為神所白,無妄犯。天下地上中和之子,各不自敬。無怨天咎地。上下相留,亦如民法令,辭不情實,為下得怨,亦不留久。 (TPJ 187. 571)

Here the lack of factual truth in human announcements is said to cause resentment and the supposition that the announcements made by spirits lack truth is seen to cause confusion among men.

We may conclude that the authors of “Conversion” propose that a society’s well-being results from the intense inner self-cultivation that only a believer in heaven and practitioner of meditation is capable of. There is no compromise in regard to the seminal priority of what here is termed the inner realm. The authors attempt to prove their point by referring all lines of argument back to heaven, with whom a man can establish contact only through his heart. This internalisation of all proceedings is intensified by the fact that there is hardly any recurrence to ritual performances. For other traditions such performances help to acquire superhuman support by external visibly constructed means. For the authors of “Conversion” such bridges between men and heaven do not exist. However, while the authors seem to assume heaven’s ongoing presence in all human events, their propositions do not lack basic plausibility. What they propose in regard to the linkage between truthfulness, faith and social order does not conflict with wisdom widely available in the classics and proverbial sayings. Moreover, despite heaven’s power and its other superhuman characteristics, it is part of the human world. The men depicted in “Conversion” live with other men, with heaven and with its spirit subordinates. They all live in one unified world and all are expected to be truthful.

Materials used

Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org/cathen/15073a.htm accessed 2/07/2014.

Eliade, Mircea (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: MacMillan 1987.

Espesset, Grégoire, “Revelation Between Orality and Writing in Early Imperial China: The Epistemology of the

Taiping jing,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 74 (2002a): 66–100.----- “Criminalized Abnormality, Moral Etiology and Redemptive Suffering in the Secondary Strata of the Taiping jing,” Asia Major, Third Series 15.2 (2002b): 1–50.

Harbsmeier, Christopher, Language and Logic, in J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 7, Cambridge: University Press, 1998.Hendrischke, Barbara, “How the Celestial Master Proves Heaven Reliable,” in G. Naundorf, K.-H. Pohl and H.-H.Schmidt (eds.), Religion and Philosophie in Ostasien. Festschrift für Hans Steininger, Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1985: 77–86.
----- “Religious Ethics in the Taiping jing: The Seeking of Life,” in Daoism: Religion, History and Society 4 (2012):53–94.

Lun yu yin de 論語引得, Harvard Yenching Concordance Series, reprint Shanghai: Guji chubanshe 1986.

Long Hui 龍晦 et al., Tai ping jing quanyi 太平經全譯, Guiyang: Guizhou renmin chubanshe, 2000.

Luo Chi 羅熾 et al., Tai ping jing zhuyi 太平經注譯, Chongqing: Xinan shifan daxue chubanshe, 1996.Major, John, Queen, Sarah, Meyer, Andrew Seth, Roth, Harald, The Huainanzi. A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.TPJ , see Wang 1979.

Wang Ming 王明, Tai ping jing hejiao 太平經合茭叫校, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979.   

Yang Jilin 楊寄林, Tai ping jing shidu 太平經釋讀, in Wu Feng 吳楓 and Song Yifu 宋一夫(eds.) Zhonghua Daoxue tongdian 中華道學通典, Haikou: Nanhai chuban gongsi, 1994: 267– 656.Yu Liming 俞理明, Tai ping jing zhengdu 太平經正讀, Chengdu: Ba Shu shushe, 2001.

(Barbara Hendrischke  University of Sydney)






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