One of the many morality books (thiện thư 善書) that was published in the nineteenth century in Vietnam was a work called Sovereign Quan Thánh’s Peach Garden Scripture for Illuminating the Sagely (Quan Thánh Đế Quan Đào Viên minh thánh kinh 關聖帝君桃園明聖經). It is a text that was revealed by the spirit of Quan Vũ (Guan Yu 關羽), the famous general from the Three Kingdoms period.
There is a passage in that text where Quan Thánh talks about the good things that can happen if people “read” his scripture. I put the word “read” in quotes because from this passage it is very clear that this text was meant to be read in different ways by different peoples.
Here is a rough translation of that section.
When students silently read this scripture, before long they will enjoy a meteoric rise of success.
When women chant this scripture, they will be able to many children who will all be successful.
If it is recited for the departed spirits, then it will expedite their transformation to a new life.
It if is recited for one’s parents, then one’s parents will enjoy longevity.
There are three verbs in this passage that clearly refer to different types of reading (khán 看, tụng 誦, and niệm 念, or what I have translated as “silently read,” “chant” and “recite”).
I’ve come across these different verbs before, but not all of them in the same passage like this, so this passage made me stop and try to figure out what the differences between these verbs are. As luck would have it, I found a helpful dissertation on the Internet that was completed a decade ago by a person named Li Yu entitled “A History of Reading in Late Imperial China, 1000-1800.”
Li Yu has a passage at the beginning of her dissertation where she talks about the different terms for reading in classical Chinese. The most common term was “độc” 讀. This meant “to read aloud,” but it was only used for certain types of texts. One could “độc” the Confucian classics, but one did not “độc” a Buddhist sutra. Instead, the verb for that was “tụng” (to chant).
As Li Yu explains, there was a sense to “tụng” of memorizing and reciting. In other words, you would often “tụng” something that you had memorized.
Further, and again according to Li Yu, “khán” seems to have meant to read silently and to more or less “scan” the text rather than to read aloud every word, which is what was meant by “độc.” So she says that people would “độc” (read aloud) the classics but “khán” (silently read/scan) histories.
Finally, “niệm” also meant “to read aloud,” but there was a sense of repetitiveness to it.
These definitions are all views of the different types of reading as seen from the orthodox Nho (儒 “Confucian”) perspective. There is a hierarchy to these terms, and at the top of the hierarchy is “độc,” a verb used for “reading” things like the classics.
Where did morality books fit in this hierarchy? Morality books were texts that were employed by Nho scholars for various reasons. On the one hand, they used these books as a way to get uneducated people to follow their ideas about proper behavior.
How did they do this? Well, these books were supposedly revealed by spirits, but those spirits encouraged people to uphold Nho/Confucian morals. So the idea was that uneducated people would listen to what the spirits told them to do, because they feared the spirits.
So in the passage above, women are encouraged to “tụng” (chant) this scripture. The assumption here is that women are not really literate, but they can be taught orally to memorize (at least a portion of) a text that they can then “tụng” (chant).
At the same time Nho/Confucian scholars also believed in the spirits to some extent themselves, but they had to keep the spirits at a distance. So students could “khán” (silently read) these texts, and adult Nho/Confucian scholars could “niệm” (recite) these texts to gain merit for their parents and deceased ancestors.
However, no one could “độc” (read aloud) these texts, because they were not orthodox. “Độc” was for “serious” reading.
I also saw that Li Yu mentioned in her dissertation that the history of reading is a topic that has not been researched all that much. People have tried to study about literacy and the history of printing and books, but the history of reading is different, and yet it ties all of these other topics together. It is definitely a topic worth investigating.
Finally, I found on YouTube a video of someone “reading” (I guess this would be “niệm”?) Sovereign Quan Thánh’s Peach Garden Scripture for Illuminating the Sagely: