There are numerous old books (dating from before the twentieth century) that one can find in Vietnam that originally came from China. In some cases, these books were brought from China and then republished in Vietnam.

To publish a book in Vietnam before the twentieth century meant carving images of each page of text on a wooden block, as woodblock printing was the main technique for printing texts at that time. This was very expensive, and usually required the financial contributions of a group of people.

Such was the case with a book called the Veritable Records of Cause and Effect (Yinguo shilu/Nhân quả thực lục 因果實錄). In the nineteenth century, a monk by the name of Chiếu Kiên 照堅 got some people to contribute funds to support the carving of woodblocks so that this text, which had first been published in China in the seventeenth century, could be printed.

Once woodblocks are carved, they can then be used and reused to print the text. The National Library of Vietnam has a copy of the Veritable Records of Cause and Effect, for instance, that dates from the early twentieth century when a man paid for 300 copies to be printed from the same woodblock prints that Chiếu Kiên had ordered carved decades earlier.

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The Veritable Records of Cause and Effect tells the story of a certain Lin Silin 林嗣麟 who lived in a place called Lishu Village 黎樹村 in Huguang Province during the early years of Qing Dynasty rule.

Lin, we are told, was a model citizen. He devoutly abstained from eating meat and chanted the Diamond Sutra (金剛經) each morning and night. Further, he was honest, and took delight in acts of goodness, and as a result, the people in his village all respected him.

It then came as a surprise to all when in 1658, Lin Silin, who at the time was only 41 years old, was arrested by ghost troops (鬼卒) and taken to the underworld.

Upon arriving in the netherworld, Lin Silin saw that he had been falsely detained, for there was a sign there charging a man with a similar-sounding name, Ling Shiqi 凌士奇, from a similar-sounding village, Lishu Village 李樹村 (i.e., the first character is different from the one for the first character in the name of Lin Silin’s village), as an “evil-offending ox-slaughterer” (惡犯牛屠).

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Fortunately, the judge in this underworld court immediately suspected that something was wrong, as he detected a slight glow above Lin Silin’s head, an indication that Lin Silin was not a bad person.

In an effort to clarify the situation, the judge began to ask Lin Silin questions. First he asked Lin how many oxen he had slaughtered in his life. “Amituofo! I have never killed a single ox,” Lin responded in alarm.

The judge then sought to verify that Li Silin was from Lishu 李樹 Village, and Lin explained that he was actually from the different, but similar-sounding, village of Lishu 黎樹.

The judge then asked Lin Silin his age and date of birth, and with this information he checked the records concerning the fates of human beings and found that Lin Silin was supposed to live until the ripe age of 78, and that he had therefore been erroneously detained.

Having realized what had happened, the judge decided to send Lin Silin back to the human realm. Before doing so, however, he sends Lin Silin to the main court of the King of the Underworld (王爺) where Lin observes the king as he judges and makes decisions about the cases of numerous people, both evil and good.

In the process, Lin Silin learns a great deal about the connection between cause and effect (yingguo/nhân quả 因果) in people’s lives.

Finally, Lin Silin is allowed to return to the human world where he then writes down a record of everything that had happened to him and what he observed in the underworld – the Veritable Records of Cause and Effect.

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Scholars in Vietnam today rarely write about texts like this one. This is an effect (果) of the cause (因) of nationalism, as “Chinese” books like this one are not deemed to be important for “Vietnamese” history. In the few cases when “Chinese” texts are mentioned, it is to make nationalist-inspired arguments about how such texts were “localized” and “Vietnamized.”

The fact, however, that a monk in the nineteenth century ordered woodblock prints made of this text, that various people contributed money for that to happen, and that we have a record of a single man paying for the printing of 300 copies in the early twentieth century, all suggest that this was a very important book for at least some Vietnamese. So if we want to understand the past, we should try to figure out what it is that such people thought, valued and wanted others to think and value (hence the reason why the book was printed and distributed).

Otherwise, the more people willfully forget about books like this one and the people who published and distributed it, the more they will not understand the past – cause and effect.