As the post below indicates, there were many different morality books (thiện thư/shanshu 善書) that were produced in the past, but ultimately there was one that was the most popular, the Taishang ganying pian 太上感應篇 [Tract of the Most High on Action and Reponse].
David K. Jordan has a translation of this text online, and he writes there that “Unquestionably the most important literary genre for the vast majority of Chinese in later dynasties was the morality [book].”
“Such works were (and are) printed in millions and millions of copies from small presses all over China for distribution for free, usually from the ‘take one’ tables of popular temples. The cost was borne as an act of religious merit not just by the wealthy, but sometimes by people of quite modest means. Many incorporated introductions or annotations, often arguing for great religious merit to be had by frequent reading or chanting of the text.”
Meanwhile, Paul Carus, who translated the Taishang ganying pian together with Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki in the early twentieth century, stated that “Its editions exceed even those of the Bible and Shakespeare.”
With that information in mind, it is interesting to note that while this book was phenomenally popular, it is all but impossible to find a copy of it in a Western library. One can find the translation that Carus and Suzuki made in 1906, and another translation that James Webster originally made in 1918.
However, in searching WorldCat, I found very few entries for any Chinese-language versions of this text from the past.
The above screenshot shows that two libraries in the world hold a copy that was perhaps published in 1840.
And those two libraries are. . .
. . . in Denmark.
And yet at the same time, the Taishang ganying pian can easily be found on the Internet, and has even been updated for YouTube.
So something is wrong here. A text that was for centuries perhaps the most published work on the planet, is virtually non-existent in Western libraries.
Why is this? A big reason is probably that the Taishang ganying pian is a product of popular culture, and that it is only in recent decades that many libraries in the West have started to take popular culture seriously.
So when many libraries in the West were getting established and building their collections in the first half of the twentieth century, works like the Taishang ganying pian were not considered appropriate.
On the other hand, there are libraries in the world that do have holdings of morality books. In Vietnam, for instance, the National Library and the Viện Hán Nôm both have numerous such texts.
However, Vietnamese scholars have paid virtually no attention to these works. Why is this? I think there are numerous reasons.
First, nationalism has led people to ignore what they view as “Chinese” texts. Second, most people (including most historians) cannot read these texts anymore because they are written in classical Chinese. Third, those who can read them tend to be trained in textual studies (Hán Nôm) rather than history, and don’t really know how to think about such texts or what to say about them.
This then all leads to some interesting questions. If morality books were incredibly popular, and for various reasons people have not studied them and don’t know what they are about and what role they played in society, then what does this indicate about our knowledge of say late-nineteenth century Vietnamese society?
If we don’t know about one of the most popular trends in all of East Asia at that time (including Vietnam) then what exactly do we know? (To be fair, there are some very good studies on the history of morality books in China and Taiwan written by Western and Japanese scholars, but what I’m trying to emphasize here is the absence of this knowledge among people who study the Vietnamese past.)
And what is our knowledge based on? Is it based on what we find in libraries? (There are a lot of libraries in this world that don’t have any information about morality books.)
Is it based on what we have the ability to read? (There are a lot of historians who can’t read these texts.)
To get a bit moralistic, I guess it is probably best to end this post with the opening line of the Taishang ganying pian:
“Disasters and blessings have no gates of their own [that they enter through]; they are summoned by people.” (禍福無門，惟人自召)
And to relate this same concept to the way that we understand the past:
“Historical knowledge has no gate of its own [that it enters through]; we search for it ourselves.” (史智無門，惟我自找)
And in that search, where we look, what we look for, what we have the knowledge to identify, and what we are capable of reading are all factors that determine what we end up knowing.