2001 Student-Faculty Fellows: Belmont University

Quantification and Prioritization in Chinese Moral Culture

Mentor: Ronnie L. Littlejohn, Philosophy Department
Student: Erin May Cline, ’01

Ms. Cline and Dr. Littlejohn with Wang Ying Feng,
Xu Chang Feng, and Lin Gui Po of the
Fujian Daoist Association in Quanzhou

Ghost Soldier, central hall of Chenghuang Miao, Chengde

Abstracts of Reflections and/or Research

Ronnie L. Littlejohn

Abacus for quantifying moral deeds, Dongyue Guan, Jiangkou

I suppose that what I learned while doing field research as a philosopher was the most important informal gain I made. Working with translators and cultivating them as colleagues in the research project was a very rewarding experience. It was also exciting to both verify and correct the work of other scholars and we were able to do some of both. But, of course, the most wonderful part of my ASIANetwork research was my work with my student partner, Erin Cline. Watching her tenacity and commitment to our project will forever change my view of student/faculty partnership. Even though I have taught graduate students before, I have never found anyone so willing to work hard to formulate hypotheses, challenge interpretations, understand cross-cultural ideas and practices, and give so freely of herself to an academic effort as this extraordinary undergraduate. To me, one of the best indicators of the quality of our research effort is the simple fact that we kept a list of new projects and possibilities which kept revealing themselves in the course of our inquiry. The very nature of these new ideas made us aware that our understanding of China, our compassion for its people, and our interest in the culture and philosophy of the Chinese tradition had become both broader and deeper.

Worshippers burning hell money on the top of Mt. Tai, outside the temple of the Princess of Azure Clouds

Erin M. Cline

Taishan’s Warning Speech over the entrance to Dongyue Miao, Beijing
Huang Zhipeng, Daoist priest of Dongyue Guan, Jiangkou

After my experience conducting research under the ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program, I am certain that I am following the right path in pursuing my interest in the study of Asian philosophies and cultures. One of the keys to the productive nature of this experience was the on-site experience, where I learned how to handle the challenges and unexpected twists and turns one encounters when conducting field research. In addition, my desire to study Chinese language grew stronger, and I am now enrolled in my first year of Mandarin classes. One of our last evenings in China, we shared a meal with some of the Chinese scholars, guides, and interpreters who had helped us with our research. I was struck by the importance of the experience I’d had, not only because it contributed to my understanding of Chinese culture, but because it contributed to my understanding of my own culture. Looking around the table, I said, “I think that more Americans should study Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, because perhaps if we do, we can learn some ways of solving some of our problems.” At that moment, everyone around the table burst into applause. And I knew that the impact of my experience had stretched far beyond myself. Research findings: Although we initially expected to find a single method of moral prioritization, our research supports the claim that Daoist morality has multiple prioritization systems, all of which establish certain wrongs as more undesirable because of their debilitating effect on the agent’s life, both in this world and in the world to come. The reality of the Daoist system of moral quantification and prioritization, complemented by the fundamentally aesthetic nature of the Chinese tradition, is appropriately captured in “The God’s Speech,” which hangs over the entrance to Dongyue Miao, Beijing: “If you do a good thing, though you may not see the good result at the time, later it will be calculated with your rights and wrongs. Good deeds are like grass in the spring, though you can’t see it today, it is growing. Bad deeds are like the stone which sharpens the knife, it will be destroyed little by little.”

Venues for Sharing

Block print of a hell court taken from Yu Li Zhi Bao Chao Quan Shi
  • Scholarly paper of over 60 pages entitled, “Do You Know You Are A Criminal? The Ten Gods of Hell, Quantification, and Prioritization in Daoist Moral Culture.”
  • Presentation on October 27, 2001 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies.
  • Visual lecture and presentation of slides in the Belmont University Humanities Series on the evening of October 22, 2001 under the title, “Through the Ghost Gate: Taishan’s Kingdoom of Moral Order.”
  • Southeastern Conference of the Association of Asian Studies to present, “The Bureaucracy of Hell: Moral Prioritization and Quantification in Daoist Tradition,” January 18-20, 2002.
  • Presentation at the 2002 meeting of the Asian Studies Development Program during March 14-16 at Agnes Scott College.