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Cherishing Written Characters (xizizhi 惜字紙)

Cherishing Written Characters (xizizhi 惜字紙)

Dr Adam Yuet Chau

 

A Wall of Chinese Characters at Peking University

The practice of cherishing written characters (xizizhi 惜字紙) has a long history in China. Many late imperial morality books (善書) included xizizhi as one of the many merit-generating practices that people should be engaged in. Xizizhi often appeared as an item in ledgers of merits and demerits (功過格). It later became attached to the worship of Lord Wenchang (文昌帝君), who was the patron deity of candidates for the imperial civil service examination. In the early 20th century, however, xizizhi acquired a new significance. With the abolition of the imperial civil service examination in 1905 and the introduction of ‘Western Learning’, the traditional literati lost their sense of purpose and superiority and the foundation of their identity. As a response to such sudden transformation, many grassroots literati resorted to advocating practices that emphasised the role of writing and the Chinese language, which allowed them to recreate a sense of purpose and identity and to maintain or regain respectability in local society. Spirit-writing became increasingly popular among local literati groups, often connected to newly-established redemptive societies. On the other hand, xizizhi became an all-purpose devotional practice, as a new generation of advocates fetishised the Chinese written language as the foundation of Chinese civilisation. More interestingly, merchants and commerce featured more prominently in stories of divine retribution relating to xizizhi practices, which more than hinted at the impact of the commercial and consumer revolutions in the early 20th century on popular religiosity. In other words, what seems like a very old traditional practice (xizizhi) was deployed and repackaged strategically to respond to a very modern situation.

Dr Chau has come to the study of the practice of xizizhi through the introduction by his sinologist colleague Philip Clart to an early-twentieth-century illustrated morality book entitled Records of Indubitable Responses Relating to Cherishing Characters (Xizi zhengyanlu 惜字徵驗錄). He is now in the process of translating the eighty illustrated stories in the book and writing a few contextualising chapters, all to be published in a volume tentatively entitled Cherishing Written Characters: Magic, Karma and the Crisis of Chinese Civilisation.