Chinese classics Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_classics

Chinese classic texts or canonical texts (simplified Chinese: 中国古典典籍; traditional Chinese: 中國古典典籍; pinyin: Zhōngguó gǔdiǎn diǎnjí) or simply dianji (典籍) refers to the Chinese texts which originated before the imperial unification by the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, particularly the "Four Books and Five Classics" of the Neo-Confucian tradition, themselves a customary abridgment of the "Thirteen Classics". All of these pre-Qin texts were written in classical Chinese. All three canons are collectively known as the classics (t , s , jīng, lit. "warp").[1]

The term Chinese classic texts may be broadly used in reference to texts which were written in vernacular Chinese or it may be narrowly used in reference to texts which were written in the classical Chinese which was current until the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. These texts can include shi (, historical works), zi (, philosophical works belonging to schools of thought other than the Confucian but also including works on agriculture, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, divination, art criticism, and other miscellaneous writings) and ji (, literary works) as well as jing (Chinese medicine).

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Four Books and Five Classics were the subjects of mandatory study by those Confucian scholars who wished to take the imperial exams and needed to pass them in order to become government officials. Any political discussion was full of references to this background, and one could not be one of the literati (or, in some periods, even a military officer) without having memorized them. Generally, children first memorized the Chinese characters of the "Three Character Classic" and the "Hundred Family Surnames" and they then went on to memorize the other classics. The literate elite therefore shared a common culture and set of values.[citation needed]

Qin Dynasty[edit]

Loss of texts at the end of the Qin Dynasty[edit]

According to Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), after Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, unified China in 221 BC, his chancellor Li Si suggested suppressing intellectual discourse to unify thought and political opinion. This was alleged to have destroyed philosophical treatises of the Hundred Schools of Thought, with the goal of strengthening the official Qin governing philosophy of Legalism. Three categories of books were viewed by Li Si to be most dangerous politically. These were poetry, history (especially historical records of other states than Qin), and philosophy. The ancient collection of poetry and historical records contained many stories concerning the ancient virtuous rulers. Li Si believed that if the people were to read these works they were likely to invoke the past and become dissatisfied with the present. The reason for opposing various schools of philosophy was that they advocated political ideas often incompatible with the totalitarian regime.[2]

Modern historians doubt the details of the story, which first appeared more than a century later in the Han Dynasty official Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian. Michael Nylan observes that despite its mythic significance, the Burning of the Books legend does not bear close scrutiny. Nylan suggests that the reason Han dynasty scholars charged the Qin with destroying the Confucian Five Classics was partly to "slander" the state they defeated and partly because Han scholars misunderstood the nature of the texts, for it was only after the founding of the Han that Sima Qian labeled the Five Classics as "Confucian". Nylan also points out that the Qin court appointed classical scholars who were specialists on the Classic of Poetry and the Book of Documents, which meant that these texts would have been exempted, and that the Book of Rites and the Zuozhuan did not contain the glorification of defeated feudal states which the First Emperor gave as his reason for destroying them. Nylan further suggests that the story might be based on the fact that the Qin palace was razed in 207 BCE and many books were undoubtedly lost at that time.[3] Martin Kern adds that Qin and early Han writings frequently cite the Classics, especially the Documents and the Classic of Poetry, which would not have been possible if they had been burned, as reported.[4]

Western Han dynasty[edit]

Five Classics[edit]

The Five Classics (五經; Wǔjīng) are five pre-Qin Chinese books that became part of the state-sponsored curriculum during the Western Han dynasty, which adopted Confucianism as its official ideology. It was during this period that the texts first began to be considered together as a set collection, and to be called collectively the "Five Classics".[5] Several of the texts were already prominent by the Warring States period. Mencius, the leading Confucian scholar of the time, regarded the Spring and Autumn Annals as being equally important as the semi-legendary chronicles of earlier periods.

Classic of Poetry
A collection of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 105 festal songs sung at court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies sung at sacrifices to heroes and ancestral spirits of the royal house.
Book of Documents
A collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It is possibly the oldest Chinese narrative, and may date from the 6th century BC. It includes examples of early Chinese prose.
Book of Rites
Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies. The version studied today is a re-worked version compiled by scholars in the third century BC rather than the original text, which is said to have been edited by Confucius himself.
I Ching (Book of Changes)
The book contains a divination system comparable to Western geomancy or the West African Ifá system. In Western cultures and modern East Asia, it is still widely used for this purpose.
Spring and Autumn Annals
A historical record of the State of Lu, Confucius's native state, 722–481 BC.

Up to the Western Han, authors would typically list the Classics in the order Poems-Documents-Rituals-Changes-Spring and Autumn. However, from the Eastern Han the default order instead became Changes-Documents-Poems-Rituals-Spring and Autumn.

Han Imperial Library[edit]

In the Han dynasty, Liu Xiang established the text for many chinese classical works such as The Book of Rites and Biographies of Exemplary Women

In 26 BCE, at the command of the emperor, Liu Xiang (77–6 BC[6]) compiled the first catalogue of the imperial library, the Abstracts (t , s , Bielu), and is the first known editor of the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing), which was finished by his son.[7] Liu also edited collections of stories and biographies, the Biographies of Exemplary Women (Lienüzhuan).[citation needed] He has long erroneously been credited with compiling the Biographies of the Immortals (Liexian Zhuan), a collection of Taoist hagiographies and hymns.[8] Liu Xiang was also a poet - he is credited with the "Nine Laments" ("Jiu Tan") that appears in the anthology Chu Ci'.[9]

The works edited and compiled by Liu Xiang include:

This work was continued by his son, Liu Xin (scholar), who finally completed the task after his father's death.

Song Dynasty[edit]

Four Books[edit]

Zhu Xi (1130-1200) compiled the list of four books in the Song dynasty.

The Four Books (四書; Sìshū) are Chinese classic texts illustrating the core value and belief systems in Confucianism. They were selected by Zhu Xi in the Song dynasty to serve as general introduction to Confucian thought, and they were, in the Ming and Qing dynasties, made the core of the official curriculum for the civil service examinations.[23] They are:

Great Learning
Originally one chapter in the Book of Rites. It consists of a short main text attributed to Confucius and nine commentary chapters by Zengzi, one of the disciples of Confucius. Its importance is illustrated by Zengzi's foreword that this is the gateway of learning. It is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. Government, self-cultivation and investigation of things are linked.
Doctrine of the Mean
Another chapter in Book of Rites, attributed to Confucius' grandson Zisi. The purpose of this small, 33-chapter book is to demonstrate the usefulness of a golden way to gain perfect virtue. It focuses on the Way (道) that is prescribed by a heavenly mandate not only to the ruler but to everyone. To follow these heavenly instructions by learning and teaching will automatically result in a Confucian virtue. Because Heaven has laid down what is the way to perfect virtue, it is not that difficult to follow the steps of the holy rulers of old if one only knows what is the right way.
A compilation of speeches by Confucius and his disciples, as well as the discussions they held. Since Confucius's time, the Analects has heavily influenced the philosophy and moral values of China and later other East Asian countries as well. The Imperial examinations, started in the Sui dynasty and eventually abolished with the founding of the Republic of China, emphasized Confucian studies and expected candidates to quote and apply the words of Confucius in their essays.
A collection of conversations of the scholar Mencius with kings of his time. In contrast to the sayings of Confucius, which are short and self-contained, the Mencius consists of long dialogues with extensive prose.

Ming Dynasty[edit]

Thirteen Classics[edit]

The official curriculum of the imperial examination system from the Song dynasty onward are the Thirteen Classics. In total, these works total to more than 600,000 characters that must be memorized in order to pass the examination. Moreover, these works are accompanied by extensive commentary and annotation, containing approximately 300 million characters by some estimates.

List of Classics[edit]

Before 221 BC[edit]

It is often difficult or impossible to precisely date pre-Qin works beyond their being "pre-Qin", a period of 1000 years. Information in ancient China was often orally passed down for generations before it was written down, so the order of the composition of the texts may not be in the same order as that which was arranged by their attributed "authors".[24]

The below list is therefore organized in the order which is found in the Siku Quanshu, the imperial library of the Qing dynasty. The Siku classifies all works into 4 top-level branches: the Confucian Classics and their secondary literature; history; philosophy; and poetry. There are sub-categories within each branch, but due to the small number of pre-Qin works in the Classics, History and Poetry branches, the sub-categories are only reproduced for the Philosophy branch.

Classics branch[edit]

Title Description
The I Ching (or Book of Changes) A manual of divination based on the eight trigrams attributed to the mythical figure Fuxi (by at least the time of the early Eastern Zhou these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams). The I Ching is still used by modern adherents of folk religion.
The Classic of History or Book of Documents (Shu Jing) A collection of documents and speeches allegedly from the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou periods, and even earlier. It contains some of the earliest examples of Chinese prose.
The Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing) Made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs, 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities, 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies, and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. This book is traditionally credited as a compilation from Confucius. A standard version, named Maoshi Zhengyi, was compiled in the mid-7th century under the leadership of Kong Yingda.[25]
The Three Rites
The Rites of Zhou Conferred the status of a classic in the 12th century (in place of the lost Classic of Music).
The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (Yi Li) Describes ancient rites, social forms and court ceremonies.
The Classic of Rites (Li Ji) Describes social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites.
The Spring and Autumn Annals Chronologically the earliest of the annals; comprising about 16,000 characters, it records the events of the State of Lu from 722 BC to 481 BC, with implied condemnation of usurpations, murder, incest, etc.
The Zuo zhuan (Commentary of Zuo) A different report of the same events as the Spring and Autumn Annals with a few significant differences. It covers a longer period than the Spring and Autumn Annals.
The Commentary of Gongyang Another surviving commentary on the same events (see Spring and Autumn Annals).
The Commentary of Guliang Another surviving commentary on the same events (see Spring and Autumn Annals).
The Classic of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing) A small book giving advice on filial piety; how to behave towards a senior (such as a father, an elder brother, or ruler).
The Four Books
The Mencius (Mengzi) A book of anecdotes and conversations of Mencius.
The Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu) A twenty-chapter work of dialogues attributed to Confucius and his disciples; traditionally believed to have been written by Confucius's own circle it is thought to have been set down by later Confucian scholars.
Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) A chapter from the Book of Rites made into an independent work by Zhu Xi
The Great Learning A chapter from the Book of Rites made into an independent work by Zhu Xi
The Erya A dictionary explaining the meaning and interpretation of words in the context of the Confucian Canon.

History branch[edit]

Title Description
Bamboo Annals History of Zhou dynasty excavated from a Wei tomb in the Jin dynasty.
Yi Zhou Shu Similar in style to the Book of Documents
Discourses of the States (Guoyu) A collection of historical records of numerous states recorded the period from Western Zhou to 453 BC.
The Strategies of the Warring States Edited by Liu Xiang.
Yanzi chunqiu Attributed to the statesman Yan Ying, a contemporary of Confucius

Philosophy branch[edit]

Title Description
Confucianism (excl. Classics branch)
Kongzi Jiayu Collection of stories about Confucius and his disciples. Authenticity disputed.
Xunzi Attributed to Xun Kuang, an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical writings that makes the distinction between what is born in man and what must be learned through rigorous education.
Six Secret Teachings (六韜) Attributed to Jiang Ziya (Taigong)
The Art of War (孫子兵法) Attributed to Sunzi.
Wuzi (吳子) Attributed to Wu Qi.
The Methods of the Sima (司馬法) (Sima Fa) Attributed to Sima Rangju.
Wei Liaozi (尉繚子) Attributed to Wei Liao.
The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong (黃石公三略) Attributed to Jiang Ziya.
The Thirty-Six Stratagems Recently recovered.
Guanzi Attributed to Guan Zhong.
Deng Xizi Fragment
The Book of Lord Shang Attributed to Shang Yang.
Hanfeizi Attributed to Han Fei.
Shenzi Attributed to Shen Buhai; all but one chapter is lost.
The Canon of Laws Attributed to Li Kui.
Huangdi Neijing
Nan Jing
Yuzi Fragment
Mozi Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Mozi.
Yinwenzi Fragment
Shenzi Attributed to Shen Dao. It originally consisted of ten volumes and forty-two chapters, of which all but seven chapters have been lost.
Gongsun longzi
The Lüshi Chunqiu An encyclopedic of ancient classics edited by Lü Buwei.
Shizi Attributed to Shi Jiao
The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) A compilation of early geography descriptions of animals and myths from various locations around China.[26]
Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven tells the tale of king mu and his quest for immortality and after receiving it sadness over the death of his lover.
Dao De Jing Attributed to Laozi.
Guan Yinzi Fragment
The Liezi (or Classic of the Perfect Emptiness) Attributed to Lie Yukou.
Zhuangzi Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Zhuangzi.


Title Description
Chu Ci Aside from the Shi Jing (see Classics branch) the only surviving pre-Qin poetry collection[citation needed]. Attributed to the southern state of Chu, and especially Qu Yuan.

After 206 BC[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Voorst, Robert E. Van (2007). Anthology of World Scriptures. Cengage Learning. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-495-50387-3.
  2. ^ Chan (1972), pp. 105–107.
  3. ^ Nylan (2001), pp. 29–30.
  4. ^ Kern (2010), pp. 111–112.
  5. ^ Nylan, Michael. (Internet Archive Copy) The Five "Confucian" Classics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  6. ^ Twitchett & Loewe 1986, p. 192.
  7. ^ E.L. Shaughnessy, Rewriting Early Chinese Texts, pp. 2-3.
  8. ^ Theobald, Ulrich (24 July 2010), "Liexianzhuan", China Knowledge, Tübingen.
  9. ^ Hawkes, 280
  10. ^ Riegel 1993, p. 295.
  11. ^ Boltz 1993b, p. 144.
  12. ^ Shaughnessy 1993b, p. 239.
  13. ^ Tsien 1993, p. 1.
  14. ^ Cheng 1993, p. 315.
  15. ^ Loewe 1993b, p. 178.
  16. ^ Thompson 1993, p. 400.
  17. ^ Barrett 1993, p. 299.
  18. ^ Knechtges 1993c, p. 443.
  19. ^ Nylan 1993b, p. 155.
  20. ^ Le Blanc 1993, p. 190.
  21. ^ Rickett 1993, p. 246.
  22. ^ Durrant 1993, p. 484.
  23. ^ Daniel K. Gardner. The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007. ISBN 978-0-87220-826-1.
  24. ^ Cambridge History of Ancient China chapter 11
  25. ^ "Detailed List 19-24 - lawpark's JimdoPage!". Lawpark.jimdo.com. 2014-01-27. Retrieved 2014-04-30.
  26. ^ The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin Publishing Group. 2000-01-01. ISBN 978-0-14-044719-4.


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External links[edit]

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