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 經, s 经, jīng, lit. "warp").
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 (史, historical works), zi (子, 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 (集, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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". 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.
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.
In 26 BCE, at the command of the emperor, Liu Xiang (77–6 BC) compiled the first catalogue of the imperial library, the Abstracts (t 別錄, s 别录, Bielu), and is the first known editor of the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing), which was finished by his son. Liu also edited collections of stories and biographies, the Biographies of Exemplary Women (Lienüzhuan). He has long erroneously been credited with compiling the Biographies of the Immortals (Liexian Zhuan), a collection of Taoist hagiographies and hymns. Liu Xiang was also a poet - he is credited with the "Nine Laments" ("Jiu Tan") that appears in the anthology Chu Ci'.
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.
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. They are:
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.
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".
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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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|
|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.|
|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.|
|Mozi||Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Mozi.|
|Shenzi||Attributed to Shen Dao. It originally consisted of ten volumes and forty-two chapters, of which all but seven chapters have been lost.|
|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.|
|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.|
|The Liezi (or Classic of the Perfect Emptiness)||Attributed to Lie Yukou.|
|Zhuangzi||Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Zhuangzi.|
|Chu Ci||Aside from the Shi Jing (see Classics branch) the only surviving pre-Qin poetry collection. Attributed to the southern state of Chu, and especially Qu Yuan.|