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Si Shu (Traditional Chinese: 四書; pinyin: Sì Shū; literary "four books") or The Four Books of Confucianism (not to be confused with the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature), are four Chinese classic texts that, together with the Five Classics, make up the basic canon of Confucianism: the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius, and the Mencius. The “Four Books” was put into its present form by the Neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi (1139 – 1200) in the late twelfth century C.E., during a revival of Confucian learning which took place during the Song Dynasty. Two of the “Four Books” were originally chapters in Li Ji (the Records of Rites), one of the “Five Classics” compiled around the end of the first century C.E. from earlier material. Zhu Xi identified them as being the embodiment of the teachings of Confucius.
The Four Books became the most important classical Confucian texts and a point of reference for the Neo-Confucian tradition which developed from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries. During the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 – 1911) the Four Books were made the core of the official curriculum for the civil service examinations.
History of the Four Books
Although three of the “Four Books” are traditionally attributed to Confucius (K'ung-tzu, 551- 479 B.C.E.), historians have established that they were written down by his students some time after his death. These works were put into their present form by the Neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi (1139 – 1200) in the late twelfth century C.E., during a revival of Confucian learning which took place during the Song Dynasty. Two of the Four Books, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean, were originally chapters in Li Ji (the Records of Rites), one of the “Five Classics” compiled around the end of the first century C.E. from earlier material. Zhu Xi believed that these two chapters embodied essential Confucian teachings and should be studied on their own merit. Though Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianist teachings took hold rapidly during his lifetime, persecution resulting from his involvement in palace intrigues prevented the Four Books from being certified as the official Confucian canon until 1313, a century after his death, by the Yuan dynasty. The Four Books became the most important classical Confucian texts and a point of reference for the Confucian tradition which developed from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries.
When the Hongwu Emperor (1328 – 1398), founder of the Ming dynasty, restored the traditional Confucian examination system, he sought a curriculum that would emphasize basic literacy and practical virtue, rather than elaborate literary style. He adopted a curriculum based on the Four Books and Zhu Xi’s commentaries, which became the core of the civil service examinations for the next 350 years.
Throughout Chinese history there were a number of Confucian canons. The earliest cannon included the Five Classics or Six Classics. The Táng (唐) dynasty canon, established by the Yŏnghuī 永 徽 emperor (650-655 C.E., Tàizōng, 太 宗) was the Thirteen Classics version. The late dynastic (modern) canon, which became the basis for the civil service examinations beginning in 1315, included the Five Classics and the Four Books. Under the Republic of China, particular stress was placed on the Four Books, plus the Classic of Filial Piety. During most of its history, the Communist regime in China condemned the reading of the Four Books except for purposes of derogatory criticism, though recent scholars have become more receptive to the Confucian canon.
The Great Learning
The Great Learning (Traditional Chinese: 大學; Simplified Chinese: 大学; pinyin: Dà Xué), Chapter 42 in the Classic of Rites, is the first of the Four Books which were selected by Zhu Xi during the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. The book consists of a short main text, attributed to Confucius and nine commentaries chapters by Zeng Zi, one of Confucius' disciples. Its importance is illustrated by Zeng Zi's comment in the foreword that this is the gateway of learning.
The Great Learning expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. Good government is portrayed as the outcome of cultivation of the self and of “investigation of things.” Individual action in the form of self-cultivation is associated with higher goals such as ultimate world peace. Spiritual and practical material life are linked by defining the path of learning (tao) in governmental and social terms. Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings rather than on an external deity, and establishes Confucianism firmly in the physical, rather than the spiritual, world.
Zhu Xi lived during a time of political uncertainty, when philosophers no longer looked to the government or ruler to provide solutions for the problems of society, but believed that the solutions must be sought within the conduct of each individual.
Chapter 6: What is meant by “making one’s thoughts sincere is this: One allows no self-deception, just as when one hates a hateful smell or loves a lovely color. This is called being content within oneself, and this is why the noble person must be watchful over himself in solitude. The petty person, when living alone, is quite without restraint in doing what is not good. As soon as he sees a noble person her moves to dissemble, concealing what is not good and making a display of what is good. The other sees right through him, as if seeing his lungs and liver. Of what use is his dissembling? This is a case of what is truly within being manifested without, and this is why a noble person must be watchful of himself in solitude. (From Zu Xhi’s commentary on Great Learning)
The Doctrine of the Mean
The Doctrine of the Mean (Traditional Chinese: 中庸, Zhōngyōng) was also one chapter in Li Ji. By tradition, the Doctrine of the Mean is attributed to Confucius' grandson Zisi. The book emphasizes moderation in man’s conduct, which will enable him to live in harmony with the universe. 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" (dào, 道) that is prescribed by a heavenly mandate not only to the ruler but to every person. Following these heavenly instructions by learning and teaching them will automatically result in Confucian virtue. Because Heaven has laid down what is the way to perfect virtue, it can be understood by following the steps of the holy rulers of old.
The Analects of Confucius
The Analects of Confucius (Traditional Chinese: 論語; Simplified Chinese: 论语, Lúnyǔ) is a record of speeches by Confucius and his disciples, as well as their discussions. The Analects were written over a period of thirty to fifty years, beginning during the Spring and Autumn Period, and ending in the Warring States Period. The Analects were almost certainly penned and compiled by disciples and second-generation disciples of Confucius, and come the closest to an actual exposition of Confucius’ philosophy. It taught basic Confucian values including propriety (禮/礼), righteousness (義/义), loyalty (忠) and filial piety (孝), all centered about the central thought of Confucius—humanity (仁).
Chapters in the Analects are grouped by individual themes, but are not arranged so as to convey a continuous development of thought or idea. Linguistic evidence indicates that chapters may have been rewritten or added to at numerous times by various schools of Confucian writers. Chapter X of the book contains detailed descriptions of Confucius' behaviors in various daily activities. Voltaire and Ezra Pound both commented that this chapter shows how much Confucius was a mere human.
The Mencius (Chinese: 孟子, aka Mèngzǐ) is a collections 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.
Mencius argued that human beings are born with an innate moral sense, but that society has corrupted it through lack of a positive cultivating influence. Therefore, the goal of moral cultivation is to return to the innate morality of human nature. Consistent with his belief in the individual, Mencius contended that it was permissible for people to overthrow or kill a ruler who ignored the public's needs or ruled harshly.
- Wm. de Bary, and Irene Theodore and Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231109385), 350.
- de Bary and Bloom, 350.
- de Bary and Bloom, 350.
- de Bary and Bloom, 786.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0813328047
- Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
- Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press, 1993. ISBN 0812690877
- Ivanhoe, P.J., and Bryan W. Van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001. ISBN 1889119091
- Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MS and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.
- Si shu, and James Legge. The Four Books: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and The Works of Mencius. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1966.
- Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.
- Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-64430-5
All links retrieved January 27, 2023.
- Confucianism and Traditional Chinese beliefs Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Confucius Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
|The Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經)
|The Four Books:
|The Five Classics:
Classic of Changes (易經) | Classic of Poetry (詩經) | Classic of Rites (禮記) | Classic of History (書經) | Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋)
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