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The Five Classics (Traditional Chinese: 五經; pinyin: Wǔjīng) is a corpus of five ancient Chinese books that makes up part of the basic canon of the Confucian school of thought. They became accepted as orthodox by the imperial government during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.)[1] According to tradition, the Five Classics were written before the time of Confucius and were compiled or edited by Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.) himself. The Five Classics and the Four Books of Confucianism were the basis for the civil service examinations through which scholars were selected as officials in the imperial bureaucracy from the founding of the Grand Academy (taixue or t’ai hsueh) in 124 B.C.E. until 1905, near the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). Several times through Chinese history, the texts of the Confucian canon were inscribed on stone columns (stele) which were displayed in the Grand Academy; many of these stele are still preserved in Beijing and in Xi’an. A student would first learn and memorize the Four Books, then study the Five Classics.[2]

From the Han Dynasty onward, the development of Confucian thought took the form of critical commentaries on the Five Classics and the Four Books. Other texts included in the Confucian canon are the Analects of Confucius (Lunyu); Book of Mencius (Mengzi or Meng Tzu); Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong or Chung yung) and Great Learning (Daxue or Ta hsueh). Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning were originally chapters in the Book of Rites, but the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200) separated them and combined them with the Analects and the Book of Mencius to form the Four Books.

Classic of Changes

The Classic of Changes or I Ching (易經 Yì Jīng), a manual of divination based on the eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The I Ching is still used by adherents of folk religion. The I Ching became the source of many Chinese philosophical concepts.

Classic of Poetry

Shi Jing (Traditional Chinese: 詩經; Simplified Chinese: 诗经; Hanyu Pinyin: Shī Jīng; Wade-Giles: Shih Ching), translated variously as the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs or the Book of Odes, is the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems. It comprises 305 poems, some possibly written as early as 1000 B.C.E..

The collection is divided into three parts according to their genre, feng, ya and song, with the ya genre further divided into "small" and "large":

Chinese character(s) Pinyin Number and Meaning
風(风) fēng 160 folk songs (or airs)
小雅 xiǎoyǎ 74 minor festal songs (or odes traditionally sung at court festivities)
大雅 dàyǎ 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies
頌(颂) sòng 40 hymns and eulogies , sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house

Confucian tradition holds that the collection achieved its present form when it was edited by Confucius. The collection was officially acknowledged as a "classic" during the Han Dynasty, when four schools of commentary existed; the Qi (齊), the Lu (魯), the Han (韓), and the Mao (毛) schools. The Qi and Lu schools did not survive, and the Han school only partially survived. The Mao school became the canonical school of Shi Jing commentary after the Han Dynasty; the collection is also sometimes referred to as "Mao Shi" (毛詩). Zheng Xuan's elucidation on the Mao commentary is also canonical. The 305 poems had to be reconstructed from memory by scholars after the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.E.) had burned the collection along with other classical texts. (A total of 308 poem titles were reconstructed, but the remaining three poems only have titles without any extant text). The earliest surviving edition of Shi Jing is a fragmentary one from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-200 C.E.), written on bamboo strips, unearthed at Fuyang.

The poems are written in four-character lines. The airs are in the style of folk songs, although the extent to which they are real folk songs or literary imitations is debated. The odes deal with matters of court and historical subjects, while the hymns blend history, myth and religious material.

The three major literary figures or styles employed in the poems are “fù” (賦(赋), straightforward narrative; “bǐ” ( 比), explicit comparisons; and “xìng” ( 興(兴) ), implied comparisons

Classic of Rites

Classic of Rites

The Classic of Rites (Traditional Chinese: 禮記; Simplified Chinese: 礼记; pinyin: Lǐjì, also spelled Liki) described the social forms, ancient rites, and court ceremonies of the Zhou Dynasty. It was a restoration of the original Lijing, believed to have been compiled by numerous Confucian scholars during the Warring States Period.


During the first century B.C.E., the text was extensively reworked by Dai De (Senior Dai) and his nephew Dai Sheng (Junior Dai). The version of Junior Dai, composed in 49 chapters, is what is regarded as the Book of Rites today. Only fragments of the version Senior Dai have been preserved. Modern scholars believe that the original title, Lijing ("Classic of Rites"), was dropped so that jing ("classic") would be reserved for works more directly connected with Confucius.

The book includes the Classic of Music (Chapter 19); however, this version of the work is a dilapidated form of the original, which is now lost. In 1993, a chapter of the Classic of Rites, Black Robes, was found in tombs of Guodian, in Hubei, dated to 300 B.C.E..

The Classic of Rites also includes two chapters, Great Learning (Chapter 42), and Doctrine of the Mean (Chapter 31), the original text of which is believed to have been compiled by one of Confucius's disciples, which are included separately as "books" in the collection known as the Four Books.

By the second century C.E., the book was sometimes incorporated into the Three Rites with two other documents, the Rites of Zhou and the Etiquette and Ceremonials.

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 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 as a doctrine of the physical, rather than the spiritual, world.

Great Learning also raises a number of themes that have underlain Chinese philosophy and political thinking. One important question has been the exact definition of what is meant by “the investigation of things.” What things are to be investigated and how has been one of the crucial issues of Chinese philosophy.

Some of the terms within the text form an important part of both classical and modern Chinese political discourse. For example, the concept of “world peace” has been the stated goal of Chinese statecraft from the Zhou Dynasty to the Kuomintang to the Communist Party of China. Another term used in the text, qin-min, which Legge translates as “renovating the people” is the name of the People First Party, one of the minor parties in Taiwan.

The main text reads:

The Way of the great learning involves manifesting virtue,
renovating the people, and abiding by the highest good. (...)
大學之道在明明德,在親民,在止於至善 (...)
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the
kingdom, first ordered well their own States.
Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.
Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.
Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.
Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.
Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.
Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.
Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.
Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.
From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must
consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. (...)
自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以修身為本 (...)

Classic of History

The Classic of History (Chinese: 書經/书经; pinyin: Shūjīng; Wade-Giles: Shuching) is a compilation of documentary records related to events in ancient history of China. It is also commonly known as the Shàngshū (Chinese: 尚書/尚书, literally: Esteemed Documents), or simply Shū (Chinese: 書/书, colloquially: Documents). It is commonly translated in western text as the Book of Documents.


Classic of History consists of 58 chapters (including eight subsections), of which 33 are generally considered authentic examples of early Chinese prose from the sixth century B.C.E.. The first five chapters of the book purport to preserve the sayings and recall the deeds of such illustrious emperors as Yao and Shun, who reigned during legendary ages; the next four are devoted to the Xia Dynasty, the historicity of which has not been definitively established; the next seventeen chapters deal with the Shang Dynasty and its collapse. The blame for this is placed on the last Shang ruler, who is described as oppressive, murderous, extravagant, and lustful. The final 32 chapters cover the Zhou Dynasty until the reign of Duke Mu of Qin.

The Shujing is possibly the earliest narrative of China, and may predate the Historiai of Herodotus as a history by a century. Many citations of the Shangshu can be found in the bamboo slips texts from the tombs of Guodian, in Hubei, dated to the 300s B.C.E..

Transmission of Texts

The Classic of History has been transmitted in three versions: New Text version, Old Text version, and the forged Old Text version. The first, transmitted by Fu Sheng after the fall of the Qin Dynasty (206 B.C.E.), was a New Text version in 33 chapters (originally there were 28 or 29 chapters, but some chapters were divided by Du Lin during the first century), which had lost more than 72 chapters of the original. The second version was an Old Text version, found by Prince Liu Yu and transmitted by Kong Anguo during the last half of the second century B.C.E., which added some 16 new chapters and was part of the Old Text Classics later championed by the scholar Liu Xin during the beginning of the first century, the new chapters were later lost. The third, was a forged version of the Old Text with and additional 26 chapters (including one preface), which was allegedly rediscovered by the scholar Mei Ze during the fourth century, and presented to the imperial court of the Eastern Jin (265-420). His version consists of 59 chapters, including the new chapters plus the 33 chapters of the New Text version. By then most of the versions of Old Text had been lost.

Beginning in the Song Dynasty (1127–1279), starting with the scholar Zhu Xi (1130–1200), many doubts were expressed concerning the provenance of the existing Old Text chapters of the book, but it was not until Yan Ruoju's research in the seventeenth century and his definitive conclusions in an unpublished but widely distributed manuscript entitled Evidential analysis of the Old Text Documents that the question was considered settled.

Spring and Autumn Annals

The Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋 Chūn Qiū, also known as 麟經 Lín Jīng), is the official chronicle of the State of Lu, Confucius’ native state, covering the period from 722 B.C.E. to 481 B.C.E.. It is the earliest surviving Chinese historical text to be arranged on annalistic principles. The text is extremely concise, and, if all of the commentaries are excluded, is only about 16,000 words; thus its meaning can only be appreciated with the aid of ancient commentaries, especially the traditional Commentary of Zuo.

Although it has traditionally been regarded as having been compiled by Confucius (after a claim to this effect by Mencius), and is included as one of the Five Classics, few modern scholars believe that Confucius had much influence on the formation of the text; this is now assigned to various chroniclers from the State of Lu.

Content and organization

In early China, "spring and autumn" was a commonly used metonymy for the year as a whole, and the phrase was used as a title for the chronicles of several Chinese states during this period. In the Mozi, the chapter Obvious Existence of Ghosts refers to several Spring and Autumn Annals of the Zhou, Yan, Song, and Qi dynasties. All these texts are now lost; only the chronicle of the State of Lu has survived.

The scope of events recorded in the book is quite limited. The focus is on various feudal states' diplomatic relations, alliances and military actions, as well as births and deaths among the ruling families. The chronicle also takes note of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, locusts, and solar eclipses, since these were seen as reflecting the influence of heaven on the world of humans.

Events are narrated in chronological order, dated by the reign-year of the Duke of Lu, the season, the month and the day according to the Chinese sexagenary cycle. The annalistic structure is followed strictly, to the extent of listing the four seasons of each year even when no events are recorded. The style is terse and impersonal, and gives no clue as to the actual authorship.


Since the text of this book is terse and its contents limited, a number of commentaries were composed to explain and expand on its meanings. The Book of Han, volume 30, lists five commentaries:

  • The Commentary of Zou (鄒氏傳)
  • The Commentary of Jia (夾氏傳)
  • The Commentary of Gongyang (公羊傳)
  • The Commentary of Guliang (榖梁傳)
  • The Commentary of Zuo (左氏傳)

No text of the Zou or Jia commentaries has survived. The Gongyang and Guliang commentaries were compiled during the second century B.C.E., although modern scholars had suggested they probably incorporate earlier written and oral traditions of explanation from the period of Warring States. They are based upon different editions of the Spring and Autumn Annals, and are phrased as questions and answers.

The Commentary of Zuo, composed in the early fourth century B.C.E., is a general history covering the period from 722 to 468 B.C.E.. Modern scholars disagree about whether it is truly a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals or an independent work. In any case, scholars have found it by far the most useful among the three surviving 'commentaries' both as a historical source for the period and as a guide to interpreting the Annals.

Like many later Confucian histories, Spring and Autumn Annals incorporates implied condemnation of usurpations, murder, incest, and other unprincipled behaviors.

Classic of Music

The Classic of Music (樂經, Yue Jing) is sometime referred to as the sixth classic, but was lost by the time of the Han Dynasty.

See also


  1. Alan Perry, “Five Classics.” Encyclopedia of China. 2000. New York. Roundtable Press. ISBN 0816026939
  2. Alan Perry, “Five Classics.” Encyclopedia of China. 2000. New York. Roundtable Press. ISBN 0816026939

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cheng, Anne, Michael Loewe (ed.). 1993. "Ch'un ch'iu 春秋, Kung yang 公羊, Ku liang 榖梁 and Tso chuan 左傳," in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Early China Special Monograph Series No. 2). Society for the Study of Early China, and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1557290431
  • Confucius, Shen Tseng, and Ezra Pound. 1978. Ta hio: the great learning. Philadelphia: R. West. ISBN 0849220777 ISBN 9780849220777
  • Liao, Mingchun 2001. A Preliminary Study on the Newly-unearthed Bamboo Inscriptions of the Chu Kingdom: An Investigation of the Materials from and about the Shangshu in the Guodian Chu Slips. Taipei: Taiwan Guji Publishing Co. ISBN 9570414596
  • Li, Sijing. 1998. Sources of the Confucian tradition: the five classics and the four books. Jinan, Shandong: Shandong Friendship Press. ISBN 7806421122 ISBN 9787806421123

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2023.


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