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Chinese Classics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

Article Summary

The Chinese Classics are a group of texts of divination, history, philosophy, poetry, ritual and lexicography that have, to a significant extent, defined the orthodox Ruhist (Confucian) tradition of China. Since the Song dynasty (960–1279), they have consisted of the following thirteen texts:

  1. The Shujing, or Shangshu (Book of Documents, or Documents), the ‘classic’ of Chinese political philosophy. Allegedly compiled by Confucius, it contains a variety of historical documents, mostly dating from the fourth century bc.

  2. The Yijing (Book of Changes), a divinatory work using sixty-four permutations of broken (yin) and straight (yang) lines in six positions. It has two parts: the ‘Zhouyi’ (Zhou Changes), an ancient divination manual, and the Shiyi (Ten Wings), a commentary dating from the Warring States period (403–222 bc).

  3. The Shijing (Book of Songs, or Odes), a collection of 305 poems, ostensibly selected by Confucius, on a wide variety of subjects. It includes songs of farming, feasting and love that are clearly of popular origin. It also contains a variety of court poetry including dynastic hymns, hunting and banquet songs and political satires from the Zhou court (1121–222 bc).

  4. The Yili (Ceremony and Rites), a Warring States ritual text.

  5. The Zhouli (Rites of Zhou), another Warring States ritual text.

  6. the Liji (Book of Rites), a Han work that provides information about early Confucian philosophy and ritual. Together, works (4), (5) and (6) make up the Lijing (Classic of Rites).

  7. The Zuozhuan (Zuo Annals).

  8. The Guliangzhuan (Guliang Annals).

  9. The Gongyangzhuan (Gongyang Annals). Works (7), (8) and (9) are commentaries to the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals, or simply Annals), a chronicle of the reigns of twelve rulers of the state of Lu; its presentation of diplomatic and political events from 722–481 bc is terse and factual, but the three commentaries provide substantial elaboration and exegesis.

  10. The Analects of Confucius (Lunyu), containing anecdotes and short dialogues between Confucius and his disciples. In this work, Confucius established a new emphasis on humanistic ethics and political and social order.

  11. The Xiaojing (Book of Filial Piety), a short dialogue between Confucius and one of his disciples, concerned with filiality in both private and public life; it discusses children’s filiality to their parents and subjects’ filiality toward their rulers.

  12. The Erya, a book of glosses of Zhou dynasty terms (the title means ‘Graceful and Refined’).

  13. The Mengzi, which records a series of dialogues and debates between the philosopher Mencius and his students, several rulers and a variety of rhetorical and philosophical opponents. Mencius elaborated upon the Analects, arguing that human nature was inherently good and claiming that four ‘sprouts’ of goodness could be educated to create intuitive ability as the correct basis for moral judgments.

The practice of appealing to authoritative texts appeared as early as the Analects of Confucius, around 500 bc. An explicit classical canon first appeared some four hundred years later during the Han dynasty (206 bcad 220), when Emperor Wu institutionalized a set of five classics associated with Confucius. At the same time he established new procedures for recruiting officials, created official chairs for the study of the Five Classics, restricted official academic appointments to those five areas and founded an imperial academy for the study and transmission of those works. In this way he effectively created a new ‘Confucian’ state religion. The term ‘classic’ (jing) also appears as the first of six categories of literature in the classification system of the bibliographical chapter of the Hanshu (History of the Former Han Dynasty). Classics (jing) are distinguished from masters (zi), the latter being grouped into nine schools starting with the Ru, or Confucians.

Since the Han dynasty, the content of the classical canon has grown from the original five (or seven) texts, as established during the Han dynasty. The original group of classical texts that acquired official sanction during the early Han empire was supplemented by additional texts during the Tang (617–907) and Song (960–1279) periods. The Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) became known under the titles of three commentary editions, the Gongyangzhuan, Guliangzhuan and Zuozhuan, as noted above. The Lijing became known as three separate works on ritual, the Yili, the Zhouli and the Liji, again as noted above. The Erya was added to the classical canon during the Tang dynasty and the Mengzi during the Song dynasty, bringing the total to what became the standard thirteen texts.

These works functioned as classics in a number of ways. They formed the core education of the bureaucratic elite, they provided an important source for imperial authority and they set the philosophical agenda for the dominant Confucian tradition. The classics are also significant for what they do not contain. Many of what are now considered the greatest philosophical works of the Warring States period are classified as masters, not classics; examples include the Zhuangzi, the Xunzi and (until the Song dynasty) even the Mengzi.

Citing this article:
Raphals, Lisa. Chinese Classics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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