Chinese Classics

There are five Confucian classics: 1) the “Book of History” (“Book of Documents”), a collection of documents ascribed to ancient Emperors and officials; 2) the “Book of Songs” (“Poetry,” “Shijing”), an anthology of early poems also known as Book of Poem; 3) the “Book of Changes” (“Yijing,” “I Ching”), a manual of divination and philosophical appendices; 4) “Rites” (“Li Chi”), a compendium of rituals; and 5) “The Spring, Autumn Annals,” a chronicle of the state of Lu; and the attached Zuo Commentary. In Confucius's time there was an additional classic, Music, but it has been lost. The oldest versions of the I-Ching and Confucius's Discourse on the “Book of Songs” are on chop-stick-like bamboo slips in the Shanghai Museum. They are believed to be more than 2,200 years old.

The Four Books of Confucianism — 1) The Analects, (“Conversations," or "Classics"), 2) “The Doctrine of the Mean,” 3) “The Great Learning” and the “Mencius” — formed the basis of Confucian education and training for imperial officials. The Analects has been described as "the most influential book in the history of the human race" and a "modern book" with "the oldest intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man." One Confucian scholar told the New York Times, "All human knowledge is contained in this book. If you read this book carefully, you don't need another."

Thomas A. Wilson of Hamilton College wrote: “The Five Classics (wujing) and Four Books (si shu) collectively create the foundation of Confucianism. The Five Classics and Four Books were the basis of the civil examination in imperial China and can be considered the Confucian canon. The Five Classics consists of the Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books are comprised of the Doctrine of the Mean, the Great Learning, Mencius, and the Analects. From the Han to the early Song, the Five Classics grew into thirteen classics. In the early Song, however, scholars focused on the original Five Classics again. By the mid-Song, however, the Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean began gaining importance and by the early fourteenth century, the Four Book were the texts for the civil examinations. [Source: Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / ]

The Neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130-1200) prescribed a specific order to the Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books were to be read before the Five Classics, and were to be read this way: “I want men first to read the Great Learning to fix upon the pattern of the Confucian Way; next the Analects to establish its foundations; next the Mencius to observe its development; and next Maintaining Perfect Balance to discover the mysteries of the ancients. The Great Learning provides within its covers a series of steps and a precise order in which they should be read first. Although the Analects is concrete, its sayings are scattered about in fragments; on first reading, it is difficult. Mencius contains passages that inspire and arouse men's minds. Maintaining Perfect Balance, too, is difficult to understand; it should be read only after the other three books.”

Serious students of the Confucian classics were expected to memorize the following, with the total number of words, or Chinese characters: 1) The Analects (11,705 characters); 2) The Mencius ( 34,685); 3) The Yijing (24,107); 4) The Book of Documents (25,700); 5) The Book of Songs (39,234); 6) The Book of Rites (99,010); 7) The Zuozhuan (196,845). The total number of characters in these books works out to well over 400,000 words, and knowing them by heart is roughly the equivalent of memorizing a book of 1,000 pages. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; ; Virtual Temple tour; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Four Books of Confucianism

Thomas A. Wilson of Hamilton College wrote: “The Great Learning” is “a guide for moral self-cultivation. According to the Great Learning, the key to moral self-cultivation is learning, or the investigation of things. Through the investigation of things, one comes to understand the principle in all things, which allows one to better comprehend the world. Through this moral self-cultivation, one's li (principle) and qi (psychophysical stuff) are in harmony, leading to consistent moral behavior. Zhu Xi prescribed that The Great Learning be the first of the Confucian Classics read, as the message contained in The Great Learning would orient scholars to think about the value of their studies. Online translation: A. Charles Muller's translation of The Great Learning.” [Source: Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / ||]

“Analects”: “Written during the Spring and Autumn period through the Warring States period, the Analects is a collection of Kongzi's teachings and discussions with disciples. Just as The Great Learning emphasized learning, so did the Analects. According to the Analects, the first step in knowing the Way is to devote oneself to learning. In addition to learning, the Analects emphasize the importance of good governance, filial piety, virtue, and ritual. Online translation: James Legge's English translation of the Analects.” ||]

“Mencius” is “a collection of conversations Mencius had with Kongzi. Mencius places a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the emperor to practice good governance through following the Way. Additionally, Mencius believes that all human beings are inherently good. One of the most popular passages from Mencius notes that all humans instinctively respond with alarm and compassion when we see a child teetering on the edge of a well, suggesting that everyone is innately good and moral. Yet, he notes that not everyone actually rushes to save the child and emphasizes the idea that though we are all born with the seeds of righteousness and goodness, but must learn how to nurture and cultivate those seeds. Online translation: James Legge's English translation of the Mencius with commentary.” ||]

“The Doctrine of the Mean” “has been translated in many ways, including The Constant Mean (Legge) and Maintaining Perfect Balance (Gardener). The Doctrine of the Mean is attributed to Zisi, Kongzi's grandson, and deals with how to maintain perfect balance and harmony in one's life. The Doctrine of the Mean focuses on following the Way and acting in accordance with what is right and natural, but acknowledges that people often do not act properly. To rectify the situation, people are encouraged to engage in moral self-cultivation to act properly. In addition, the Doctrine of the Mean emphasizes the fact that the good governance rests with men and that rulers who maintain balance are not only more effective, but also encourage the Way in others. Online translation: A. Charles Muller's translation of the Doctrine of the Mean with commentary.” ||]

Five Classics of Confucianism

Five Classics

Thomas A. Wilson of Hamilton College wrote: 1) “The Book of Documents” is a compilation of 58 chapters detailing the events of ancient China. The Book of Documents tells the deeds of the early sage-kings Yao and Shun. These narratives are influential in the development of the understanding of a sage. The compilation also includes the history of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The Book of Documents is often considered the first narrative history of ancient China.” [Source: Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / ||]

2) “Book of Odes” is “also translated as the Book of Songs or Book of Poetry. The Book of Odes is comprised of 305 poems dealing with a range of issues, including love and marriage, agricultural concerns, daily lives, and war. The Book of Odes contains different categories of poems, including folk songs and hymns used in sacrifice. Kongzi is believed to have selected the 305 poems in this collection from a much wider collection. ||]

3) “Book of Rites” described “the social norms, governmental organization, and the ritual conduct during the Zhou dynasty. Believed to have been compiled by Kongzi, the Book of Rites is the foundation of many ritual principles that arise in later imperial China. According to the Book of Rites, proper ritual conduct would maintain harmony in the empire, as well as emphasize the virtue of piety.” ||]

4) “Book of Changes” contains “a system of divination, which is centered largely around the principles of yin and yang. The Book of Changes has also been translated as I Ching or Classic of Changes. Some of the divination practices are still used today.” ||]

5) “Spring and Autumn Annals”: “As the longest of the Five Classics, the Spring and Autumn Annals is a historical chronicle of the State of Lu. Unlike the Book of Documents, the Spring and Autumn Annals appear to have been created specifically for annalistic purposes. The Spring and Autumn Annals was traditionally understood as being written by Confucius, but modern scholars believe the text was actually written by various chroniclers from the State of Lu.” ||

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Confucius himself regarded the “Book of Songs” and the “Book of History”. as the products of the former sages and authoritative sources of wisdom.” The “Book of Songs”, “a collection of 305 poems of various genres, was probably compiled during the two centuries before Confucius’s birth. The "History" is a very diverse set of “ancient” political documents – dull reading by any standard – that was a principal source for the Confucian version of the records of sages such as Yao, Shun, Yu, and the Zhou Dynasty founders. Confucian students were required to memorize these texts, learn to interpret them according to Confucian doctrines, and also become adept in citing them appropriately in their speech in order to convey ethical points. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Emperor Qin and the Burning of Books

Emperor Qin Shihuang

Emperor Qin (ruled 221-210 B.C.) ordered all books burned except those that praised the emperors (one reason why historical records before the Qin Dynasty are scarce). Among the primary targets of this order were all books associated with the Confucians. Historian Xun Zhou told the BBC: "He got rid of anybody who showed opposition or didn't agree with him. He was paranoid. He was constantly in fear of how he could control this vast new territory with so many cultures and so many different groups of people."

According to the Shiji, Li Si, a top advisor of Emperor Qin, said: “I request that apart from the annals of Qin all the records kept by scribes be burnt. Any in the empire, other than those who hold the office of Erudite, possessing copies of the “Book of Songs”, “Book of Documents”, or the teachings of any of the Hundred Schools should be required to deliver them to their local wardens or commanders in order that they be burnt. Should any person dare to cite the “Poetry” or “Documents”, he should be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who cites precedents from antiquity to criticize present policies should be executed along with his entire family. Any officer with knowledge of such crimes who fails to report them should suffer a similar punishment. Anyone who fails to submit banned works for burning within thirty days of the promulgation of this order should be tattooed as a criminal and sent off to forced labor. Books concerning medicine, divination, and agriculture are to be exempted. Anyone wishing to study laws and statutes shall hereafter be permitted to do so only with an officer of state as his teacher.” [Source: “Shiji” 6.255]

Eno wrote: This proposal, which was clearly directed principally at Confucian defenders of the Zhou system, was approved by the emperor and made law. This is the great Qin burning of the books. There is no doubt that this policy was implemented. The loss of ancient texts through this event is the single most dramatic fact facing scholars of early China. There has been much recent debate over the scope of enforcement of this edict and the nature of its effects, but whatever the outcome of those discussions, the simple fact is that the First Emperor, together with Li Si, the student of a Confucian, attempted to destroy the fundamental traditions of Confucianism and the memory of the Zhou Dynasty and create a new cultural norm that viewed the past as irrelevant and the authority of the reigning emperor the sole standard of value and action. No action in Chinese history better captured the soul of Legalism. /+/

Adoption of the Confucian Classics in the Han Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “Perhaps because of the banning of Confucian texts, when Confucianism did at length reemerge in the” Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) “it appears to have taken a far more bookish form than it had during the Warring States era. It may be that the principal issue for Confucianism during the two decades after the ban on Confucian texts had been the preservation of the written word through oral tradition: rote memorization of texts and their oral explication. This would explain why, once the Confucians were again allowed to speak, teach, and possess the texts of their school, their principal focus was not so much “li”, self-cultivation, or the character of the “junzi”, but was instead a canon of “classical” texts, mastery of which constituted the highest form of Confucian expertise. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Confucianism of the Han did not view the preserved sayings of Confucius as the core of their school. The Confucian masters had come to believe that rather than make his teaching explicit through speech, Confucius had instead “lodged” his message in six books or traditions. The heavenly message of the sage lay in these texts; mastery of Confucianism meant the ability to read the sacred messages out of these texts. This tradition did not begin during the Han. We see traces of it as early as the late fourth century B.C., in the writings of Mencius. But it became the dominant mode of Confucianism only after the early decades of the Han.” /+/

The “classics” that Confucius had edited were originally six in number. They were as follows, listed from the most straightforward to the most arcane: 1) “The Book of Songs”; 2) “The Book of Documents”; 3) “The Rituals”; 4) “The Music”; 5) “The Yi jing”, or “Book of Changes”; 6) “The Spring and Autumn Annals”. The “Music “had apparently been lost by the start of the Han (the name may not have referred to any single text). That left five texts, and these came to be viewed as a canon of sacred books, the “Five Classics.” /+/

Confucius was viewed as having had a different type of relation to each of the five texts. The Han theory of the texts ran as follows: 1) “Confucius selected, ordered, and ordained the proper context for employing the 305 poems in the “Book of Songs”. 2) “Confucius “preserved and explained “the original 100 chapters of the “Book of Documents”. 3) “Confucius “rectified and instituted “the Rituals “– in the case of this one classic, it is unclear whether the early Han Confucians meant by its title a specific text or the entire body of li “that Confucians sought to master. 4) “Confucius “added a final level of commentary “to the “Yi jing”. 5) “Confucius “subtly altered the wording “of the “Spring and Autumn Annals “in order to endow this simple annals with profound meaning. /+/

Eno wrote: “During the early Han, the norm of Confucian scholarship was for an individual Confucian to seek to master one of these five texts so profoundly that he could articulate the authentic Dao that Confucius had either detected or engendered within it. Each text required a special methodology of interpretation (our contemporary term for such an interpretive method is “hermeneutic”). Sometimes, masters of one particular classic might differ on their methodologies and on the way in which they interpreted the classic in which they specialized. In that case, they were said to be teaching different “traditions” of the classic. Early Han Confucianism is well pictured as a population of men, each qualifying as a Confucian by virtue of his mastery of one classic, and each fiercely loyal to the interpretive tradition that his own teacher had passed on to him.” /+/

Where Were The Lost Confucian Texts Found?

bamboo slips from the Qin Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Qin had attempted to destroy most of these texts, allowing only court erudites to possess them. (The “Yi jing”, a divination book, had never been banned; Li Si, knowing the First Emperor’s superstitious nature had exempted such texts from the law.) It is likely that most of the erudites’ copies were destroyed when Xiang Yu sacked and burned the Qin capital city of Xianyang. The ban had continued for over fifteen years after the fall of the Qin. How did these texts survive? Since the “Rituals” may not have actually constituted a written text and the “Yi jing” had never been banned, this question actually applies only to the other three texts. The answers are different in each case. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Rote memorization of the “Book of Songs” had been required of patrician youths for centuries. The poems were metered, rhymed, and brief, generally easy to memorize and to retain. It is likely that the “Poetry” was never, in fact, lost, because even with no written text it would have been so common a possession of former patrician families that daily speech as well as concerted effort would have dictated its continued availability in the minds of a broad range of people. /+/

“The “Book of Documents”, however, was a different matter. Its chapters (a number of which you have encountered in this course) were relatively long and dry and had been composed in a difficult, arcane style. This text was, indeed, lost during the period of banned books. It was recovered only in the early years of Wen-di’s reign, during the 170s B.C., and even then, only 29 chapters were pieced together. /+/

“The recovery of the “Book of Documents” was a celebrated event. Interest in lost Confucian texts first emerged at the Han court about the time that Wen-di took the throne, and it was soon reported to the emperor that there remained only one man in China who still had knowledge of this text, a scholar named Fu Sheng, who lived in Shandong. At the time that Li Si had banned the “Documents”, Fu had been an erudite at the Qin court, and he had hidden a copy of the text in a wall of his home. After the ban was lifted, he had rescued what remained of that copy, which turned out to be only 29 of the original 100 chapters. These he began to transmit orally to students. In the course of doing so, he memorized it perfectly, but lost the written copy for good. /+/

“Wen-di deputed a high officer named Chao Cuo to travel to Shandong to receive from Fu Sheng the transmission of this text, since Fu, who was about ninety years old, was too frail to go to Chang’an. Chao Cuo, who later became prime minister under Jing-di and seems himself to have been principally a Legalist, found Fu, but discovered that the scholar was not only toothless, but the proud possessor of a heavy Shandong accent (tough to understand even today!). Chao Cuo obtained the text, but, we are told, only by enlisting Fu Sheng’s daughter as an interpreter for her father. /+/

“The story is charming, but is so far-fetched and illogical that it cannot be credited (if Fu had been an erudite, he would not have needed to hide the copy, and why on earth had neither he nor his students ever committed the text to writing?). Nevertheless, “something” happened at this time which resulted in our obtaining a 29-chapter version of the “Documents”, and this tale will suffice as well as any other. /+/

“The “Spring and Autumn Annals”, one of the most bizarre texts in any cultural tradition, has something of a different story. We will discuss it in detail in a later section devoted to that text. Like the “Poetry”, it was preserved intact through a strong oral tradition, but in this case, the power of memory that carried the text was a product of neither the text’s poetic quality (it is immaculately dull) nor its widespread familiarity (it was known only to fanatic Confucians). It was preserved through an extremity of reverence which could only be called religious faith in the divinity of its wisdom (though today, almost everyone familiar with it would agree that it possesses no more of that item than a Sears catalogue).” /+/

Discovery of an Ancient Record of the Classics

Bamboo slips from the Qin Dynasty

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, In July 2008, “a precious cargo of muddy bamboo strips arrived at the Old Library at Tsinghua University in Beijing, donated by a graduate who had acquired them in the Hong Kong art market. “When we opened the box it had a bad smell. Moldy. Many were broken," said Li Xueqin, an eminent historian and paleographer at the university. Underneath the hard, impacted mud was something stunning: ancient literary texts, written on the bamboo strips in pure, stable ink. For three months, Mr. Li's team cleaned the slender strips, a difficult job because the very cells of the bamboo were saturated with water, making them as soft as cooked noodles. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

“Inscribed with some of the earliest known texts of the Chinese classics and believed to have been illegally excavated from the tomb of a historian who lived in the state of Chu during the Warring States period, around 300 B.C., the bamboo strips are revolutionizing our understanding of ancient thought and raising issues rooted in the past that feel stunningly contemporary: Is there such a thing as fixed meaning? Is what we think of as truth actually true? Exhortations to cleave to orthodoxy — “Love the Communist Party” and “Study the Classics” — are common in China and often linked, but what, in fact, are the classics? |+|

“In a gauge of the excitement in scholarly and cultural circles, Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based Italian journalist and classically trained scholar, compared the discovery of the manuscripts, and two other similar finds here since 1993, to the rediscovery in Europe of the pre-Christian cultures and values of Greece and Rome. It was this embrace of the classical world that prompted “the fire of Enlightenment” and “helped to free European minds from the fetters of dogmatism, justified by a superficial reading of the Bible, and launched Europe on the path to developing the modern world," Mr. Sisci wrote." |+|

“It's simply extraordinary in its implications, said Mr. Li. “It would be like finding the original Bible or the ‘original’ classics," he said in an interview at Tsinghua, as the inscribed bamboo strips lay in boxes of distilled water in a cool room on a floor above us. “It enables us to look at the classics before they were turned into ‘classics." The questions now include, what were they in the beginning, and how did they become what they became?” he asked. It's important to know that about 100 years after the texts were buried, the first Qin emperor conducted a “literary holocaust” in China...He ordered books burned and banned private libraries, shaping the intellectual tradition for thousands of years by standardizing the written Chinese language. That required all texts to be rewritten, during which unwelcome theories were discarded. |+|

“Could the strips be fakes? The complex way in which the content connects to existing texts, the historical detail and physical condition rule that out, according to experts who include some of China's leading paleographers and intellectual historians. Mr. Li's team at Tsinghua carbon-dated them to 305 B.C., plus or minus 30 years. “They were so saturated with water, to 400 percent, when we got them," said Liu Guozhong, a member of the Tsinghua team. Offering a homely analogy, he said, “It's like boiling noodles. You can't make over-boiled noodles without spending the time boiling them."|+|

Contents of the Tsinghua Texts—the Ancient Record of the Classics

The Art of War on ancient bamboo slips

The Tsinghua texts — as the discovered classic texts are now called—total about 2,500 bamboo strips, including fragments, which are up to 46 centimeters, or 18 inches, long. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “The Tsinghua manuscripts and the two other collections, also dated from around 300 B.C. (one excavated from the historical Chu state area of Hubei Province, while the other was bought on the Hong Kong art market), together include: The earliest known copy of the “I Ching," the ancient book of divination; hitherto unknown poems from “The Book of Songs”; texts attributed to Confucius that are not found in later renditions of “The Analects”; the oldest version of Laozi's “Dao De Jing," or “The Taoist Book of the Way” (with many differences from later editions); and previously unknown chapters of “The Book of Documents," the Confucian history classic of speeches about good governance by model kings, which carried great political significance. This work would become a target for destruction by later rulers. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, July 10, 2013 |+|]

Sarah Allan, a scholar of ancient China at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, told the New York Times the Tsinghua texts challenge Chinese culture as the country seeks to present itself as different from the West. “These manuscripts provide much entirely new information about the formative period of Chinese thought just at a time of renewed interest in what it means to be Chinese," she wrote. By predating that censorship, the bamboo strips show us the true core of China's philosophical, literary and historical thought, Ms. Allan said. |+|

“The particular significance of these three groups of manuscripts lies in the date at which they were buried," she wrote. “300 B.C. was the height of China's Axial Age, that is, it was in the middle of the period in which the core ideas of the Chinese intellectual tradition took form," she wrote. “These manuscripts speak directly to the core issues of the Chinese intellectual tradition and were recorded at the height of the formative period." They include a description of a popular, alternative political system to the dynastic rule that dominated for thousands of years — the “abdication of the good to the good as the best means of political succession," Ms. Allan wrote. A ruler would retire from office and hand power to a deserving person, who could in theory be anyone. “This idea of abdication as a means of political succession was too threatening to later dynasties to survive," she wrote.



The principal source for the thought of Confucius is a text known as “The Analects of Confucius”. “Analects” means brief sayings or literary fragments. The original Chinese title meant “collated sayings”. Confucius reportedly compiled the sayings, aphorism, maxims and episodes that make up The Analects during his retirement. But this seems unlikely. The 20 chapters and 497 verses of The Analects were unknown until 300 years after his death. More likely they were compiled by his disciples and written down by other people. Confucius himself once said he merely "transmitted" what was taught to him "without making anything up" on his own. The first half of The Analects is stylistically and thematically very different from the second half. University of Southern California historian John Wills Jr. told Atlantic Monthly, "We have known for a long time that some of the later parts of the book are suspect. After Chapter Ten or Twelve you get a lot of fishy Taoist stuff."

Dr. Eno wrote: Each chapters is “composed of a series of sayings in an order which sometimes seems cogent, but more often seems random. The text is clearly a conjoining of several smaller texts that were put together over several centuries by Confucius’s disciples and subsequent followers. It is extremely difficult to ascertain which portions of the text reliably report what Confucius actually said and did, and which belong instead to a body of legend that grew around the figure of Confucius after his death. The confusing form of the text and the mysteries of its origins add to its aura of sanctity and make it one of the most exciting texts in the world (it is extremely common for Westerners to find the text simplistic and dull on first reading, and profound and moving after many readings). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Confucius is sometimes pictured in conversation with various powerful patricians in his home state of Lu and elsewhere, but most often with his students, who are generally believed to have begun to compile this collection son after the Master’s death. Among the most famous of these disciples are the humble but brilliant Yan Yuan (or Yan Hui), the impetuous Zilu, the diplomat Zigong, and the scholarly Zixia. These aphorisms and snippets of conversation reflect the fresh but unsystematic teachings of the earliest Confucians. /+/

“The convention in citing the “Analects” is to record after each selection the number of the chapter and passage within the chapter of each isolated saying or story, and we will follow that convention here... It should be understood that whenever you read a phrase such as “Confucius said,” or “Confucius believed,” what is meant is that the Confucius we see in the “Analects” asserts these things. Whether the “historical” Confucius made precisely the same assertions is not possible to determine and, in any event, it is the Confucius of the “Analects” whose influence became so great.” /+/

“Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”“ /+/

Book of Songs

Book of Odes on bamboo slips

The Classic of Poetry, also Shijing or Shih-ching, translated variously as the Book of Songs, Book of Odes, or simply known as the Odes or Poetry is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, dating from the 11th to 7th centuries B.C.. It is 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. [Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The “Classic of Odes” (also known as the “Book of Songs”) is a compilation of popular and aristocratic songs dating from the early Zhou period. The popular songs are said to have been collected on the orders of the early Zhou kings as a way of gauging the feelings of their subjects. Thus, even the songs that are thought to have their roots in folk songs and poetry are likely to have been modified by a scholarly official and may not be in their original form. Nonetheless, the songs give us a rich and varied view of the lives and concerns of commoners and of the elite of the Zhou dynasty. The compilation had taken on roughly the form that we see today by 544 B.C.. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Tradition has it that the “Classic of Odes” was edited by Confucius, who chose the poems carefully for the moral lessons contained therein. There is noevidence that Confucius actually did this, but it is significant to realize that the odes were read and interpreted withina Confucian moral framework.

Selections from the "Book of Songs" can be found in "Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century", edited by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1965) and "The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces", One Volume, Expanded Edition, edited by Maynard Mack (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995)

Spring and Autumn Annals

Dr. Eno wrote: “The “Spring and Autumn Annals” is, basically, the court chronicle of the Zhou Dynasty state of Lu, from 722 B.C. to 481 B.C. It is brief, not very informative, and inconsistent in its choice of events to note. A typical entry might read, “Autumn; eighth month; locusts.” The chronicles recount happenings in the state of Lu, and in other states as reported to Lu. Years are arranged according to the reigns of the various dukes of Lu. The chronicle begins in the first year of the reign of Duke Yin, and ends abruptly in the fourteenth year of the reign of Duke Ai. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Spring and Autumn Annals

“The “Annals” is one of the foremost classics of the Confucian tradition, and the most fundamental split in Confucian ideology, occurring during the second century A.D., focused on differing interpretations of the “Annals”. “Why? At a very early date, prior to the composition of the “Mencius”, c. 300 B.C., the tradition arose that the “Annals” had at some time fallen into the hands of Confucius who modestly edited them to bring out their “meaning.” An understanding of the editorial process, it was claimed, could reveal to readers the most profound wisdom pertaining to government and history. Mencius said that when Confucius edited the “Annals”, “corrupt ministers and lawless sons were in terror”: their iniquity had been revealed. /+/

“The likelihood of this being true is infinitesimally small. But an oral commentary tradition arose which made every effort to reveal the subtle editorial process which Confucius had used and extract from the chronicles the Sage’s message. Two major branches of the tradition had developed by the early Han: the commentary tradition of “Mr. Guliang” and that of “Mr. Gongyang.” The two are very much alike. /+/

“The “Annals” is an “empty text”; there are not subtle meanings in the chronicle. But in the conviction that meaning did exist, Gongyang commentators during the Han developed arcane interpretive techniques which allowed them to read into the text a revolutionary doctrine. The essence of that doctrine was that kings and emperors ruled by no divine right of inheritance, but solely on the basis of their virtue. If their virtue were insufficient, they had no right of rule, regardless of whether or not they managed to hold onto power. This message is in sharp contrast to the notion that Han Confucians all celebrated unqualifiedly the rule of the Han kings. The New Text tradition was, in fact, anti-Imperial, endorsing “only “Sage Kings: it is no wonder it went underground. /+/

“The Gongyang commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” has come down to us in an edition dating from the mid-second century A.D. It includes three levels of text: the annals, the commentary of Mr.Gongyang (supposedly dating from the third century B.C. and certainly not later than the early second century B.C.), and the sub-commentary of one He Xiu, a disciple of the Gongyang tradition who died c. A.D. 175. /+/

Versions of the Classics

rightTang: Imperial Edition (653): Correct Meaning of the Five Classics (Wujing zhengyi), Ed. Kong Yingda, et al.; Mao Odes, Mao Heng (3rd c. B.C.) edition; Record of Rites, Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition; Book of Documents, Kong Anguo (156-174?) edition; Zhou Changes, Wang Bi (226-249) edition; Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, Du Yu (222-284) edition. [Source: Thomas A. Wilson, Hamilton College, the Cult of Confucius: Images of the Temple of Culture / ]

Tang-Song: Nine Classics (Jiujing): Mao Odes (Mao shi), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition; Record of Rites (Li ji), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition; Rites of Zhou (Zhou li), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition; Ceremonial Rites (Yi li), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition; Ancient Text Book of Documents (Guwen shangshu), Kong Anguo (156-174?) edition; Zhou Changes (Zhou yi), Wang Bi (226-249) edition; Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan), Du Yu (222-284) edition; Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan), He Xiu (129-182) edition; Guliang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Guliang zhuan), Fan Ning (339-401) edition.

Yuan: The Four Books and Five Classics: Analects (Lunyu zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) edition; Mencius (Mengzi zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition; Great Learning (Daxue zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition; Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition; Basic Meaning of the Zhou Changes (Zhouyi benyi), Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi edition; Collected Commentaries on the Book of Documents (Shujing jizhuan), Cai Shen (1167-1230) edition; Collected Commentaries on the Odes (Shijing jizhuan), Zhu Xi edition; Collected Explanations on the Record of Rites (Liji jishuo), Chen Hao (fl. Yuan dynasty) edition; Three Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu sanzhuan), Hu Anguo (1074-1138) edition.

Ming: Imperial Edition (1415): Great Collection of the Four Books and Five Classics (Wujing sishu daquan), Ed. Hu Guang, et al.; Four Books: Ni Shiyi edition; Change: Dong Zhenqing, Zhouyi huitong; Hu Yigui, Zhouyi benyi; Hu Bingwen Zhouyi benyi tongshi Odes: Zhu Xi, Shijing jizhuan; Documents: Chen Li, Shangshu jizuan; Chen Shikai, Shu Caizhuan pangtong; Rites: Chen Hao, Liji jishuo; Spring and Autumn Annals: Wang Kekuan, Chunqiu zuanshu; Li Lian, Chunqiu zhuzhuan huitong.

Qing: Commentaries on the Thirteen Classics (1797), Shisan jing zhushu Ed. Ruan Yuan: Zhou Changes (Zhouyi), Wang Bi (226-249) edition; Book of Documents (Shangshu zhengyi), Kong Yingda (574-648) edition; Mao Odes (Maoshi zhengyi), Kong Yingda) edition; Record of Rites (Liji zhengyi), Kong Yingda edition; Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), Jia Gongyan (fl. 655) edition; Ceremonial Rites (Yili), Jia Gongyan (fl. 655) edition; Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Gongyang Zuozhuan), He Xiu (129-182) edition; Guliang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Guliang Zuozhuan), Fan Ning (339-401) edition; Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan), Du Yu (222-284) edition; Analects (Lunyu zhushu jiejing), He Yan (d. 249) edition; Filial Piety (Xiaojing zhengyi), Xing Bing (932-1010) edition; Erya (Erya shu), Xing Bing edition; Mencius (Mengzi zhushu jiejing), Sun Shi (962-1033) edition.

Study of the Chinese Classics

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““In the Chinese cultural tradition, scholars of the canons generally refer to those with considerable attainment in researching the classics associated with Confucianism. The main objective in the studies of these scholars is to absorb the essence of thought from the Classics and apply it to daily life in the hope of benefiting the state and its people. The category of the Chinese Classics, in addition to its traditional focus on the Four Books and Five Classics that comprise the main texts of Confucianism, was expanded continuously by scholars over the ages, with their methods of cultivation reaching a high point by the Qing dynasty. Having extensive and well-documented evidence at their disposal, scholars at that time increasingly touched on other related fields, such as history, language and etymology, Bronze and Stone studies, and geography, forming a solid and complementary system of study. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Lost Version of Analects Possibly Unearthed

In 2016, archaeologists announced that they had possibly found a Qi version of the "Analects of Confucius" among over 5,000 bamboo slips unearthed from the 2,000-year-old Haihunhou Tombs in Nanchang City, the capital of east China's Jiangxi Province. CRI English reported: The Analects are supposed to have been compiled and written by Confucius' followers. Written during the Warring States period (475 BC–221 BC), it has three versions, including an "ancient" version in 21 chapters, a state of Qi version in 22 chapters and a Lu version in 20 chapters. [Source: CRI English, September 9, 2016]

“According to historical records, the Qi version of the Analects was lost during the Han and Wei periods, some 1,800 years ago. “If the finding from the tomb is confirmed as the Chapter Divisions contained in the Qi version, it will be a milestone discovery for the academia both at home and abroad. However, Xin Lixiang, leader of the Haihunhou Tombs' archaeological team, pointed out that the conclusion can only be fully reached after interpreting the bamboo slip in simplified version along with further research works. He explained, after the stripping procedure, the team is now solidifying the slip, which is expected to be complete by the end of this year. As the slip shows signs of rotting, experts should identify the ambiguous characters on it with the help of infrared scanning to accomplish the interpretation.

“Dating back to the Western Han Dynasty, the Haihunhou Tombs are thought to belong to the aristocrat Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wu, which covers roughly 40,000 square meters and contains eight tombs and a burial site for chariot-pulling horses. More than 20,000 items including gold coins, bamboo slips and bronze wares have been unearthed from the tomb of since the excavation began in 2011.

Image Sources: Texts, Palace Museum, Taipei ; Moral Sayings, Yale University Library ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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