Chinese classics

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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 , s , jīng, lit. "warp").[1]

Chinese classic texts may more broadly refer to texts written either in vernacular Chinese or in the classical Chinese that was current until the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. These can include shi (, historical works), zi (, 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 (, literary works) as well as jing (Chinese medicine).

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Four Books and Five Classics were the subject of mandatory study by those Confucian scholars who wished to take the imperial exams 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 then went on to memorize the other classics. The literate elite therefore shared a common culture and set of values.

Scholarship on these texts naturally divides itself into two periods, before and after the burning of the books during the fall of the Qin dynasty, when many of the original pre-Qin texts were lost.[1]

Before 221 BC[edit]

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 passed down orally for generations before being written down, so the order of composition of the texts need not be the same as that of their attributed "authors".[2]

The below list is therefore organized in the order 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.

Classics branch[edit]

Title Description
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.[3]
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.

History branch[edit]

Title Description
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

Philosophy branch[edit]

Title Description
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.
Deng Xizi Fragment
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.
Huangdi Neijing
Nan Jing
Yuzi Fragment
Mozi Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Mozi.
Yinwenzi Fragment
Shenzi Attributed to Shen Dao. It originally consisted of ten volumes and forty-two chapters, of which all but seven chapters have been lost.
Gongsun longzi
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 and myths from various locations[citation needed].
Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven
Dao De Jing Attributed to Laozi.
Guan Yinzi Fragment
The Liezi (or Classic of the Perfect Emptiness) Attributed to Lie Yukou.
Zhuangzi Attributed to the philosopher of the same name, Zhuangzi.


Title Description
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.

The Thirteen Classics[edit]

The most important pre-Qin works that later became the official curriculum of the imperial examination system from the Song dynasty onward are the Thirteen Classics. This is a slightly different organization of the works of the Classics branch. 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.

After 206 BC[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Voorst, Robert E. Van (2007). Anthology of World Scriptures. Cengage Learning. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-495-50387-3.
  2. ^ Cambridge History of Ancient China chapter 11
  3. ^ "Detailed List 19-24 - lawpark's JimdoPage!". 2014-01-27. Retrieved 2014-04-30.

Further reading[edit]

  • Yong, Rong (2016). Siku Quanshu Jianming Mulu 四庫全書簡明目錄. Shanghai Kexue Jishu Wenxian Chubanshe.
  • Endymion Wilkinson. Chinese History: A New Manual. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. New Edition; Second, Revised printing March 2013). ISBN 9780674067158 ISBN 0674067150. See esp. pp. 365– 377, Ch. 28, "The Confucian Classics."

External links[edit]

Traditional Chinese[edit]

Simplified Chinese[edit]