Since the beginning of the historic period the Chinese have held the traditions handed down from antiquity with deep awe and reverence. Works traditionally accepted as the heritage of ancient times long preceded Confucius (551–479 b.c.e.) but are nonetheless called the Confucian Classics.
The Five Confucian Classics are the most revered canonical works of the classics. They are
- Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Changes
- Shu Jing (Shu Ching), or Book of History or Documents
- Shi Jing (Shih Ching), or Book of Odes or Poetry
- Li Jing (Li Ching), or Li Ji (Li Chi), or Book of Rites
- Qunqiu (Ch’un-ch’iu), or Annals of Spring and Autumn
Confucius is the author of the Annals of Spring and Autumn. All others are collections of ancient documents that tradition says were edited and compiled by Confucius and his disciples.
The Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, is a collection of short texts that give clues to interpreting the results of divination cast by priests by means of tortoise shells and milfoil stalks on orders from kings of the Shang dynasty (c. 1700–c. 1122 b.c.e.).
According to tradition, Confucius wrote a number of “wings” to these texts that elaborate on their interpretations and explain their significance. Modern historians attribute the “wings” to eras later than Confucius.
The Shu Jing, or Book of History, is a compilation of short documents. They are announcements, speeches, manifestos, and reports by ancient rulers and their ministers, beginning from the mythical ideal kings Yao, Shun, and Yu down to the early Zhou (Chou) dynasty (c. 1122–256 b.c.e.). Confucius, who also wrote introductions to the documents to explain their significance, supposedly edited them.
Modern historians think that while the Zhou documents are authentic, ones attributed to earlier eras were written much later. The Shi Jing, or Book of Poetry, is an anthology of 300 poems. Some were folk songs, while others were songs used by leaders for ceremonies. They date to the early Zhou period and were reputedly selected and edited by Confucius.
The Li Jing, or Book of Rites, is a varied collection that includes rules on the organization of the Zhou government, a code of conduct for lords and gentlemen, and rules for important events in life such as weddings, funerals, and sacrifices. The Duke of Zhou (Chou), a founding father of the Zhou dynasty, was supposedly the author of many of the documents in this classic. Again, Confucius is credited with selecting and editing the documents.
The Qunqiu, or Annals of Spring and Autumn, is a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722–481 b.c.e. and was compiled by Confucius, who came from that state. The book is important because through his choice of words Confucius gave his moral judgment of the persons and events that were chronicled.
When Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty made Confucianism China’s official ideology around 110 b.c.e., the Five Classics gained the status of canonical works. Great Han scholars worked on publishing an official version and officially endorsed interpretation. Students studied them and official examinations that recruited government officials were based on them, producing an educated elite in Chinese society for the next 2,000 years that were welded in the same tradition.
More than a thousand years after their canonization, during the Song (Sung) dynasty (960–1279 c.e.) there was a great movement to reexamine and reinterpret Confucianism. It was called Neo-Confucianism. A leader of this movement was Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), who lived between 1130–1200. Zhu encouraged the study of four additional texts. The Four Books are
- Lunyu (Lun-yu), or Analects of Confucius. A collection of Confucius’s conversations and activities recorded and compiled by his students after his death. It consists of 20 chapters. They give clues to his character and ideals. For example: “Confucius said: ‘At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I was firmly established. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, I was ready to listen to it. At seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing what was right.’”
- Mengzi (Meng Tzu), or Book of Mencius. It is a compilation of the writings of Mencius (372–289 b.c.e.), who was honored as the second sage of the Confucian school, second only to the master.
- Daxue (Ta-hsueh), or Great Learning
- Zhongyong (Chung-yung), or Doctrine of the Mean
The Five Classics and Four Books are the most revered books in China. They are also essential in Japan and Korea, countries that adopted the fundamental ideals of Chinese civilization.