An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

jing 經, the Confucian Classics

Jun 10, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The Confucian Classics is a canon of important writings on the teachings of the philosopher Confucius (Kongzi 孔子). Authorship was partially attribtued to Confucius himself, especially the so-called Five Classics (wujing 五經). In fact, only a small part of the whole canon dates from the time in which Confucius lived, which was called the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). Parts of the "Book of Documents", the "Book of Songs", the "Book of Changes" and the "Spring and Autumn Annals" existed already before the time of Confucius. But the main part of the corpus was written or at least compiled during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), when Confucianism became the official state philosophy and thinking.

The books of the canon are divided in the Wujing 五經 "Five Canonical Works", including the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", the Shangshu 尚書 (also known as Shujing 書經) "Book of Documents", the Shijing 詩經 (or Maoshi 毛詩) "Book of Poetry" , the Liji 禮記 "Records of Rites" and the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" (the Chunqiu is in most cases combined with the so-called "Commentary" by Zuo Qiuming 左丘明, the Zuozhuan 左傳), and the Sishu 四書 "Four Books", including the teachings of the four philosophers Kongzi 孔子 (the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects"), his disciple Zeng Shen 曾參 (the Daxue 大學 "Great Learning"), Kong Ji 孔伋, a grandson of Confucius (the Zhongyong 中庸 "Doctrine of the Mean"), and the book Mengzi 孟子 that includes the teachings of the philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻.

Table 1. The Five Classics (wujing 五經)
易經 (周易) Yijing (Zhouyi) "The Book of Changes"
尚書 (書經) Shangshu (Shujing) "The Book of Dokuments"
詩經 (毛詩) Shijing (Maoshi) "The Book of Songs"
禮記 Liji "Records of Rites"
春秋左傳 Chunqiu-Zuozhuan "The Spring and Autumn Annals" and Zuo's Commentary
Table 2. The Four Books (sishu 四書)
孟子 Mengzi "Master Meng"
論語 Lunyu "The Confucian Analects"
中庸) Zhongyong "The Doctrine of the Mean"
(part of Liji 禮記)
大學 Daxue "The Great Learning"
(part of Liji 禮記)

The Six Classics

Traditional texts speak of the "Six Classics" (liujing 六經 or liuyi 六藝) that consist of the Five Classics listead above and a classical book about music that has vanished. This book about music might now be part of the Liji as the chapter Yueji 樂記 "Records of Music". If it ever existed as a separated classic is not sure. Other interpretations say that the term Liujing has to be understood as the "Six Arts" (like the middle-age artes liberales): the Shangshu representing royal speeches, the Chunqiu representing historiography, the Shijing representing poetry, the Yijing divining, the Liji (or Yili) representing rituals, and finally the Yueji as the ars musica.

The Nine Classics

Later scholars count nine Canonical Works (jiujing 九經) that add four books to the Five Classics, namely some other writings on rites and etiquette, the Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou" and the Yili 儀禮 "Etiquette and Rites", as well as two early Han period commentaries to the "Spring and Autumn Annals", the Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 commentary by Gongyang Gao 公羊高, and the Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳 commentary by Guliang Xi 穀梁喜.

The Thirteen Classics

During the reign of Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649) of the Tang period 唐 (618-907), the "smaller classics" were added and thus formed the corpus of the Thirteen Confucian Classics (shisanjing 十三經). The smaller classics are the Xiaojing 孝經 "Book on Filial Piety", the Lunyu, the Mengzi, the "Doctrine of the Mean", the "Great Learning", and the semantical dictionary Erya 爾雅. Not counting the "Doctrine of the Mean" and the "Great Learning", because they are both part of the Liji, the canon of thirteen classics is full.

The first scholar screen, collect and compile the classical books were the Han period scholars Liu Xiang 劉向 and his son Liu Xin 劉歆. Xin composed a catalogue of existing writings of the six literary categories, the Liuyilüe 六藝略. This catalogue lists many different versions of one single classic and thus shows how complicate it was to find out the orthodox version of a text and to what quarrels it eventually led. The books that were written on bamboo slips have been partially destroyed by war and other catastrophs. Until the end of the Han period, the orthodox version had won through and was cut into slabs of stone in 175 CE (the so-called Xiping Stone Classics 熹平石經) under Emperor Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-188). A second cutting was undertaken during the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) on order of the child emperor Cao Fang 曹芳 (r. 239-254) in 245 AD (the Zhengshi Stone Classics 正始石經). On the Zhengshi stone slabs, the text of the classics was incised in three different forms of characters. The third stone cutting (Kaicheng Stone Classics 開成石經) was made in 836 CE under the supervision of Emperor Wenzong 唐文宗 (r. 826-840).

Table 3. The Three Ritual Classics (sanli 三禮)
周禮 Zhouli "Rites of the Zhou"
儀禮 Yili "Rites and Ceremonies"
禮記 Liji "Records of Rites"
Table 4. The Canonized Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Classics (Chunqiu sanzhuan 春秋三傳)
春秋左傳 Chunqiu-Zuozhuan "The Spring and Autumn Annals" and Zuo's Commentary
公羊傳 Gongyangzhuan "Gongyang's Commentary"
穀梁傳 Guliangzhuan "Guliang's Commentary"

The Confucian Classics had a position among Chinese literature like the bible has in the West. Scholars attempting to graduate in the state examinations had to learn, to explain and to exegete the most important of these books. For the Confucian society, these classical writings contained the basic knowledge for the state system as well as for the conduct at home.

The following table gives an overview of the Classics and some writings that belong to the same field of interest like the classics but are not included in the canon (here called sub-classics):

Table 5. The Thirteen Classics (shisanjing 十三經)
易經 (周易) Yijing (Zhouyi) "The Book of Changes"
尚書 (書經) Shangshu (Shujing) "The Book of Dokuments"
詩經 (毛詩) Shijing (Maoshi) "The Book of Songs"
周禮 Zhouli "Rites of the Zhou"
儀禮 Yili "Rites and Ceremonies"
禮記 Liji "Records of Rites"
春秋左傳 Chunqiu-Zuozhuan "The Spring and Autumn Annals" and Zuo's Commentary
公羊傳 Gongyangzhuan "Gongyang's Commentary"
穀梁傳 Guliangzhuan "Guliang's Commentary"
孝經 Xiaojing "The Book of Filial Piety"
孟子 Mengzi "Master Meng"
論語 Lunyu "The Confucian Analects"
爾雅 Erya The Erya Glossary

The new text and old text schools

The difference between the so-called old texts and the new texts of the Confucian Classics developed at the end of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). Until that date there was only one tradition which operated with a text corpus of Confucian Classics which was transmitted first more or less orally and then written down in the second century BCE in the then usual chancery script (lishu 隸書). Only with the discovery of older texts written in the seal script (zhuanshu 篆書) during the first century BCE Confucian scholars began making a difference between the new texts used until that date (jinwen 今文) and the old texts (guwen 古文) newly discovered.

In the mid-Former Han period, when Confucianism was made state doctrine and the government appointed experts or erudites (boshi 博士) for individual texts, a variety of alternative texts were available for most of the Confucian Classics.

The Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" was available in three different versions.

Table 6. Former Han period versions of the Shijing
Lu 魯 version transmitted by Shen Pei 申培 (Shen Gong 申公)
Qi 齊 version transmitted by Master Yuan Gu 轅固生
Han 韓 version transmitted by Han Ying 韓嬰

For the Qi and Han versions professors were already appointed during the reign of Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE), a professor for the Qi version only during the reign of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE).

The Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" was likwise transmitted in three versions.

Table 7. Former Han period versions of the Shangshu
Master Ouyang 歐陽氏
Xiahou Sheng 夏侯勝 (Xiahou Senior 大夏侯)
Xiahou Jian 夏侯建 (Xiahou Junior 小夏侯)

All three versions were transmitted by Fu Sheng 伏勝. A professorship for the Ouyang version was founded under the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE), such for the two versions of Xiahou father and son during the reign of Emperor Xuan 漢宣帝 (r. 74-49 BCE).

Of the ritual classics there were likewise three versions transmitted

Table 8. Former Han period versions of the "Rites"
Dai De 戴德 (Dai Senior 大戴)
Dai Sheng 戴聖 (Dai Junior 小戴)
Qing Pu 慶普

All versions were handed down by Gaotang Sheng 高堂生. Emperor Wu set up a professorship for the ritual classic, and the discipline was divided into the field of Dai Sen. and that of the Dai Jun. rituals. If a professorship for the Qing Pu version was set up is not known.

The Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" was transmitted in four different versions, all four handed down by Tian He 田何.

Table 9. Former Han period versions of the Yijing
Shi Chou 施讎
Meng Xi 孟喜
Liangqiu He 梁丘賀
Jing Fang 京房

Emperor Wu set up a general professorship for the Yijing, Emperor Xuan had them divided into three, and the Jing Fang version was only given a professorship during the reign of Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE), but this is not sure.

The Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 commentary to the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" was transmitted by Yan Pengzu 嚴彭祖 and Yan Anle 顔安樂. They had been handed down by Master Humu 胡毋生 and Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒. Emperor Wu set up one professorship, Emperor Xuan one for both versions each. The Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳 commentary had been transmitted by Master Jiang from Xiaqiu 瑕丘江公, and it is not known if there was a professorship for it. It might also have been that the Guliangzhuan was an old text classic.

The scholarly approach of the new text school was to use the classics with a practical purpose in government and social behaviour. It was deeply influenced by correlative thinking which saw Yin and Yang 陰陽 and the Five Processes (wuxing 五行) acting in nature, society and government. Minuscule events and statements were therefore interpreted as of enormous meaning and influence. Everything was seen as interconnected and centered on the ruler. Terms and names were seen as crucial points in the whole universal system. It was especially the teachings of Dong Zhongshu that were held in high esteem. His book Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露 "Rich dew of Spring and Autumn" is therefore treated as a semi-classic.

The new text philosophers saw Confucius as a politician who compiled or at least processed the texts of the Five Classics (wujing 五經) with the intention to use paradigms from history to enlighten the rulers and their ministers of the present. It was especially the Chunqiu Annals and the commentaries Gongyangzhuan and Guliangzhuan of which each single word and sentence was interpreted as a political critique (baobian 褒貶 "praise and blame") of historical events. The mentioning of the personal name of a feudal ruler, for instance, was an expression of his virtue, and the omission of a feudal title was seen as a criticism. The interpreters of the new text school saw a great meaning in each single word. When the power of the central government and that of the emperor declined in the later part of the Former Han dynasty the new text interpretations lost their attraction and the apocryphal interpretations (chenwei 讖緯) were en mode.

It was only during the 18th century that Confucian scholars again were interested in the study of the new text interpretations of the Confucian Classics. The most important new text researchers of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) is the so-called Changzhou Study Group 常州學派 under Zhuang Cunyu 莊存與, Zhuang Shuzu 莊述祖, Liu Banglu 劉逢禄 and Song Xiangfeng 宋翔鳳, as well as Wei Yuan 魏源, Gong Zizhen 龔自珍, Liao Ping 廖平, Pi Xirui 皮錫瑞 and Kang Youwei 康有為.

In the first third of the Former Han period more and more versions of Confucian classics were dug out from different sources: From hidings in the walls of the manour of the family Kong (Kongbi 孔壁) that was destroyed when Liu Yu 劉餘, Prince Gong of Lu 魯恭王, enlarged his palace, from secret libraries, or from among the populace that submitted texts to Liu De 劉德, Prince Xian of Hejian 河間獻王. Those were the old texts with the following versions:

The Yijing by Fei Zhi 費直, the old-text "Documents" (Guwen Shangshu 古文尚書), the "Songs" by Mao (Maoshi 毛詩), the so-called "lost rites" (Yili 逸禮) and the "Rites of the Zhou" (Zhouli), and the Zuozhuan 左傳 as a parallel version of the Chunqiu annals. While the new texts were more oriented to the present, the old texts were focused on a more interpretive or even philological approach, without the large theoretical framework that tried to bind together the new texts. For this reason the old text school produced a lot of philological work, like the Erya 爾雅 thesaurus and the character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字.

The old text interpretors saw the Duke of Zhou 周公 as the first Saint (xiansheng 先聖), Confucius as the foremost teacher (xianshi 先師), according to his own words that he only transmitted and did not compile new books (shu er bu zuo 述而不作). The Confucian Classics were seen as historiographical material and not as an advice for the reform of society or government. Old text interpreters also refrained from seeking a deeper meaning behind each single word, as the new text interpreters did. Likewise, old text philosophers did not see a direct correlation between human and especially the ruler's behaviour and a Celestial response in the shape of omina and portents.

During the reign of Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7 -1 BCE) the scholar Liu Xin 劉歆 suggested setting up professorships for the old texts and thus initiated the competitive atmosphere of the Confucian texts. Liu's argument against the prevailing new text tradition was that their base was not complete, wrong or defective, and advocated the use of the purportedly more reliable old texts. The academic dispute between the two school should last for the next two hundred years. During the usurpation of Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE), who preferred the old texts, professorships for the old texts were finally set up, including one for the lost (?) classic of music (Yuejing 樂經).

When he was overthrown and the Han dynasty refounded Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE) reestablished the fourteen professorships of the new text school. But he also had - at least for a certain time - established a chair for the old text Zuozhuan. This was also done by Emperor Zhang 漢章帝 (r. 75-88) who established chairs for the Gongyangzhuan and Guliangzhuan, the Zuozhuan, Guwen Shangshu and the Maoshi. Famous old text scholars were Yang Xiong 揚雄, and also Huan Tan 桓譚 and Wang Chong 王充 who initiated a philosophy of realism that did away with the theories of correlation and apocryphal interpretations of the Classics. Under the scholar Jia Kui 賈逵 the old text school won more and more ground and produced famous teachers as Fu Qian 服虔, Ma Rong 馬融 and Zheng Xuan 鄭玄. These were able to gradually merge the interpretations and focal points of the two schools with the result that at the end of the Later Han period the antagonisms of the two schools had disappeared. Scholars of that time, like Zhou Fang 周防 or Lu Zhi 盧植, are not any more clearly classifiable as belonging to one school or the other.

During the late 18th and early 19th century the philological interpretation (kaozhengxue 考證學) of the Confucian Classics according to the old text school was revived by the so-called Qian-Jia school 乾嘉學派. Their discipline of studies of the Han period old text writings is also called Hanxue 漢學. The most important scholars of the old text traditions are Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 and Liu Shipei 劉師培.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 4, 14-17.
Wang Xuhua 王煦華 (1992). "Jing jin-gu wenxue 經今古文學", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 489-90.