Creation of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Wujing, or Five Classics, which becomes the foundation for classical Chinese scholarship and statecraft, is purportedly compiled by Confucius and passed down to his disciples.

Summary of Event

The rujia, or school of literati, commonly referred to as Confucianism in the West, has been a dominant force in Chinese political and social thought for more than two millennia. Centered on the teachings of Confucius and the Wujing (Five Classics), Confucianism serves as far more than a religion or philosophical tradition. In fact, many scholars dispute whether it can actually be referred to as a religion. Although Confucianism contains certain elements that lend themselves to such a characterization, such as sacrifices to Heaven and ancestor veneration, the scope of its impact on Chinese—and East Asian civilization as a whole—goes far beyond its religious practices. Without exaggeration, it is fair to say that the tradition represents and embodies a unique way of life and a traditional system of values. It has affected the religious, philosophical, political, social, ethical, and cultural values of countless millions, and although it is no longer the dominant force it once was, Confucianism continues to demand the attention of philosophers, diplomats, and theoreticians. Confucius

As scholar William de Bary wrote in Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960),

>If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last two thousand years, the word could be “Confucian.” No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a transmitter, teacher and creative interpreter of the ancient culture and literature and as a molder of the Chinese mind and character.

The primary literary vehicle for the transmission of the Confucian tradition has been the group of texts known as the Wujing, or the Five Classics. In customary order, the Five Classics are: the Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), Shijing (compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937), Shujing (compiled after first century b.c.e.; English translation in The Chinese Classics, Vol. 5, Parts 1 and 2, 1872; commonly know as Classic of History), Liji (compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), and Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals). A sixth text, the Yue Jing (book of music), is thought to have originally been included in this grouping, but it was lost before or during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.), perhaps as a result of the Qin emperor’s decree that all Confucian texts were to be burned (213 b.c.e.). Thus, the earliest mention of these texts as a set comes in the Daoist work, the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e., probably compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), which describes five classics: “Confucius told Laozi, ‘I have labored on the Shi, Shu, Li, Yue and Chunqiu for a long time.’” The Zhuangzi also characterizes the works in this way: “The Shi describes aims; the Shu describes events; the Li describes conduct; the Yue secures harmony; the Yi shows the principles of yin and yang; the Chunqiu shows distinctions and duties.”

Based in part on the work of the Han historian Sima Qian (145-86 b.c.e.), tradition has ascribed the texts to the hand, or editorial efforts, of Confucius himself. After the fall of the Qin and ascendancy of the new Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), the texts became the foundation and source of ideological unity for the governmental bureaucracy. After the Han, and in particular following Emperor Wu (r. 154-87 b.c.e.), the classics served as the official texts for learning and the basis for the evolving civil examination system. With few significant modifications, this system would prevail until the beginning of the twentieth century (1905). Young boys memorized the classics, imitated their literary style, and incorporated their ideas into their worldviews and political policies if fortunate enough to pass the examinations. As “classics” (jing), the texts were believed to be true, in the most literal sense of the word. They faithfully and accurately depicted the history, morals, and practices of the sages of old. The classics’ effectiveness and value was embedded in their irrefutable truth.

The content and composition of the Five Classics varies widely. Although tradition holds that Confucius shaped the texts, either personally authoring some or all of them or editing already existing manuscripts, there is little evidence for this assertion. Scholars almost unanimously see the classics as the products of hundreds of years of accumulated material, widely divergent in terms of style, literary quality, regional derivation, and content. Although it is impossible to date them with any definitiveness, general consensus holds that the five texts were composed from the tenth to the first century b.c.e. Debate continues as to whether Confucius and his disciples purposely edited and collected the Five Classics or simply preserved and transmitted an already existing body of texts. It is most likely that the classics represent a combination of the two, with Confucius utilizing an already established set of writings in a unique manner consistent with his educational goals for his disciples.

As for content, the Yijing reflects ancient divination practices. In an effort to comprehend and interpret the regular patterns of cosmic change, a system of prognostication was developed based on the sixty-four possible combinations of yin (broken) and yang (intact) lines. The present text is composed of two main parts. The oldest, which may be a systemized redaction of ancient oracle-bone practices, contains the sixty-four hexagrams and brief explanations. The second part, the so-called Ten Wings, consists of commentaries attributed to Confucius, although this claim is widely disputed. By tossing yarrow stalks, or alternatively coins, the practitioner constructs a hexagram in response to their inquiry and then consults the text and commentaries for guidance.

The Book of Songs contains 305 poems, most likely composed during the early Zhou Dynasty (Chou; c. 1066-256 b.c.e.). Again, tradition records that Confucius culled these odes out of more than 3,000 and compiled them into a single text as an educational tool. Among the diverse poems are folk songs, religious liturgy, hymns of praise, and accounts of local customs and festivals. The Classic of History is the earliest work on history in China and consists of accounts purporting to record the words and exhortations of the kings and ministers of the Xia (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.), Shang (c. 1600-1066 b.c.e.), and Zhou Dynasties. Inasmuch as Confucius viewed himself as merely a transmitter of ancient wisdom and looked back on the early Zhou as a “golden age” of harmony and well-being, this work played an important role as a textbook for his disciples and subsequent generations.

The fourth classic, the Classic of Rituals, is a compendium of rituals, gathered from a multitude of regional and historically diverse sources. In addition to texts on proper etiquette, marriage and funeral services, the nature and structure of government, and daily behavior, it contains two works that eventually stood on their own and became part of the Four Books during the Song Dynasty (Sung; 420-479). Both the Da Xue (fifth-first century b.c.e.; The Great Learning, 1861) and Zhong yong (Chung-yung; written c. 500 b.c.e.; The Doctrine of the Mean, 1861) emphasize personal moral cultivation as the foundation for societal harmony and are singled out as independent works by the great Neo-Confucian Zhi Xi (Chu Hsi; 1130-1200). Along with the Lunyu (later sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861) and Mengzi (first transcribed in the early third century b.c.e.; English translation in The Confucian Classics, 1861; commonly known as Mencius), these texts become additional compulsory reading for scholars.

The Spring and Autumn Annals is a chronological history of Confucius’s home state, Lu. Each year of the chronicle is divided into two seasons, spring and autumn, with each entry beginning, “In the Spring [or “Autumn”] of . . . ,” thus providing the name. Covering the years 722-481 b.c.e., the annals are purportedly the work of Confucius, who used the history as a means of passing moral judgment on the decadence of his own age. As with the other texts, there is little evidence that such is the case. Regardless of its original authorship, the text has been the subject of a continuous tradition of commentary, which sees the Spring and Autumn Annals as the quintessential tool for establishing proper government and ordering society.


As noted above, the classics gained national prominence as a result of the actions of Wudi. Determined to reverse the policies of the Qin and seeing the tenets of the Confucian tradition as the most suitable for the ordering of a new society, in 136 b.c.e., Wu banned all non-Confucian schools and proclaimed Confucianism the orthodox state religion.

He then established the Imperial Academy for the nation in the capital (124 b.c.e.) and appointed learned scholars to act as “imperial academicians” (bo shih). A typical course of study at the academy included two years on two classics, followed by an examination; those who passed and wished to continue proceeded to study the three remaining texts for two years apiece, after which time they would be examined again. The creation of the Imperial Academy, combined with state sponsorship, propelled the classics and the Confucian tradition into a dominant political role. Henceforth, every aspiring official would diligently study the texts in preparation for the civil examinations required for government service.

As the examination system evolved, the classics became the mandatory textbook of the educated elite, thereby permeating every aspect of Chinese society. Not only did the texts shape the literati’s view of the world; they also became the primary source of moral examples, erudite sayings, allusions, and metaphors. Despite occasional challenges from Daoism and Buddhism, the Confucian classics remained the bedrock of Chinese political and social thought well into the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Bary, William Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. An excellent resource of primary text materials and solid introductions to the traditional culture of China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jingpan, Chen. Confucius as a Teacher: Philosophy of Confucius with Special Reference to Its Educational Implications. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990. Contains an extensive and well-written discussion of the Confucian classics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Legge, James, trans. The Chinese Classics. 5 vols. 1867-1875. Reprint. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960. Though somewhat outdated, Legge’s translations remain among the best for several of the texts. Included are the Shujing, Shijing, Lunyu, Mengzi, Chunqui, the Da Xue and the Zhong Yong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Legge, James, trans. The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism. 4 vols. 1879-1885. Reprint. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1966. Along with his translations of the Shujing and Shijing, this collection includes Legge’s versions of the Yijing and Li Ji.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nylan, Michael. The Five “Confucian” Classics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An excellent critical analysis of the origins, formation, and impact of the classics on traditional Chinese society and politics.

Categories: History