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The Five Confucian Classics 儒家五經

The Five Confucian Classics or 五經 (wǔ jīng) are the key texts of Confucianism.


In Chinese, 五 means five, while 經 means the lengthwise yarns (i.e. the warp) used in weaving.

Like the warp that forms the basis in weaving, the Five Classics form the basis for personal cultivation.

In actual fact, 儒 (rú), the character for Confucianism in Chinese, means immersing oneself in the orthodox teachings of previous sages.

The Five Classics are considered replete with such teachings.

The Five Classics are:

Book of Poetry 詩經
Book of Documents 書經
Book of Rites 禮經
Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋
I Ching (or Zhouyi) 易經(周易)



Book of Poetry 詩經 (shī jīng)

The Book of Poetry is the earliest collection of poems in Chinese history. Also popularly called the Three Hundred Poems 詩三百 (shī sān bǎi), it is, however, not only a book of literature, but a book described by Confucius as, if not studied, a person would not know how to speak.

Indeed, these poems were frequently quoted to support an argument or to summarise an idea in many classical Confucian texts. Some examples include the other four ClassicsThe Analects, Mencius and Xunzi, etc.

In Commentary of Zuo《左傳》, one of the commentaries of Spring and Autumn Annals, you will also see them used frequently in national or regional rituals and on diplomatic missions.

Some of the idioms Chinese use today also come from the Book of Poetry. For example, 'strengthen your windows and doors before it rains' (未雨綢繆, wèi yǔ chóu móu) comes from the poem Owl《鴟鴞》(chī xiāo).

Book of Documents 書經 (shū jīng)


Tradition has it that in ancient dynasties, two record keepers were present on either side of a ruler in his court. The one on the left would record his behaviour, while the one on the right his speech.

According to Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (a Tang Scholar, 574-648 AD), The Book of Documents is such a record by the right record keeper.

No surprise, in it you would find speeches, orders, dialogues and announcements.

The Book of Documents employs a language style quite difficult to read or understand. At the same time, it also preserves a lot of ancient uses and meanings of Chinese characters. Personally, I found the style is quite similar to that of bronze inscriptions from the Zhou period (1046 BC-256 BC).

Book of Rites 禮經 (lǐ jīng)


As its name suggests, the Book of Rites is a detailed record of ancient rites covering rituals from court to personal life, and from official ceremonies to private ancestor worship.

The original Book of Rites was lost. Currently, under this category there are three Classics compiled by later scholars probably during early Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). They are:

Rites of Zhou 周禮
Book of Etiquette and Rite 儀禮
Record of Rites 禮記

In early Zhou Dynasty, these rites regulated every aspect of human life. Confucius said that a person could not establish himself in the society if he did not study rites.

Ancient Chinese believe if everyone behaves according to rites, then laws and punishments would be rarely applied. And if every country behaves according to rites, wars would be avoided. Do you agree?

Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋 ( chūn qiū)


The Spring and Autumn Annals covers the part of history of State of Lu (魯國) that expands 242 years (722 BC-481 BC) and 12 rulers. 

Spring and Autumn Annals
with the Three Commentaries
Because of its importance and influence, it also lends its name to the period in Chinese history that is called the Spring and Autumn period.

In Zhou Dynasty, States kept similar chronicles, albeit with different names. Mencius said that it was called Spring and Autumn 春秋 in Lu, Sheng 乘 (shèng) in Jin 晉, and Tao Wu 檮杌 (tāo wù) in Chu 楚.

But how come a chronicle of a particular State became one of the Classics? Well, Confucian tradition says the Spring and Autumn Annals was revised by Confucius who was a resident of Lu. And by revising it, Confucius chose certain words that carried more than the surface meaning to indicate praise or censure (褒貶, bāo biǎn) for politicians. This type of writing was later called 'Spring and Autumn Writing Style' (春秋筆法, chūn qiū bǐ fǎ).

The language in Spring and Autumn Annals is quite terse. For each year, it only lists the most important events under each season without any details. If there is nothing to record, it lists the season itself. For example, if there is no entry in the Summer of a year, it lists 'Summer' as an entry. For this reason, it would be impossible to understand the Annals unless a knowledgeable teacher gives us the contexts and details of each entry and the complex relationships among different events and political parties. Fortunately, we currently have such teachings compiled as books that are called commentaries (傳, zhuàn). There are three of them:

The Commentary of Zuo《左傳》
The Commentary by Gongyang《公羊傳》
The Commentary by Guliang《穀梁傳》

Altogether, they are called the Three Commentaries of Spring and Autumn Annals《春秋三傳》.

I Ching 易經 (yì jīng) / Zhou Yi 周易 (zhōu yì)

I Ching or Zhou Yi is a book of divination that involves the use of milfoil (蓍草, shī cǎo) stalks. It is also the oldest of the Five Confucian Classics dating back at least to early Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC). However, Confucian scholars are mostly interested in the philosophical aspect of the book.

This tradition starts with Confucius who, according to historical records, started to be interested in Yi (易) in his old age, and perused it so hard that the leather binding of the bamboo scroll broke several times.

In one of the excavated versions of I Ching from early Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Confucius told his student Zigong (子貢, zǐ gòng) that he studied Yi because it contained words of wisdom of past sages, not because he would apply it the same way as the diviners. This partly explains why a book of divination has become one of the Confucian Classics.


Hexagram for Qian (乾)
I Ching has 64 hexagrams, each of which consists of six horizontal lines, which are called 爻 (yáo).

A yao line can be broken in the middle (--) or unbroken (——). A broken line represents yin (e.g. even numbers, inactivity, female, moon, negative energy, etc.), while the unbroken line represents yang (e.g. odd numbers, activity, male, sun, positive energy, etc.). The total number of yao in 64 hexagrams is thus 384.

I Ching assigns each hexgram and each yao a statement. It was these statements Confucius was interested in and found their philosophical meanings and how they could be applied as daily guidance for self-cultivation.

Take hexagram Qian (乾) for example, the statement for the first yao (a hexagram always starts from its bottom line) is 'The dragon lying hid. It is not the time for active doing.' (Translation by James Legge) 

Confucius interpreted it as: a person with a dragon (great moral) character is lying hid. He does not go with the flow of the society or wish to have fame. He would not feel depressed as a hermit or because of disapproval from others. If something makes him happy, he would go with it. If something worries him, he would object to it. He is rock-firm in his belief and cannot be uprooted. Indeed, he is a dragon lying hid. (My translation)

Needless to say, in world history, there have been many great people who had the dragon character mentioned above.

Now that you have finished reading this article, I hope you have got some basic idea regarding the Five Confucian Classics. If you like it, feel free to share it with friends. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

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