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The Canonical Books of Confucianism
(Canon of the Literati)

Shortcuts: Components, Variants, English Translations


Kǒng Qiū 孔丘 (551-479 BC) (or Kǒng Zhòngní 孔仲尼), known as Confucius in English, was a philosopher and minor official born at Qūfù 曲阜 in the state of Lǔ () in what is today Shāndōng 山东 (山東) (SD) province during the tumultuous Spring & Autumn or Chūnqiū 春秋 period (period 04d).

Drawing on pre-existing ethical views, such as the central importance of filial piety, loyalty, sincerity, etiquette, benevolence, &c., he taught the need to return to the virtues and rituals of the more stable, earlier, "feudal" world of the (early or "Western") Zhōu dynasty (period 04b), no doubt viewed somewhat romantically.

Although influential enough to have followers, he was rarely able to affect the political curents of his time. However in most later periods, teachings attributed to him served as the basis of state orthodoxy. Thus he was referred to by the honorific title Master Kǒng or Kǒng fūzǐ 孔夫子 (the source of the Latin form "Confucius" used in English). In modern Chinese he is normally known as Kǒng zǐ 孔子 —with no "fū" in there— which also means "Master Kǒng." In temples erected in his honor, the central tablet usually carries the formal title "Most Holy Prior Teacher" (Zhìshèng Xiānshī 至圣先师 (至聖先師).

The Confucian Canon

At different periods different works —most not written by Confucius himself— have been considered the crucial sources of the Confucian tradition. The following fourteen items have all been included at one time or another. A note explaining the organization of this material under such names as "The Four Books" or "The Nine Classics" follows the listing.

Except where otherwise indicated, English translations exist of all of these works, some of which are indicated here. The full references are listed in the bibliography at the end of the listing of the Canon.

Of related interest is the brief guide to Chinese Philosophical Terms on this web site.

The 14 Components of the Canon

1. Yì Jīng 易经 (易經) "The Book of Changes" (Divination).
This work is also called the Zhōu Yì 周易, or "Changes of the State of Zhōu." (Yì Jīng was previously spelt "I Ching" in English.)
Probably the oldest work in the canon, the Yì Jīng consists of permutations of six lines, each of which can be solid or broken, to a total of 64 "hexagrams." These are construed to represent features of the natural and social worlds, and various methods are used to select one for interpretation as the answer to a question. A cryptic text is associated with each of the 64 permutations, and countless commentaries expand these texts in various ways to facilitate divination from them. Occasional phrases have become proverbial.
In addition to its position in the Confucian canon, this ancient text has always had a role in divination. For that purpose various randomizing procedures identify a verse from this collection as relevant to a particular problem or decision. Not surprisingly, other texts have been associated with the same hexagrams over the centuries, and analogous combinations of ambiguous texts and randomizing procedures have continued to be invented. (This literary genre is known in divination circles as "tally poems" qiānshī 签诗 [籤詩] because of their selection using bamboo sticks or "tallies.")
For more on divination using the hexagrams, click here.
On-line bilingual version (James Legge, revised):
Translations: Müller v. 16, Blofeld, Wilhelm.
2. Shū Jīng 书经 (書經) "The Book of History," "The Book of Classics," "The Book of Documents" (Historical documents).
Also called Shàng Shū 尚书 (尚書) "Honored Book" or official history. The work contains documents and annotations beginning in the era of the legendary emperor Yáo () (reign 01a-8, traditionally dated 2357-2258 BC). It ends in 630 BC. Quite aside from its legendary aspects, Scholars suspect many forgeries in this material.
Translation: Legge v. 3.
3. Shī Jīng 诗经 (詩經) "The Book of Odes," "The Book of Songs" (Poetry, folklore).
Traditionally considered to have been compiled by Confucius, but probably older, this collection of 305 songs is today valued for its glimpses into ordinary life of the mid-Zhōu period, so that they would have been "old" by Confucius' time.
The text as we have it is divided into three parts: fēng () ("winds") or folksongs, yǎ ("elegance") or songs intended to be sung at official banquets, and sòng () ("praise") used in elite sacrifices.
Translations: Legge v. 4, Waley 1973.
Bilingual sample (4 songs) on this web site. (More background is also provided in the introduction on that page.)
4. Chūn-Qiū 春 秋 "The Spring & Autumn Annals," "The Springs & Autumns" (History).
Deals with events between 722 and 481 BC in the ancient state of Lǔ (). It is mostly a chronolocically arranged fact list, and is traditionally accompanied by at least one of the following commentaries. The work is attributed to Confucius.
Translation (with commentaries): Legge v. 5.
4a. Zuǒ Zhuàn 左 传 (左 傳) "Zuǒqiū's Commentary" (History).
The most complete commentary on the Chūn-Qiū (4, above). Written by Zuǒqiū Míng 左 邱 明 (5th century BC). (Note on the name.)
Translation: Legge v. 5.
4b. Gōngyáng Zhuàn 公羊传 (公羊傳) "Gōngyáng's Commentary" (History).
Written by Gōngyáng Gāu 公羊高 (5th century BC). Never translated into a Western language to my knowledge. (Like Zuǒqiū, Gōngyáng is a two-syllable surname.)
4c. Gǔliáng Zhuàn 谷梁传 (穀梁傳) "Gǔliáng's's Commentary" (History).
Written by Gǔliáng Chì 谷梁赤 (穀梁赤) (5th century BC). Never translated into a Western language to my knowledge. (Like Zuǒqiū, Gǔliáng is a two-syllable surname.)
5. Lǐ Jì 礼记 (禮記) "The Book of Rites," "The Ritual Records" (Ritual and ceremonies).
In addition to prescriptions for rituals, this item contains commentary (including much philosophical material). It is traditionally ascribed to Confucius.
The original (which went by the name of Lǐ Jīng 礼经 (禮經) (a name sometimes also applied as a cover-term for items 5, 6, and 7), was digested from a compendium of 199 chapters to one of 85 chapters by a certain Dài Dé 戴德 in the 2nd century BC. This work, known as Dà Dài Lǐ 大戴礼 (大戴禮) "Rites of Dài the Elder" or Dà Dài Jì 戴记 (大戴記) "Writings of Dài the Elder"), is now lost.
It was further digested by Dài Shèng 戴圣 (戴聖), the son of a second cousin of Dài Dé, into a work of 49 chapters (known as Xiǎo Dài Lǐ 小戴礼 (小戴禮) "Rites of Dài the Younger" or Xiǎo Dài Jì 小戴记 (小戴記) "Writings of Dài the Younger"). That work is virtually identical with the present Lǐ Jì text.
Chapters 31 and 42 are identical with items 12 and 13 below.
Translation: Müller v. 27, 28.
6. Yí Lǐ 仪礼 (儀禮 ) "The Book of Ritual" (Etiquette & ceremonial).
Traditionally attributed to Zhōu Gōng 周公 , the "Duke of Zhōu" (died 1105 BC), although there is no evidence to support this. At one time three versions were in circulation, but the only one to survive was that preserved by Liú Xiàng 刘向 (劉向) (80-9 BC), whose name is sometimes attached to it.
Translation: Steele.
Click here for a brief passage from this work.
7. Zhōu Lǐ 周礼 (周禮) "The Rites of Zhōu" (Governmental institutions and regulations).
Sometimes also called Zhōu Guān 周官 "Offices of Zhōu." Although attributed to Zhōu Gōng 周公 like item 6, this appears to date from the 4th or 3rd century BC, although even this is open to question.
The full text has been translated into French (Biot), but not into English. An abridgment, the Zhōu Lǐ Guàn Zhū 周礼贯珠 [周禮貫珠 ) "Rites of Zhōu Strung as Pearls" was edited by Hú Bìxiāng 胡必相 (alias Hú Mèngzhān 胡梦占 [胡夢占]) in 1797. The abridgment has been translated into English by Gingell.
8. Yuè Jīng 乐经 (樂經) "The Book of Music" (Music).
Apparently occasionally included with the Lǐ Jì (item 5, above). Now lost.
9. Xiào Jīng 孝经 (孝經) "The Classic of Filial Piety" (Ethics).
The Classic of Filial Piety is traditionally attributed to Zēng Shēn 曾参 (曾參) (Zēng zǐ 曾子 [曾子], 505-436? B.C.), a disciple of Confucius especially noted for his filial piety. Other, less common, traditional attributions include Confucius himself and his grandson (and Zēng Shēn’s student) Kǒng Jí 孔伋 (Zǐsī 子思, 492-431 B.C.). (The character is read cān in many contexts, and so some people transcribe and pronounce this name as Zēng Cān.)
Translations: Müller v. 3, Makra.
On-line bilingual versions:
www.chinapage.com/confucius/xiaojing-be.html, www.tsoidug.org/Papers/Xiao_Jing_Comment.pdf
10. Ěr Yǎ 尔雅 (爾雅) "The Erh Ya" (Dictionary).
The name literally means "nearing the standard." The work is a kind of dictionary traditionally attributed to disciples of Confucius and viewed by some scholars as a collection of glosses on earlier texts.
Never translated into a Western language to my knowledge.
11. Lúnyǔ 论语 (論語) "The Analects" (Ethics).
This work containg sayings attributed to Confucius, probably correctly. It contains the most complete description of his teachings in the form of conversations and sayings spoken to his disciples and written down by them. However different parts of the work seem to be from different sources and of slightly different date. Some of the quotations are from Confucius' followers, and a few even seem to originate with his critics.
("Analects" is a Graeco-Roman word meaning "selections." So far as I know, it is used in English only when referring to this work in the Confucian canon, however.)
Translations: Waley 1938, Legge v. 1.
On-line Translation: http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/analects.htm.
12. Zhōng Yōng 中庸 "The Middle Way" (Metaphysics).
Identical with chapter 31 of item 5, above. Attributed to Kǒng Jí 孔伋, Confucius' grandson. A more appealing (and less Buddhist-sounding) English translation of the title is "The Perfect Balance."
Kǒng Jí is traditionally held to have been the teacher of Mencius, author of item 14, below.
Translation: Legge v. 1.
13. Dà Xué 大学 (大學) "The Great Learning" (Metaphysics & ethics).
Identical with chapter 42 of item 5, above. Attributed to Zēng Shēn 曾参 (曾參) (Zēng zǐ 曾子 [曾子], 505-436? B.C.), also the author of item 9.
Translation: Legge v. 1.
Bilingual version on this web site.
14. Mèng Zǐ 孟子 (= Mencius) "The Mèngzǐ," "Master Mèng" (Politics, ethics).
Attributed to Mèng Kē 孟轲 (孟軻) (4th century BC), a student of Kǒng Jí 孔伋, author of item 12, above. (Mèngzǐ was previously spelt "Meng-tzu" or "Mêng-tzŭ" in English works.)
For more about Mencius and his work, click here.
Translation: Legge v. 2.

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Variants of the Canon in Different Periods

  • The "Five Classics" (Jīng) are items 1,2,3,4,5.
  • The "Six Classics" are items 1,2,3,4,5,8.
  • The "Nine Classics" are items 1,2,3,4a,4b,4c,5,6,7*
  • The "Twelve Classics" are items 1,2,3,4a,4b,4c,5,6,7,9,10,11*
  • The "Thirteen Classics" are items 1,2,3,4a,4b,4c,5,6,7,9,10,11,14*
  • The "Four Books" are items 11,12,13,14. (The term "Four Books" Sì Shū 四 书 (四 書) is an abbreviation of Sì Zǐ zhi Shū 四 子 之 书 (四 子 之 書 ), "Books of the Four Philosophers," referring to the putative authors indicated above. These four works are sometimes called the "Lesser Classics" or Xiǎo Jīng 小 经 (小 經) in contrast to the five, six, or nine "Greater Classics" or Dà Jīng 大 经 (大 經) in the list just above.
*-Item 4 is also included, but it is not "counted" because it is assumed to be implied by the presence of commentaries on it.

The late dynastic (modern) canon includes the Five Classics and the Four Books. The earliest cannon included the Five Classics or Six Classics. The Táng dynasty canon, established by the Yǒnghuī 永 徽 emperor (AD 650-655, one of the reign names of Tàizōng 太 宗) was the Thirteen Classics version.

A major change in perspective on these works occurred under the influence of Southern Sòng dynasty (period 15c) philosopher ZHŪ Xī 朱熹 (1130-1200), the central figure of Neo-Confucianism, a revival movement known today especially for its incorporation of more metaphysical orientations into the Confucian system. Northern China had just been lost to Tungusic invaders from Manchuria, who founded the Jīn dynasty (period 18) in the north, confining the Sòng court to the southern portion of his former realm. It was the kind of event which historians tell us tends to inspire increased speculation about the meaning of things.

From Zhū Xī's time to our own, particular stress has been placed on the Four Books as the most central part of the canon, as well as the place for students to begin their life-long study of it. In modern times the Four Books are usually "filled out" by the Classic of Filial Piety, item 9.

Until 2000 or so, the Communist regime condemned the reading of any of this material except for purposes of hostile criticism, and few mainland Chinese were as familiar with it as you are. This hostility to the canon has eased very slightly in more recent years.

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English Translations From the Canon

The major English translator of the Confucian texts was James Legge (1815-1897). Unfortunately he employed a system of Romanization no longer used (and one which was standardized to a different region from the present Běijīng standard), so his spellings of Chinese names are often confusing today. Legge's translations, accompanied by Chinese text and extensive commentary, were issued in a series of volumes called The Chinese Classics published between 1893 and 1895 and in contributions to Max Müller's monumental series The Sacred Books of the East (1875-1925). In a few cases, versions of Legge's translations with modernized spellings of Chinese names have been released. A few other translations have also been listed here as more available, more important, more readable, or covering texts Legge did not translate.

Translations of some portions of the canon are available on the web, but I have not had time to integrate them into this document. Sorry about that.

BIOT, Édouard Constant
1851 Le Tcheou-li ou rites des Tcheou. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale. Geisel Library: PL2479 .H2/1851a. =Item 7 of the above list.
(1965)1966 The book of change. New York: Dutton. Geisel Library: BL1900 .I23B5. = Item 1.
GINGELL, William Raymond
1852 The ceremonial usages of the Chinese, B.C. 1121, as prescribed in the "Institutes of the Chow Dynasty Strung as Pearls"… London: Smith, Elder & Co. Geisel Library: PL2997 .C765E5/1852. = Item 7. (Link to on-line text.)
LEGGE, James
1893-1895 The Chinese classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1960 Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press. Chinese text included. 5 volumes. Geisel Library: PL2461 .R43/1960. (Link to on-line text.)
MAKRA, Mary Lelia
1961 The hsiao ching. New York: St. John's University Press. Chinese text included. Geisel Library: ? = item 9.
MüLLER, Max (ed.)
1875-1925 The sacred books of the East. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprinted 1966 Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas. 50 volumes. Geisel Library: RL1010 .S3
1917 The I-li or book of etiquette and ceremonial. London: Probsthain & Co., Reprinted 1966 Taipei: Ch'eng-wen Publishing Co. Geisel Library: PL2997 .I42/1917a. = item 6.
WALEY, Arthur
(1937)1960 The book of songs. New York: Grove Press. Geisel Library: BL2997 .S452W3/1960. = item 3
1938 The analects of Confucius. London: Allen & Unwin. Paperback reprint New York: Vintage. Geisel Library: PL2997 .L82/1938. = item 11
1999 The analects. Changsha: Hunan People's Publishing House. (A new printing of the 1938 work, amplified to include the original text and a modern Chinese translation by Yang Bojun.)
WILHELM, Richard
1967 The I Ching or book of changes. 3rd English edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Geisel Library: PL2478 .D81/1967. = item 1
WALTHAM, Clae (ed.)
1971 Shu ching: book of history: a modernized edition of the translations of James Legge. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. Geisel Library: PL2478 .E5/1971. = item 2.

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