Go to site main page,
China Resources main page.

Content created: 2000-03-07
File last modified:

decorative graphic

Guide to Chinese Sacred Books

Users of this page may also wish to consult a brief Chinese Philosophical Terms and Guide to Chinese Philosophers.

The word "canon" (from Latin canōn, "rule") normally refers to religious works that have been acknowledged to be "legitimate" and "authentic" in a certain religious tradition. For example, in Christianity, what is and is not in the Christian Bible is something that has been determined by church councils over the centuries, although not all branches of Christianity have necessarily made quite the same decisions.

The three Chinese traditions said to have canons are, of course, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. However the three canons are quite differently conceived. This web page provides an overview. For each canon there is a linked web page with further detail. Users of this page may also wish to consult an annotated table of Chinese Philosophical Terms. A very small, non-religious fourth canon, which I have called the "Military Canon," is conveniently listed at the end.

The Confucian Canon In the case of Confucianism, imperial decree simply included or excluded certain works, and it is relatively straightforward to say that at any given moment the canon included all and only such and such works. Our listing of the works included at one period or another in the Confucian canon can therefore be considered unproblematic. The total collection can be printed in a couple of volumes, and throughout history industrious souls have memorized the whole of it.

The works of the Confucian Canon were the subject matter of the civil service examination system in China in nearly all periods, and hence mastery of this material and the ability to write fluent commentaries explicating it were the basic skills needed for social mobility. Not surprisingly, it is the Confucian Canon that most Chinese through most of Chinese history have regarded as China's most important body of texts, and even today it is the Confucian material that tends to define both native and foreign understandings about what ideas are distinctively Chinese.

The Buddhist Canon There exists an agreed-upon group of ancient Indian scriptures of Buddhism, called by the Sanskrit term Tripitaka ("Three Baskets"), which in China is supplemented by additional texts originally composed in Chinese. The whole makes up an entire wall of books, and very little of this material is directly known to most Chinese Buddhists, although some dedicated believers master surprisingly large numbers of texts. Our presentation here includes an overview of the structure of the canon, and a list of a few of the most commonly read brief works from it.

The Daoist Canon The works considered canonical in Daoism, collectively called the Dào Zàng 道藏 ("Storehouse of the Way"), are another matter. In the absence of a single Daoist authority to declare what is or what is not canonical, a gigantic library of material can be broadly said to be included, at least by somebody some time, and even occasional attempts to produce definitive full editions never quite stemmed the tide of additions and new variants.

Furthermore, many works (or variants of works) were privately maintained in individual families of Daoist practitioners, who usually regarded them as secret. And finally, because of the size of the whole body of texts, the inscrutability of most of them, and the attempts by their owners to keep many of them secret, virtually nobody but a modern librarian ever really had access to the whole of the Storehouse of the Way.

Our present list includes only a few of the items most commonly read and discussed. Many are referred to as "jīng" (), usually translated "classic" or "scripture." A few are named after their authors, usually with the addition of the honorific term zǐ (see below). Items in our list typically circulated separately from each other, and not as a coherent, or even linked, body of material.

Some vernacular morality texts have circulated widely in China for many centuries, both conventionalized and newly created (often in automatic writing séances). All but the most overtly Buddhist of them tend eventually to get included in one version or another of the Daoist canon, although a purist (if Daoism may be said to have such a thing) might complain that they often bear little link to the rest of the material. I have added a few of the commonest of these to the list of "Daoist" texts as well.

The Military Canon From at least Táng times (period 12) onward there was an effort to consider military ranks as roughly parallel to civil service ranks, and to award them based at least in part on examinations. If this did not work perfectly in practice, the symmetry of two parallel systems remained an intellectually satisfying goal.

By 1100 the key "scriptures" associated with military education (and available in English translation) had coalesced into “The Seven Military Classics” (Wŭjīng Qīshū (武经七书), enumerated here.

Usage Note: What is a Zǐ ?

Many works of early Chinese philosophy are attributed to authors honored by the title zǐ , sometimes translated "sage," "master," or "philosopher." In English, zǐ is often merely transliterated or omitted rather than translated.

Official rules for the use of Romanized spellings of Chinese provide that a title following a name is not capitalized. In other words, one writes Yán zǐ, not Yán Zǐ. They also provide that when popular usage has fused the title with the name in colloquial speech, they may be written together as a single word: Lǎozǐ rather than Lǎo zǐ. In these pages I tend (inconsistently) to resist such bondings, since there is no definitive list of cases for which they are appropriate. (In Chinese characters there is, of course, no such distinction.)

Return to top.