No people was ever more completely under the influence of a set of books, than the Chinese. The learned class, who constitute the only nobility of China, receive their whole education from the books ascribed to Confucius; but it is tradition, not divine authority, that hallows this literature. They are not thought to be inspired, but are revered because they are the work of ancient sages, and were respected by men of old times. These are connected with the name of Confucius, who was reputed to have collected or edited them, and supposedly he himself wrote one of them.
The Classics formed at least part of the curriculum tested by the government examinations requiredof nearly all candidates for the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Thus the more cultured members of society in pre-modern China, even those who had failed the examinations or had passed but never held office, enjoyed a familiarity with the Classics that afforded them a common store of knowledge. Full classical literacy (attained by 5–10 percent of the adult male population during the 18th century) presupposed a thorough knowledge of the Five Classics, Four Books, chief commentarial traditions, dynastic histories, and great literature that empowered members of the elite in the political and cultural arenas.
To the Chinese, with their love of order and classification, “The Classics” is not just a vague term for ancient literature in general but means a clearly specified set of books associated with the dominant conditions. The authoritative literature of China consists of the five Classics and the four books. The former were edited by Confucius; the latter are by the disciples of that sage, or by Mencius, a distinguished teacher in his school about a century after him. The five Classics are the most sacred of all. They are as follows :
- The Yih-ching, or Book of Changes. This is a divining book; it consists of a set of interpretations by princes of the twelfth century B.C. of a set of lineal figures of mysterious origin. This is the most revered because least understood of the whole collection. It was exempted from the proscription of Shi-Hoang-Ti.
- The Shu-king, or Book of History, contains speeches and documents of the early princes from the twenty-fourth to the eighth century BC [by other accounts from the 3rd millennium BC to 630 BC]. the Documents contains some indisputably early material dating from early Western Zhou (tenth century BC). As the oldest historical work of the Chinese it is deserving of confidence. But it seems to have suffered at the hands of time, at least several passages are in utter confusion. Also called Shàng Shu ["Honored Book"] or official history, modern scholars suspect many forgeries in this material. The development of two differing versions of the Shu Jing in the 2rd century BC and the problem of the forged portions of the work have led to endless philological and philosophical controversy ever since. The discovery that the Gu-wvn subset of the Shu were late forgeries was one of the great achievements of Ching scholarship; it established philology as cogent in classical matters, and downrated the Shu within the classical canon. Yan Rouju's conclusions, though circulated only in manuscript until the 1740s, had a shattering effect on many intellectuals of the time.
- The Shi-king, or Book of Poetry, consists of a collection of 300 songs, selected by Confucius from a mass ten times as great. Some of these pieces are extremely old. There is little question that an Odes anthology existed in some form, oral or written, before the time of Confucius.
- The Le ke, or Record of Rites. This book is said to have been composed by the duke of Chow in the twelfth century BC, and is the principal source of information about the ancient state religion of China. It contains precepts not only for religious ceremonies, but also for social and domestic duties, and is the Chinaman's manual of conduct to the present day.
- Chun Tsew, Spring and Autumn Annals, contains the annals of the principality of Loo, of which Confucius was a native, from 721-480 BC. They are extremely dry; and understanding the statement of Mencius that Confucius by writing them (for they are said to be his own work) produced a great effect on the minds of his contemporaries would make many things about Chinese religion and manners clearer than they unfortunately are.
- To these five Classics is sometimes added, as a sixth, the Hsiao-king, or Book of Filial Piety, a conversation on that subject between Confucius and a disciple. The Canon of filial piety treats according to its title of the chief subject of Confucian ethics. Although it is highly probable that it was not composed by Confucius himself, the little book may have originated in the time of the Chou dynasty. There exist quite a number of commentaries. The Classic of Filial Piety is traditionally attributed to Zeng Shen (Zeng zi, 505-436? BC), a disciple of Confucius especially noted for his filial piety.
- Tradition speaks of a Music classic, but if it ever existed it has been lost or incorporated into one of three Rites classics.
The Classics of the second order comprise four books :—
- The Lun Yu, or Digested Conversations of the Master; or, as Dr. Legge calls it, The Confucian Analects. It is from this book that most derive information about the sage; it was compiled probably by the disciples of his disciples.
- The Ta-Heo, or Great Learning, and
- The Chung Yung, or Doctrine of the Mean, are smaller works, giving a more literary form to the doctrine of the sage.
- The Mang-tsze contains the teachings of Mencius.
It is impossible to tell how much Confucius did for these old books. Some hold that he did not change them much, nor put into them much of his own, and that, in fact, he was himself indebted to these books for all he is reported to have taught. On the other hand it is declared that he made the ancient books teach his own doctrine, and left out all that did not suit him; and, in confirmation of this view, the fact is pointed out that while these books teach pure Confucianism, another religion of a different spirit - Taoism - was growing up in China in Confucius's own day, which must have had some support in the old system. It may be that Confucius did not care to report all the features of the old religion, but only those of which he approved. But the information given about that old religion is admittedly correct so far as it goes; and what Confucius thought best in it, and what passed through him into the subsequent religion of China, was its most characteristic and most important part.
Today, few historians of China assume that the Five Classics represent the edited corpus of the historical Confucius, though a great number still believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Spring and Autumn Annals represents the “praise and blame” of the Supreme Sage himself. Most probably, Confucius did not compose any texts at all. Like Socrates, he seems to have preferred dialogues.
Michael Nylan notes that "... until late in the Song period (960–1279), the Five Classics were generally considered more essential to Confucian learning than the now more famous collection of Four Books, which are the subject of the vast majority of current Chinese and Western studies on early thought in China... The modern rubric “Five Confucian Classics,” however, has tended to skew understanding of these texts, as it implies both a direct connection with the historical Confucius and a closer relationship among them than is warranted by their early histories. Most of the texts were evolving in oral as well as written forms for centuries before they acquired the designation “classic” or “Confucian”; hence vastly differing approaches to social, political, and cosmic issues are discernible among and even within the texts. Beginning in Han, state-sponsored classical learning — often dubbed “Confucian” when “orthodox” or “official” would be more appropriate — drew freely on the teachings of many non-Confucian thinkers, the better to cope with the complexities (many unforeseen by Confucius) of ruling an empire. This pattern of borrowing, usually unacknowledged, continued throughout imperial history. ... it was obvious to later followers that new material must be added to the corpus, either as interpolations into the texts or as appended commentaries, for the Classics, insofar as they drew upon genuinely old material, failed utterly to address the urgent new speculations. In other words, when the Classics simply could not be made to say what was required, “discovered” chapters and supplementary passages would supply the lack."
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