Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism (Sìshū Wŭjīng 四书五经)


The Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi streamlined Confucian education by compiling the Four Books: Mencius, Analects, Great Learning, and Centrality and Commonality. These texts influenced Chinese culture more than any other classics during the last six centuries of the dynastic period.

The great Song dynasty (960–1279) synthesizer of neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi (1130–1200 CE), standardized educational methods by compiling what came to be known as the “Four Books.” Before Zhu Xi, Confucian education had concentrated on the Five Classics: the books of History, Poetry, Changes, Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals, supplemented by the Mencius, Analects, Xunzi, Chunqiu fanlu by Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), and other texts such as the Classic on Filial Piety and Ceremonies and Rites (Yili). Zhu Xi streamlined the educational process with the Four Books: Mencius, Analects, Great Learning (Daxue), and Centrality and Commonality (Zhongyong, often misinterpreted as the Doctrine of the Mean). The latter two were extracted from Rites.

Zhu Xi wrote commentaries on these four books, reinterpreting them in the light of his syncretic approach, and used them as the foundation of his social, moral, and political philosophy. His innovation had a lasting influence on Confucian education and Chinese bureaucracy in that the Four Books were the basis of China’s civil service examinations from 1313 to 1905, when the examinations were abolished. Zhu Xi, by emphasizing the Four Books, removed many Daoist and Buddhist tendencies from neo-Confucianism. It is no exaggeration to state that the Four Books influenced Chinese culture more than any other classics during the last six hundred years of the dynastic period.

The Mencius describes the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius and expands Confucius’s ideas, stressing the inner quality of the virtues and advocating humanitarian rulership. The Analects contains the teachings of Confucius and advocates moral self-cultivation and rulership based on virtue. The Great Learning explains the chain reaction that starts with the “investigation of things,” beginning a process of moral cultivation that regulates the family, brings order to the state, and ultimately creates peace on Earth. Centrality and Commonality is usually mistranslated as the Doctrine of the Mean, which incorrectly implies that the work is similar to the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Golden Mean or the Buddha’s Middle Way. However, whereas Aristotle sought a balance between extremes, and the Buddha proposed a way to eliminate extremes, the Confucian concept of centrality is defined as the natural condition “before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy come forth.”

Further Reading

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H. Jr. (Trans.). (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fung Yu-lan. (1952). History of Chinese philosophy, 1 and 2 (D. Bodde, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hsiao Kung-chuan. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jensen, L. M. (1997). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese traditions & universal civilization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1970). Mencius. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1979). The Analects (Lun Yu). Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Legge, J. (1960). The Chinese classics (5 vols.). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Munro, D. J. (1969). Concept of man in early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Sung, Joseph H. C. (1976). The extensive learning and the practice of impartiality and harmony in life. Taipei, Taiwan: Commercial Press.

Tu Wei-ming. (1989). Centrality and commonality: An essay on Confucian religiousness. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 872–873. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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