In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Five Classics

  • Introduction
  • Specific Texts in the Five Classics Corpus

Chinese Studies Five Classics
Michael Nylan, Nicholas Constantino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0186


Although the term “Five Classics” (The Odes; Documents; the three Rites classics, counted as one; the Annals, and the Changes) was probably coined in Western Han, for much of Chinese history the Five Classics corpus has been the common cultural coin of the realm, familiar to all educated people, regardless of their religious creeds or ethical persuasions. Although parts of the Five Classics have claimed Confucius, as author, editor, or teacher, others may not have derived from self-identified “followers of Confucius,” of which there were very few in Antiquity. Given the importance of the Five Classics as repositories of ethical and political teachings, numerous debates over the “correct” graphs and meanings assigned to passages in the Five Classics have continued unabated from Western Han times down to today, in China, among the Chinese diaspora, and abroad, perhaps the most famous being the Qing-era “New Text/Old Text” debates. Only recently have Euro-American scholars, in company with some of their East Asian counterparts, begun to acknowledge at least two “general shifts in the textual landscape,” the first of which took place during Song, spurred, perhaps, by the Song ancient prose movement, and the second around the turn of the 20th century, when leading scholars and political reformers began to debate the role of the Five Classics in the education of the wenren 文人 (men and women of letters) and the general populace, a debate that is still raging in some quarters, given the Chinese Communist Party’s belated flirtation with Confucian ethics. A few modern scholars, in addition, would emphasize the conceptual ruptures that also accompanied the changeovers from seal script to clerical script, and from regular script to simplified. What has proved equally disruptive in recent years is the insistence by some Chinese authorities that unprovenanced materials bought on the market in Hong Kong or Japan be accorded the same “weight” as scientifically excavated manuscripts or texts transmitted via the received literary tradition. Past experience suggests that patient accumulation and sifting of the evidence is preferable to overly hasty judgements about the reliability of such manuscripts.

On the Five Classics, as a Unit

Like all classics and masterworks, the Five Classics corpus is “patient of interpretation,” meaning it has had three layers of meaning: what it meant to its original readers in a small textual community; the traditions it has acquired over time, due to its status; and the meaning that it has for readers today. For a thorough grounding in the issues, readers will benefit from Xu 1962, Loewe 1993, and Pi 1961, with Pi sweeping in his claims and the least accurate. Cheng 1997 illustrates that the classics involve multiple interpretive worlds, as does Nylan 1992 (cited in Studies Devoted to Individual Documents Chapters or Groups of Chapters). For the influential views that treat the Five Classics as the Chinese analogue to Scripture (a view that best corresponds with the visions of Kang Youwei 康有為, b. 1857–d. 1927, and his followers), see Henderson 1991 and Tu 2000. For Han court-sponsored readings of the Classics, the most authoritative guide remains the Xiping Stone Classics (inscribed in the years 175–183), studied in Qu 1984 and Nylan 2001. Lin 1994– facilitates modern understanding of all the main interpretive traditions, as does Nylan and Wilson 2010 for a smaller number. A series of publications by Nylan cited throughout this article considers debates in Han and post-Han. The standard citation text for the Five Classics is Ruan 1815. For a monograph that lays out the arguments for assigning relatively late dates to many masterworks and Classics composed in classical Chinese, see Nylan 2011 in Han-Era Classical Learning.

  • Cheng, Anne. Histoire de la pensée chinoise. Paris: Seuil, 1997.

    One of the best introductions to Chinese thought that necessarily foregrounds classical learning.

  • Henderson, John. Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400861989

    One of the earliest substantive treatments of the Classics and commentaries in the Chinese tradition, which is still quite useful.

  • Lin Qingzhang (Lin Ch’ing-chang) 林慶彰, ed. Jingxue yanjiu luncong (經學研究論叢). Taibei: Ainosco, 1994–.

    Excellent series that, in each volume, provides annotated bibliographies, both for the Five Classics corpus as a whole and for each individual Classic, plus informative essays by renowned scholars, often in relation to reception history; for specialists, this is a must-read.

  • Loewe, Michael, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley, 1993.

    Published in collaboration with the Society for the Study of Early China. Still an extremely useful entry point for all the Five Classics, although some of the secondary scholarship is now outdated, mainly due to recent archaeological finds.

  • Nylan, Michael. The Five “Confucian” Classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    Most people miss the quotation marks in the title; Nylan’s point is that the Five Classics were the not exclusively “Confucian”; she treats each of the Classics separately in chapters 2–6 (pp. 72–306), the group as a whole in the introduction (pp. 1–71), and the 20th-century reception of the corpus in chapter 7 (pp. 307–362). See Nylan 1992 (cited under Studies Devoted to Individual Documents Chapters or Groups of Chapters), and Nylan 1994 and Nylan 1995 (both cited in Old Text versus New Text Controversy).

  • Nylan, Michael, and Thomas A. Wilson. Lives of Confucius. New York: Random House, 2010.

    Following Gu Jiegang’s injunction to “take one Confucius at a time,” this book provides a useful guide to the evolving images of Confucius and the role of Five Classics learning, down through the ages.

  • Pi Xirui 皮錫瑞. Jingxue tonglun. Hong Kong: Zhonghua shuju, 1961.

    Originally published in 1936. Many Chinese speakers begin their study of classical learning with Pi’s study, however outdated, which is available in English translation in Stuart V. Aque, “Pi Xirui and ‘Jingxue lishi.’” PhD diss., University of Washington, 2004.

  • Qu Wanli (Ch’ü Wan-li) 屈萬里. Han Shijing Shangshu canzi jizheng (漢石經尚書殘字集證). Taibei: Lianjing chuban shiye gongsi, 1984.

    English translation of title: Han Stone Classics, the Odes and Documents. Based on Ma Heng’s posthumous publications (1957) on the Han Stone Classics, this remains by far the best introduction to the Xiping Stone Classics carved in 174–183 CE, which distinguishes genuine stones from some fakes that have been promoted by interested parties.

  • Ruan Yuan 阮元, ed. “Preface.” In Shisan jing zhu shu (十三經注疏). Nanchang, China: Nanchang fuxue, 1815.

    The standard citation text for all serious students of the Classics, originally compiled in early Tang. The 1826 reprint (Taibei: Dahua shuju) serves as basis for the Academia Sinica Website. A recent reprint (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1999) mistakenly replaces Ruan Yuan’s name with that of Li Xueqin.

  • Tu, Ching-i. Classics and Interpretations: The Hermeneutic Traditions in Chinese Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2000.

    A collection of essays regarding interpretations of the classics, with an emphasis on those of Song Neo-Confucians.

  • Xu Fuguan (Hsü Fu-kuan) 徐復觀. Zhongguo jingxue shi de jichu 中國經學史的基礎. Taibei: Shangwu yinshu guan, 1962.

    The best overall introduction to the classical learning in Chinese.

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