The Five Classics (wujing) and Four Books (si shu) collectively create the foundation of Confucianism. The Five Classics and Four Books were the basis of the civil examination in imperial China and can be considered the Confucian canon. The Five Classics consists of the Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books are comprised of the Doctrine of the Mean, the Great Learning, Mencius, and the Analects. From the Han to the early Song, the Five Classics grew into thirteen classics. In the early Song, however, scholars focused on the original Five Classics again. By the mid-Song, however, the Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean began gaining importance and by the early fourteenth century, the Four Book were the texts for the civil examinations.
Zhu Xi prescribed a specific order to the Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books were to be read before the Five Classics, and were to be read this way:
I want men first to read the Great Learning to fix upon the pattern of the Confucian Way; next the Analects to establish its foundations; next the Mencius to observe its development; and next Maintaining Perfect Balance to discover the mysteries of the ancients. The Great Learning provides within its covers a series of steps and a precise order in which they should be read first. Although the Analects is concrete, its sayings are scattered about in fragments; on first reading, it is difficult. Mencius contains passages that inspire and arouse men's minds. Maintaining Perfect Balance, too, is difficult to understand; it should be read only after the other three books.
Throughout imperial China, the Confucian canon changed dramatically (see Versions of the Canon) but the following is a brief description of the various writings. Online translations are provided, when possible.
The Great Learning
The Great Learning is a guide for moral self-cultivation. According to the Great Learning, the key to moral self-cultivation is learning, or the investigation of things. Through the investigation of things, one comes to understand the principle in all things, which allows one to better comprehend the world. Through this moral self-cultivation, one's li (principle) and qi (psychophysical stuff) are in harmony, leading to consistent moral behavior. Zhu Xi prescribed that The Great Learning be the first of the Confucian Classics read, as the message contained in The Great Learning would orient scholars to think about the value of their studies.
Written during the Spring and Autumn period through the Warring States period, the Analects is a collection of Kongzi's teachings and discussions with disciples. Just as The Great Learning emphasized learning, so did the Analects. According to the Analects, the first step in knowing the Way is to devote oneself to learning. In addition to learning, the Analects emphasize the importance of good governance, filial piety, virtue, and ritual.
Mencius is a collection of conversations Mencius had with Kongzi. Mencius places a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the emperor to practice good governance through following the Way. Additionally, Mencius believes that all human beings are inherently good. One of the most popular passages from Mencius notes that all humans instinctively respond with alarm and compassion when we see a child teetering on the edge of a well, suggesting that everyone is innately good and moral. Yet, he notes that not everyone actually rushes to save the child and emphasizes the idea that though we are all born with the seeds of righteousness and goodness, but must learn how to nurture and cultivate those seeds.
The Doctrine of the Mean
The Doctrine of the Mean has been translated in many ways, including The Constant Mean (Legge) and Maintaining Perfect Balance (Gardener). The Doctrine of the Mean is attributed to Zisi, Kongzi's grandson, and deals with how to maintain perfect balance and harmony in one's life. The Doctrine of the Mean focuses on following the Way and acting in accordance with what is right and natural, but acknowledges that people often do not act properly. To rectify the situation, people are encouraged to engage in moral self-cultivation to act properly. In addition, the Doctrine of the Mean emphasizes the fact that the good governance rests with men and that rulers who maintain balance are not only more effective, but also encourage the Way in others.
Book of Documents
The Book of Documents is a compilation of 58 chapters detailing the events of ancient China. The Book of Documents tells the deeds of the early sage-kings Yao and Shun. These narratives are influential in the development of the understanding of a sage. The compilation also includes the history of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The Book of Documents is often considered the first narrative history of ancient China.
Book of Odes
The Book of Odes is also translated as the Book of Songs or Book of Poetry. The Book of Odes is comprised of 305 poems dealing with a range of issues, including love and marriage, agricultural concerns, daily lives, and war. The Book of Odes contains different categories of poems, including folk songs and hymns used in sacrifice. Kongzi is believed to have selected the 305 poems in this collection from a much wider collection.
Book of Rites
The Book of Rites described the social norms, governmental organization, and the ritual conduct during the Zhou dynasty. Believed to have been compiled by Kongzi, the Book of Rites is the foundation of many ritual principles that arise in later imperial China. According to the Book of Rites, proper ritual conduct would maintain harmony in the empire, as well as emphasize the virtue of piety.
Book of Changes
The Book of Changes contains a system of divination, which is centered largely around the principles of yin and yang. The Book of Changes has also been translated as I Ching or Classic of Changes. Some of the divination practices are still used today.
Spring and Autumn Annals
As the longest of the Five Classics, the Spring and Autumn Annals is a historical chronicle of the State of Lu. Unlike the Book of Documents, the Spring and Autumn Annals appear to have been created specifically for annalistic purposes. The Spring and Autumn Annals was traditionally understood as being written by Confucius, but modern scholars believe the text was actually written by various chroniclers from the State of Lu.