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Foundational Texts of Confucianism

By Cindy Chan
Epoch Times Staff
Created: December 9, 2012 Last Updated: December 15, 2012
Related articles: China » Culture
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Confucius is honoured as the “head teacher for 10,000 years” and the “teacher of all teachers” in China. The best known foundational text of Confucianism, the “Analects,” is widely regarded as the most influential text in the history of China and East Asia. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Confucius is honoured as the “head teacher for 10,000 years” and the “teacher of all teachers” in China. The best known foundational text of Confucianism, the “Analects,” is widely regarded as the most influential text in the history of China and East Asia. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Confucius (孔子) (515–479 B.C.), a great philosopher and educator, is considered the founder of Confucianism (儒家) and is honoured as the “head teacher for 10,000 years” and the “teacher of all teachers” in China.

The best known foundational text of Confucianism is the “Analects” (論語, pronounced lún yǔ), a book with 20 chapters that records Confucius’s acts, sayings, and conversations with his students.

The book was compiled and expanded by his students after his death.

Widely regarded as the most influential text in the history of China and East Asia, the “Analects” discusses Confucius’s concept of benevolence (仁) and provides guidelines for cultivating moral character, conducting human relationships, handling family matters, and governing state affairs.

Books and Classics

The “Analects” is one of the so-called Four Books (四書) of Confucianism, along with the “Great Learning” (大學), “Mencius” (孟子), and “Doctrine of the Mean” (中庸).

As written in the “Three Character Classic” (三字經, sān zìj īng), the foundational texts of Confucianism include the Four Books along with the so-called Six Classics (六經).  

The “Three Character Classic” can be likened to an elementary school textbook of today. It began being used for private schooling during the Song Dynasty (宋朝) (A.D. 960–1279).

To govern a country well, Confucius opposed oppressive government and stated that rulers should implement benevolent administration.

According to the “Three Character Classic,” it is only after one has become familiar with the Four Books and thoroughly understands the “Classic of Filial Piety” (孝經) should one study the Six Classics.

The Six Classics include the “Classic of Poetry” (詩經); “Classic of History” (書經 or 尚書); “Classic of Changes,” also known as Yi Jing (易經), I Ching, or Zhou Yi (周易); “Classic of Rites” (禮記); “Spring and Autumn Annals” (春秋); and the “Classic of Music” (樂經) .

The list of Confucian texts underwent a number of changes over the course of history. The Six Classics were later reduced to five, becoming the so-called Five Classics (五經), with the “Classic of Music” no longer included.

Today the Confucian foundational texts are widely regarded as consisting of the Four Books and Five Classics.

Benevolent Administration

After Confucius’s death, candidates for official positions in imperial China were examined on their knowledge and understanding of these texts.

Based on the ancient oral tradition of teaching and transmitting knowledge, many scholars believe that Confucius did not compose any texts at all, but taught via dialogues with his students.

Confucius stated that he merely wished to transmit and revive the virtuous traditions of the ancients. His teachings included comments on and analysis of the good principles and conduct of earlier sage kings.

To govern a country well, Confucius opposed oppressive government and stated that rulers should implement benevolent administration; advocate kindness, righteousness, and morality among the populace; and understand the circumstances of the people and cherish their work.

For thousands of years, Confucianism has been the mainstream of Chinese culture.

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