Chinese Idioms: Quoting the Classics or Authoritative Works (引經據典)

May 5, 2015 Last Updated: May 7, 2015

The Chinese idiom 引經據典 (yǐn jīng jù diǎn), which literally translates as “quote the classics, based on literary quotations or allusions,” means to quote extensively from authoritative works such as classic books as a basis to support a point of view.

The idiom originates from the story of Xun Shuang (荀爽), a court official who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220).

Within the Xun family, Xun Shuang (A.D. 128–190) was a 12th-generation descendant of Xunzi (荀子), an influential philosopher of the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.).

His father, Xun Shu (荀淑), a local governor of the state of Wei during the Eastern Han, was one of the most sophisticated thinkers of his time.

Xun Shuang had seven brothers, and together they were known as the “Eight Dragons of the Xun Family,” as they were all exceptionally talented, well-educated, brave, and kind.

Quote extensively from authoritative works such as classic books as a basis to support a point of view.

Xun Shuang was the sixth son and perhaps the most outstanding among the eight brothers. He was fond of learning and by age 12 had already easily mastered many of the ancient Chinese classics like the Analects and the Spring and Autumn Annals.

After becoming a government official in A.D. 166, Xun Shuang saw his state fall into a turbulent time. As a result, a few years later he went away from his hometown to live in seclusion, staying in the southern part of China for 10 years writing books.

At that time, few people conducted themselves according to the rules of proper etiquette and ethics. For instance, when their parents or wives died, many did not mourn them as custom dictated, and some informally gave titles to their deceased parents or relatives even though titles should only have been officially bestowed.

To correct these improper notions and conduct, Xun Shuang wrote extensively about traditional values and etiquette, using many allusions and quotations from ancient classics and records.

His writings succeeded in achieving a certain measure of good results. They influenced people’s thinking and rectified some of the incorrect notions and conduct prevalent at that time.

People remember Xun Shuang as an important politician and historian of the Eastern Han period.

The idiom 引經據典 (yǐn jīng jù diǎn) later evolved from the story of Xun Shuang’s life, which was recorded in the “Book of the Later Han (後漢書),” a work of Chinese history covering the period A.D. 6–189 during the Han Dynasty.

Today, people use the idiom to describe a speech or piece of writing that includes many quotations and allusions from authoritative works to support its arguments.