Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What other canonical texts are especially important in Confucian tradition?

A second collection called the Four Books (Ssu Shu) consists of very ancient texts eventually brought together during the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.). Most famous of the four is a work commonly called the Analects (Lun Yu), a compilation of Confucius’ sayings and dialogues edited by second-generation disciples around 400 B.C.E. The Great Learning (Da Xue) is a chapter excerpted from the Classic of Rites, singled out now as a separate book because of its centrality to Confucian thought. Dating to about 350 B.C.E., this work is probably the single most important statement of Confucian views on the cultivation of the ideal human being, or “superior person,” essential to a harmonious society. Another excerpt from the Classic of Rites is now regarded as a separate book called the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong), traditionally attributed to Confucius’ grandson Zu Ssu. Its theme is the harmonious development of human nature by means of right action and the principle of reciprocity as manifest in the five fundamental relationships. Finally the Meng Zi includes the largely ethical and political teachings of Meng Zi (c. 372-289 B.C.E.), commonly known as Mencius. He was one of the foundational figures in the interpretation of the classic Literati themes expounded by Confucius. The book’s seven sections emphasize the need for vigilance in cultivating virtue with the ultimate goal of living in harmony with the Will (or Mandate) of Heaven. By about 1200 C.E., the complete Literati “canon” of texts included not only the Five Classics and the Four Books, but four other works considered to contain the essentials of Confucian and Literati views on all things under heaven.


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