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The Classics

Robert Oxnam :: Confucius often makes reference to what are known as "The Classics," a body of older literature and history compiled in his time. Confucius had great respect for the preserved wisdom of the past, and these classics became the basis for education in China.

Over time this canon was augmented by the Analects themselves and the writings of Confucius' followers. The Confucian Classics formed the curriculum for schools in China down through the nineteenth century. In imperial China the most prestigious career, that of government service, was open only to those who passed the rigorous examinations in the Classics.

Myron Cohen :: So that in this sense, you can say that people imbibed with Confucian thinking and Confucian learning to a far greater extent than the ordinary person in China were in fact the rulers of China. And in a sense, this matched a basic Confucian value, which said that those who are educated have a moral obligation to rule.

So that, in that sense, you have a very powerful working out of the Confucian ideology via the examination system (and I'm referring to later imperial China), in terms of the actual ability of the state to govern.

Robert Oxnam :: Familiarity with the Classics was widespread, supporting knowledge of Confucian ideals throughout Chinese society.

Myron Cohen: There were several ways in which these texts were publicized, so to speak.

First of all, there was the famous examination system in China, which selected both the bureaucrats for the government and also, confirmed people passing the exams at a lower level as being local leaders. In order to pass the exams, you had to have mastery of the Confucian text.

Therefore, study of the Confucian text was in fact incorporated in the basic curriculum of all village schools throughout China. And it's been estimated that in the late period of traditional China, approximately 40 percent of males had some literacy. This means that a very large percentage of the male population did have one or two years of exposure to Confucian texts.

Also, you had, at least in parts of China, you had traveling chanters who could chant Confucian texts, so that even people who were not literate at all had some knowledge of them. I don't think it is stretching the point to equate familiarity with Confucian texts with the kind of familiarity with the Bible that you had in the West in earlier periods.

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What were the Confucian Classics?

The oldest listing of these dates from the second century BCE

+ Book of History (Shu Jing) + The historical records of the early Chinese dynasties.
+ Book of Songs (Shi Jing) + A sixth century BCE collection of lyric poems composed between ca. 1000-600 BCE.
+ Record of Ritual (Li Ji) + A guide to proper ritual behavior.
+ Book of Changes (Yi Jing) + A book of diagrams with interpretations passed on since the early Zhou dynasty for use in prognostication.
+ Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu) + The annals of the state of Lu, said to be recorded each spring and autumn, reporting significant events during the period 722-476 BCE (hence the name for this era, "Spring and Autumn Period").

These texts were added to the list of classics during the Han dynasty

+ Analects (Lun Yu) + The sayings and conversations of Confucius, collected by his followers.
+ Great Learning (Da Xue) + The concept of virtuous government with commentaries.
+ Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) + A guide, ascribed to Confucius' grandson, for achieving mental balance and harmony in one's life according to the Confucian principal of seeking regulation and moderation in all things.
+ Mencius (Mengzi) + The conversations of Confucius' most famous follower, Mencius, collected by his own followers.