The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Five Classics

BEFORE

c.29th century BCE Fu Xi, China’s mythical first emperor, devises a method of divination with trigrams, the basis for a Chinese writing system.

AFTER

c.500 BCE The original Book of Rites, describing Chinese rituals and ceremonies, is compiled, traditionally thought to be the work of Confucius.

2nd century BCE A Confucian canon of writing begins with the so-called Five Classics.

136 BCE Emperor Wu of Han describes the Zhou yi as the foremost of the classics, and titles it Book of Changes.

960–1279 CE During the Song era, scholar Zhu Xi includes the Four Books, each of which appeared before 300 BCE, in the canon of Confucian literature alongside the Five Classics.

The Book of Changes is about divination; it is a kind of oracle. The original method of divination from which it evolved is attributed to the legendary emperor Fu Xi, and was formalized by King Wen of Zhou (1152–1056 BCE) in a text known as the Zhou yi. The “King Wen sequence” describes 64 hexagrams, possible combinations of numbers obtained by casting yarrow stalks or coins, each associated with a certain situation or circumstance, to which Wen offered judgements. Later scholars added comments in the “Ten Wings”, including the Great Commentary, which together with the Zhou yi became known as the Book of Changes (Yijing or I Ching, as it is still often called).

The book is often referred to as one of the Five Classics, with the Book of Documents (Shujing), Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu), Book of Rites (Liji), and Book of Odes (Shijing). These Classics are believed to have been compiled by Kong Fuzi (traditional dates 551–479 BCE), who is better known in the West as Confucius. Kong Fuzi’s moral and political philosophy was adopted as the official ideology of China during the 3rd century BCE.

Much later, in around the 12th century, shorter writings – either ascribed to Confucius or said to have been inspired by his teachings – were grouped into the Four Books of Confucianism.

A source of wisdom

The Five Classics and Four Books were the main point of reference for Confucianism as a state ideology. The Book of Changes seems an odd fit for rational Confucianism, but it was thought to be a source of great wisdom. It complemented the volumes of Confucian philosophy, history, etiquette, and poetry as a book to be consulted not only for its prophetic ability, but also as a model of wise counsel, describing what the “superior man” should do in various situations, and it has remained a source of wisdom in China (and beyond) to the present day.

See also: Quan Tangshi • Romance of the Three Kingdoms • The Narrow Road to the Interior