The Six Confucian "Classics" or Key Texts


It is fair to say that whatever else Confucius may have done, he did set up his own private academy where he taught students regardless of their social background. His school had to have a currculum though, and the Six Books listed below represent his best effort to assemble the core texts extant in his time which he believed would be most beneficial for his students to read and, indeed, to master. They did not contain all the answers, and without being accompanied by a program of actual spiritual practice, or "self-cultivation," they probably would not mean as much. But these were the works he relied on and the direction in which he wanted to point his students. Anyone who seriously, diligently and soberly studies these books and tried to implement their teachings, could be saud to be students of the [Confucian] Way.


1. Yì Jīng 易经 (易經) "Book of Changes" (Divination).
Probably the oldest work in the canon--with roots back to Shang Divination practices from at least 1,000 BCE--this work consists of 64 Hexagrams, each one consisting of six lines, each of which can be a solid or broken line.
Each hexagream consists of 3 important elements:
A) A Hexagram Name (guaming), B) A Hexagram Judgment (tuan), and C) an Image. There are also Line Statements (yaoci) for each of the six lines. These three basic components are thought to have been written down since the 800s BCE. The Hexagram above is
Hexagram #15: Name: Modesty
Judgment: Modesty Creates Success
Image: Within the Earth, A Mountain, hence, Modesty
The Yijing has been the subject of a great many Commentaries. As Song Dynasty philosopher Cheng Yi notes, "The Book of Changes is Transformation. It is the Transformation necessary if we are to be in tune with the Movement of Time, if we are to follow the Flow of the Dao. The book is grand in scope; it is all-encompassing. It is attuned to the very principles of Human Nature and Life-Destiny."
And 18th century Liu Yiming says: "The Sages created Images to give full expression to Meaning. They constructed hexagrams to give full expression to Reality. They attached Words to these Images and Hexagrams to give full expression to Speech...In its Resonance, it reaches the core of the World.
Through the Yijing, the Sage plumbs the greatest depths, Investigates the subtlest Springs of Change. Its very depth penetrates the Will of the World. Knowledge of the Springs of Change Enables terrestial enterprises to be accomplished."
The Yijing, then, is a profound book of Wisdom, and it is listed as the first (and most important?) Book of the Six Confucian Classics, one that Confucius considered absolutely essential for comprehending the world and life--one that needed to be the bedrock of any Self-Cultivation program.
What did Confucius himself say about the Changes?
The Master [Confucius] said: “The Changes, how perfect it is!  It was by means of the Changes that the sages exalted their virtues and broadened their undertakings.  Wisdom made them exalted, and ritual made them humble.  Exalted, they emulate Heaven, and, humble, they model themselves on Earth.  With heaven and Earth having their positions thus fixed. Change operates in their midst. As it allows things to fulfill their natures and keep on existing, this means that change is the gateway through which the fitness of the Dao operates.” (56)
Also, we can find these remarks:
The Master [Confucius] said: “As for the Changes, what does it do?  The Changes deals with the way things start up and how matters reach completion and represents the Dao that envelops the entire world.  If one puts it like this, nothing more can be said about it.” (63-64) Therefore, in change there is the great ultimate.  This is what generates the two modes [the yin and the yang].  The two basic modes generate the four basic images and the four basic images generate the eight trigrams.  The eight trigrams determine good fortune and misfortune. Of things that serve as models for images, none is greater than Heaven and Earth.  Heaven produced the numinous things, and the sages regarded them as ruling principles.  Heaven and Earth changed and transformed, and the sages regarded them as models.  (65-66)
Therefore, as for the Images, the sages had the means to perceive the mysteries of the world and, drawing comparisons to them with analogous things, made images out of those things that seemed appropriate. In consequence of this, they called these “images.” The sages had the means to perceive the activities taking place in the world, and observing how things come together and go smoothly, they thus enacted the statues and rituals accordingly. (68) [Pages refer to Richard J. Lynn, The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi (Columbia, 1994].
So, Confucius evaluated the Yijing very highly yet it is the most unusual of all these six texts, a mysterious book with no form, a text whose symbols may represent phases in the Inner Alchemical Work of Self-Cultivation. In a word, the Yijing operates as a tool for individuals to achieve deeper awareness or higher levels of consciousness and shows them how to live in harmony with Nature and the Dao. For Translations, see: Max Müller v. 16, Blofeld, Richard Wilhelm (1950), Richard Lynn (1994), and now John Minford (2014). See Minford, Yijing - The Book of Changes.
2. Shū Jīng 书经 (書經) "Book of History," "Book of Classics," "Book of Documents" (Historical documents).
Also called Shàng Shū 尚书 (尚書) "Honored Book" or official history. Contains documents from the 3rd millennium BC to 630 BC. Scholars suspect many forgeries in this material. Translation: Legge v. 3.
3. Shī Jīng 诗经 (詩經) "Book of Odes," "Book of Songs" (Poetry, folklore).
Traditionally considered to have been compiled by Confucius, this collection of 305 songs is today valued for its glimpses into ordinary life of the Zhōu period. The text as we have it is divided into three parts: fēng 风 (風) ("wind") or folksongs, yǎ 雅 ("elegance") or songs intended to be sung at official banquets, and sòng 颂 (頌) ("praise") used in elite sacrifices. The Book of Odes or Songs contains modesl for sophisticated and insightful use of language which is why Confucius urged his students to study it reverently. Translations: Legge v. 4, Waley 1973.
4. Chūn-Qiū 春 秋 "Spring & Autumn Annals" (History).
Deals with events between 722 and 481 BC in the ancient state of Lǔ 鲁 (魯). Mostly a chronolocically arranged fact list, and traditionally accompanied by at least one of the following commentaries. The work is attributed to Confucius. Translation (with commentaries): Legge v. 5.
5. Lǐ Jì 礼记 (禮記) "Book of Rites," "Ritual Records" (Ritual and ceremonies).
In addition to prescriptions for rituals, this item contains commentary (including much philosophical material). It is traditionally ascribed to Confucius.
6. Yuè Jīng 乐经 (樂經) "Book of Music" (Music).
Apparently occasionally included with the Lǐ Jì (item 5, above). Now lost.


From Song Times (13th century), the "Four Books" became a popular version of the classics:

1. Lunyu 論語-- The Analects Confucius' sayingas as recorded by his followers. Believed to have been compiled during the century following his death--so in the 400s BCE--but not formalaized until later.

2. Mengzi 孟子-- The Mencius-- a disciple of Zisi, Confucius' grandson. Probably compiled in late 4th century BCE.

3. Daxue 大學-- The Great Learning - a chapter drawn from the larger Book of Rites or Li () which is famous for talking about the "Investigation of Things" in the following way, utilizing the associative, "chain reasoning" logic:

Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning.

To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning. (物有本末,事有終始,知所先後,則近道矣)

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue (明德) throughout the world (天下), first ordered well their own States (國). (古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其國)

Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families (家). (欲治其國者,先齊其家)

Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons (身). (欲齊其家者,先修其身)

Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts (心). (欲修其身者,先正其心)

Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere (誠) in their thoughts (意). (欲正其心者,先誠其意)

Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge (知). (欲誠其意者,先致其知)

Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things (物).(致知在格物)

Things being investigated (格物), knowledge (知) became complete. (物格而後知至)

Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere (誠). (知至而後意誠)

Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified (正). (意誠而後心正)

Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated (修). (心正而後身修)

Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. (身修而後家齊)

Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. (家齊而後國治)

Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace. (國治而後天下平)

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. (自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以修身為本)

There is a clear sequencing going on here and in the process, an essential vocabulary for talking about personal cultivation and correct governance is established: First, States must be ordered; but in order to do this, Families and Villages must first be ordered; to order Families, one' own Person must be Cultivated first. In order to cultivate one's person, one must rectify one's Heart; in order to do this, one must be Sincere in one's Thoughts; and in order to do this, one must Extend One's Knowledge to the Utmost; and how do you do this? You must "Investigate Things,"of course! In so doing, Knowlege will become complete, Thoughts will be Sincere, Hearts will be rectified, the Self or the Person will be Cultivated, Families will be regulated, and on this basis, all the way out to the level of the State, everything will function properly.

4. Zhongyong 中庸 -- The Doctrine of the Mean -- also a chapter in the larger Book of Rites or Li () -- is often attributed to Zisi, Master Kong's grandson. A guide to Self-Cultivation, it features the practice of moderation and of employing "Self-Watchfulness, Leniency and Sincerity" as one makes one's Pathway through Life. Only one who is on the path, this Way or Dao can be considered a Junzi 君子 aka, a "Gentlemen," "Superior Man," "Noble Person," or paradigmatic individual, i.e., an exemplary person. One who Cultivates or "trains" (修) his inner being.

The Junzi, Confucius believed, achieve the utmost moral power (de, 徳). Though silent, they serve as an analogy. Though not bestowing gifts, they are held dear. Though showing no anger, they have influential power stemming from their prestige."

This last quotation is reminiscent of Confucius' remark: "The moral power () of the exemplary person is like the wind; that of the petty person is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it will surely bend." This seems to touch upon that "charismatic" power--for which the word Virtue is not really adequate--that one can emanate if one is successful in cultivating one's inner being. One stands correctly, one's gestures are smooth and flowing, and one is always composed, alert and ready. In Confucius' worldview, the best way to achieve this was to earnestly study the Six Books, to correctly practice the Li (), the Rites, as prescribed by the early Zhou Kings; and in internalizing** those correct Ritual postures and stances--those reverent attitudes that one displays toward the Ancestors and the Sages--one can then turn around and employ these same attitudes in everyday life as one goes about one's business. Always calm, always watchful, ever alert and sensitive, always respectful and sincere. To do this, is to be a fully realized human being, a Junzi 君子, one who can manifest Jen (仁)--Goodness, Benevolence, Humaneness (or Humanity)--in all one's conduct and human relationships. A Ren person is compassionate, someone who knows and understands the burdens others must bear and will bear them with the other person. A person such as this will stand out among others, will glow with and radiate their fundamental goodness and humanity, and everyone will be able to see it.

**By this term I mean that one is not just going through the motions of ritual performance or practice, but is doing so with complete concentration and with every fiber of one's being. One becomes completely centered as only a true "Master" can. When you perform your rituals so many times that they become second nature, they have become thoroughly internalized and so you attain a kind of "selfless" state in which every gesture is complete and flawless because the practioner is no longer "attached" to outcomes but is simply and spontaneously attuned to greater Nature and is fully Aware and alive in the moment.