The Confucian Chinese Classics

The Confucian Chinese Classics word for a classic text is Ching [Pinyin Jing1, Kyô in Japanese, Kinh in Vietnamese]. The Confucian classics [] are the texts of the Confucian or the Ju [], "Learned," School. Taoism has its own classics [], including the Tao Te Ching []; and ching is used to translate the Sanskrit word sûtra for Buddhist texts. Buddhism thus has its own "classics" [],

The Five Classics:

1. I Ching,, Book of Changes

2. Shih Ching,, Book of Odes (Songs/Poetry) -- Kinh-Thi in Vietnamese

3. Shu Ching,, Book of History

4. Li Chi,, Records of Ritual (or Book of Rites, the Li Ching,


4a. Ta Hsüeh,, The Great Learning [1]

4b. Chung Yung,, The Doctrine of the Mean [1]

5. Ch'un Ch'iu,, Spring and Autumn Annals [2]

The Nine Classics:

6. Chou Li,, Rites of Chou (part of the Li Ching)

7. I Li,, Ceremonial and Ritual (part of the Li Ching)

8. Hsiao Ching,, Filial Piety Classic

9. Lun Yü,, Analects [1]

The Thirteen Classics:

10. Meng Tzu,, the Mencius [1]

11. Erh Ya,, Dictionary of Terms

12. Kung-yang Chuan,, commentary on Ch'un Ch'iu

13. Ku-liang Chuan,, commentary on Ch'un Ch'iu [3]

as for instance with the Lotus Sutra, the Saddharma- pun.d.arîka Sûtra (True Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra), which was translated into Chinese as then rendered into Japanese as Myôhô-renge-kyô -- a title then used as a mantra by the Nichiren sect of Japanese Buddhism.

The I Ching,, is supposed to be the oldest of the Classics. Indeed, its device of broken and unbroken lines appears to go back to the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty. It ends up as much more than just a Confucian Classic, with strong affinities to most of the rest of Chinese philosophy, especially the Yin-Yang and Taoist Schools. The dualism and Yin and Yang is discussed here in a separate essay; it is also used as a device for organizing the Chinese elements.

The notes in the table refer to the following glosses:

  1. One of the "Four Books" of the Confucian Canon. The Analects is probably the best known work associated with Confucius, though it looks like a collection assembled by his students after his death. The Meng Tzu is named after the Confucian sage Mencius (390-305 BC), who authored it, organizing and expanding the principles of Confucian thought. It is said, perhaps in bitter jest, that all the copies of the Menicus sent to Japan were lost at sea, because the Japanese never adopted the Chinese ideas of conditional authority embodied in the principle of the Mandate of Heaven.
  2. The Ch'un Ch'iu is a chronicle of Confucius's native state of Lu and is supposed to have been a work of Confucius himself, though it is more historical than philosophical in nature. It gives its name to the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history.
  3. The Tso Chuan,, the "Tradition of Tso," is another commentary on the Ch'un Ch'iu, or perhaps we should say a supplement, since it is an independent narrative history, the first in China, which subsequently simply got associated with the Ch'un Ch'iu. All the commentaries on the Ch'un Ch'iu are the, "Three Traditions," "Records, Chronicles."

The "Five Classics" were originally supposed to correspond to the Liu Yi, or the "Six Arts," including the Yüeh Ching, or Book of Music, which is no longer preserved as separate work, according to Fung Yu-lan (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press, 1948, 1966, p. 39). The Confucian Canon began to be taught in government schools in the Former Han Dynasty, to educate officials. In the T'ang Dynasty, a system of civil service examinations was created to qualify officials. It was used down to the 20th century [note]. Hence, the Chinese god , "prosperity, success, salary," is seen in the robes of a Chinese judge. The Portuguese called Chinese officials "mandarins," getting the word from Sanskrit (mantrin) by way of Malay (menteri), meaning "counselor." "Mandarin" not only stuck to the officials, in many languages, but has widely become the name of the principal spoken language of China.

The Classics are listed here as given in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard, 1972] under ching, character 1123, p.156.

The Confucian Chinese Classics, The Examination System

The Confucian Classics were the basis of the examination system. Candidates for the bureaucracy began to be educated in the Classics in the Han Dynasty, but the regular examination system seems to date from the Sui and the T'ang.

Any man could begin taking the examinations (we don't seem to have any stories of women doing it in disguise), as long as he himself was not in mourning and his family had not engaged in a "base occupation," like running a brothel, for three generations. However, usually candidates were from families that could afford the expense of educating them, and of supporting them if it was necessary to try again. If one did not pass, the examinations could be taken any number of times, unless, of course, one had committed some kind of misconduct, which could bar a candidate from a certain number of reexaminations -- or permanently. Also, failure was not always the result of poor work. There was a quota on the number of passes accepted from each exam; so one's fate could be determined by one's rank in the results. In the Ming Dynasty, quotas were also set by region, so that more candidates from the North were passed than from the South. This is an interesting case of an early use of political preferential policies.

Examinations were given in a three year cycle. This began at the local level, in each District, or "County"), where examinations, the hsien-shih,, were given the first two of the three years. In Ming times there were about 1100 Districts. This is the administrative level of government where we find Judge Dee. This lowest level of examinations was in principle provided for boys who had not yet come of age. Older boys and men could take the examination also, but they were supposed to have harder questions. False ages were often given and beards shaved, strategems frequently tolerated by the authorities. The District examinations were administered by the Magistrate himself (something we never find Judge Dee doing, by the way), in a hall at the District Tribunal where candidates sat at desks. The test continued through the day until the light failed. The Magistrate himself scored the tests, which were only identified by the desk number where the candidate had sat.

Success at the District level simply meant that candidates moved up to the examinations, the fu-shih,, then given at the capital of the Prefecture,, where an examination was administered much like the one at the District level. Success at this level meant that one could proceed to the "qualifying examination," yüan-shih,, given at the Prefectural capital again, but under the direction of the Provincial "director of studies." A candidate who passed this examination became a sheng-yüan,, a "student officer," "graduate official," "licentiate," or "matriculate." This actually entitled the candidate to no more than the right to enter a District or Prefectural school. But it also gave him a rank, the lowest, the 9th, in the Civil Service system, signified by distinctive dress and certain legal privileges. A licentiate might make a living clerking, sometimes permanently, for a Magistrate or other official.

Every third year (specifically in the years of the Rat, Rabbit, Horse, and Chicken), licentiates, having completed their schooling and passed some qualifiying exams, could move up to examinations, the hsiang-shih,, at the level of the Provinces,

Originally, the level of administrative organization above the District level was that of the "Commanderies," chün,, which were at first feudal fiefs of the Chou Dynasty. Then by the end of the Later Han the Commanderies were organized into Provinces, using the term chou, As time went on, there were about 200 Provinces, 600 Commanderies, and 1000 Districts. In the Sui, the Commanderies were abolished, and then in the T'ang they were replaced by Prefectures, Under the Yüan Dynasty, the number of Provinces was greatly reduced. These became the familiar of subsequent history. The became "2nd Class Prefectures" or "Departments," which might only contain a single District and might not fall under the authority of a But as the character for Provinces, Shû, in Japan -- battleships were named after them. The Departments otherwise functioned like Districts, with their own first level examinations and schools.

At the Provincial level the number of candidates taking the examinations was large enough that dedicated buildings in their own extensive compounds were provided for this purpose. The examination buildings contained small individual cells, closed off with no more than a curtain, where a candidate wrote alone during the days and nights of the examinations, which were given in three sessions over a week. There were three planks provided in a cell, which could be arranged, using ledges on the walls, as a shelf, a seat, a desk, and, at need, a bed. A candidate brought his own food and any cooking implements. Soldiers observed the cells, often with displays of bullying that the soldiers knew would not be possible with successful candidates.

In the two off years of the examination cycle, the buildings stood empty. They often came to be regarded as haunted, since some candidates, overwhelmed with their sense of failure, might commit suicide. This is not unknown at modern universities, although I have not heard of suicides during examinations. Also, students studying for examinations might seduce young women with the promise of marriage once they made their fortune by passing the examination. If a young woman was then abandoned, she might commit suicide. We then have no difficulty imagining her ghost,, appearing and distracting, reproaching, or assaulting the candidate during the examination in order to have revenge by preventing him from passing. This could result in his suicide as well. There are so many stories of this sort that collections of them were published. Thus, over the years, the examination halls, standing empty most of the time, could have become crowded with spirits suffering from various causes of distress -- a belief encountered in the Judge Dee novel Murder in Canton. Since candidates and staff were locked into the compounds during the testing sessions, anyone who died, from natural causes or otherwise, was wrapped in a mat and actually thrown over the wall to be disposed off outside. Other miraculous events are reported during examinations, both to reward the virtuous and to punish the vicious.

As we can imagine from modern schools, cheating was a common problem in the examinations. Arriving candidates were searched more than once, with an eagerness and thoroughness by attendants motivated by awards in silver for contraband (books, notes) found, and punishments for anything not found. All exams were submitted using the same device of numbers to conceal real names. Since the handwriting of many candidates might be familiar to the examiners, all examinations, which were written in black ink, were rewritten by copyists, who were only given red ink. Corrections of the copy against the original were subsequenlty made by other examiners using yellow ink. The basic grading was done by examiners writing comments and evaluations in blue ink. Since there could be 10,000 to 20,000 examinations submitted at the Provincial examination (which gives some idea of the size of the examination compounds), the grading was often a harried and careless business, as many modern teachers might imagine from their own experience of grading finals at the end of the semester. Nevertheless, despite all the precautions, the potential for bias and bribery still existed. The style or particular expressions of a candidate might give him away, accidentally or deliberately, innocently or by arrangement. The battle over cheating and corruption was thus an ongoing process.

Passing the Provincial examination made a candidate a chü-jen,, an "elevated person." This entitled him to a higher Civil Service rank, the 7th, and he could even be appointed to some offices. Or he could continue on to the Metropolitan examination, the hui-shih,, in the Capital in the year following the Provincial exams (namely the year of the Ox, Dragon, Sheep, or Dog). Passing the examination there made one a chin-shih,, or "presented scholar," using the term for the highest of the four traditional classes, the "scholar," of Chinese society. On analogy with western academic degrees, the sheng-yüan can be regarded as the "bachelor," the chü-jen the "master," and the chin-shih the "doctor."

The "presented scholar" would qualify for all administrative appointments in the Empire. But another level of examination was added in the Sung Dynasty. The Palace Examination, tien-shih,, was in principle administered by the Emperor himself, and was intended to put the Emperor in the place of revered Teacher to all the candidates. The circumstances of the examination were again like those of the District exams, with candidates sitting at desks in a hall within the Palace and writing until dark. To an extent, it was a pro forma exercise. However, higher ranking there, bestowed personally by the Emperor, entitled one to enter the Imperial Hanlin Academy; and so exalted a Scholar might spend his whole life in the Capital, as a resident of the Imperial Academy, lecturing to the Emperor, and as one of the higher officials of the realm. But of the 20,000 officers of the Ming civil service, only 2000 would serve in the Capital. The rest fan out to the Districts, Prefectures, and Provinces.

A completely separate system of military examinations existed along side the civil service system. In theory, especially at the beginning of the Ming, the military system was co-equal in dignity, value, and authority to the civil system. However, Confucians had little respect for soldiers, and the status and power accorded to the civil and military establishments came to vary inversely, with the advantage going to the Scholars. Even successful generals might be executed for one defeat, pour encourager les autres, or for the barest suspicions or accusations of rebellion. Consequently, many Ming generals had no difficultly accommodating themselves to the Manchus. Also, the military examination system never achieved the status and value that the military academies would in later armies. Thus, products of the examination system were not taken very seriously in the Army itself, where successful generals usually came up from the ranks, tried, proven, and promoted in battle.

The literary basis of the civil examinations, intended to morally educate the candidates, and although drawing on examples from Chinese history and law, included little otherwise of importance to the practical side of government or the technical problems that might arise under various levels of administration. Rather than update the examinations to include education in practical government and familiarity with modern science and engineering, the whole system was abolished in 1905.

Much of the information here is from China's Examination Hell, The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China, by Ichisada Miyazaki, translated by Conrad Schirokauer [1963, Yale, 1981], with some details from other sources given on the main page for Chinese Emperors.

Copyright (c) 2011 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

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