Confucianists revere a quartet of ancient texts, known simply as the Four Books.
Confucianists revere a quartet of ancient texts, known simply as the Four Books.

Confucius, a title meaning "master," wrote in the fifth century B.C., creating a pragmatic philosophy that came to dominate Chinese thought. His status evolved greatly over the succeeding 1500 years, as cultural and political changes swept China, but the canon established then has endured. In the 12th century, Zhu Xi codified the sacred texts of Confucianism, calling them simply the Four Books; The Great Learning, the Analects of Confucius, the Book of Mencius and The Doctrine of the Mean.

The Great Learning

Zhu listed The Great Learning first among the Four Books not because it is the most important, but because it should be read first. It lays out the framework from which Confucians can progress to study the other texts. The Great Learning, or “Daxue,” originated as a chapter in the Book of Rites, a huge compendium dating from the second century B.C.

Analects of Confucius

This collection of sayings and lessons records conversations Confucius had with a group of students in his home province of Lu between 510 and 479 B.C.. Zhu placed the Analects, or “Lunyu,” second in his list of Four Books because its foundation for learning builds upon the framework of the first book. Taken together, the book depicts a man who valued learning not only for its own sake but also as a path to spiritual fulfillment; spiritual fulfillment, in turn, could lead to greater learning.

Book of Mencius

Mencius, who lived in the third century B.C., is second only to Confucius himself in the Confucian tradition, thanks largely to Zhu’s influence. Mencius taught that human nature is essentially good, and although this goodness can be either cultivated or squandered, it can never be entirely lost. Zhu placed Mencius third in his list of the Four Books because, having achieved the basic framework and the basic principles, the reader could here proceed to find “stimulation.”

The Doctrine of the Mean

Attributed to Confucius’ grandson, Kong Ji, The Doctrine of the Mean also originated as a chapter of the Book of Rites. Zhu placed this text last among the Four books because, having studied the other three, the student could here study the intricacies of Confucian philosophy. A key point of the Doctrine of the Mean is the importance of a unified purpose between principle and mind, whereby one might achieve, within oneself, a manifestation of heaven.