TheConfucian Classics, generally divided into Five Classics1and Four Books2 ,are nine Chinese texts that throughout Chinese history, have been considered tobe great sources of learning and inspiration. They can be seen as “sacred,because they have played a central part of Chinese political and cultural lifefor many centuries. However, it would be useful to explain what one means by a “sacredtext”, as well as to analyse why they might be dubbed so and how applicable theterm effectively is. Firstly, the term “sacred” bedefined into two different ways. Primarily, this would be something that wasconsidered of great value to a religious group or tradition, such that a”sacred text” would be “considered to be ‘divinely revealed'” (Oldstone-Moore2002: 33) by whichever Deity the scripture followed. However, the term”sacred”, although having religious connotations, can also be defined assomething that was held in such great esteem that it could almost be religiousor reverent, but essentially is not. Classical examples of this would be thepolitical manifests written by either Karl Marx or Mao Zedong.
Nonetheless, a”sacred text” is usually associated with the former definition, Max Müller statingthem to be “all those which had been formally recognized by religiouscommunities as constituting the highest authority in matters of religion”(Girardot 2002: 233). To this effect, these sacred texts seek to bring about acertain behaviour by giving guidelines of spiritual and/or political nature. In this sense, the nine ConfucianClassics can be described as “sacred” because though they contain no “divinerevelation” (Legge 1879-1885: xv), unlike the Bible or the Quran, they do incorporate”references in them to religious views and practices which are numerous; andit is from these that the student has to fashion for himself an outline of theearly religion of the people” (Legge 1879-1885: xv).
Effectively, the ChineseClassics were studied and their values followed by a large part of the Chinesepopulation since the introduction of Confucianism as state ideology during theHan Dynasty (220-588 BCE). Due to this, people were able to grow morally andethically, as “each of the Classics captured an important component ofwisdom, promoted harmony and order, and provided the means toself-cultivation and becoming fully human” (Oldstone-Moore 2002: 34).Therefore, as Girardot claims, “the sacrality of these texts depended on theinterpretation of an ancient community or tradition” (2002: 234). The Chinese Classicscould only be described as sacred because the Chinese community and Confucianfollowers, held his values in such high esteem, they made them the foundationof the education syllabus, using them as “the source for moral and intellectualdevelopment” (Oldstone-Moore 2002: 33). Furthermore,the Classics’ sacrality can also be explained because the oldest Classic, the Bookof Changes, dates from the late 9th century BC, and individuals maytherefore treasure it and treat it as sacred just because it is so old.
As theClassics are included in Max Müller’s SacredBooks of the East, we can thus confirm that their “real importance is to befound in their general character as the “oldest” records making “the beginningof … documentary, in opposition to purely traditional history” (Girardot 2002:236). They are therefore not only important for their “religious views” (236),but for their knowledge on society and the individual. Onthe other hand, one could argue that the Confucian Classics should not bedescribed as “sacred”. First and foremost, although they make references toreligion and religious values, they are not considered religious texts because theywere primarily ethical and ceremonial, seen “as the record of human wisdom inthe form of the words and deeds of the sages” (Levering 1989: 182). Rather, theywere said to either come from the “ancient sage-kings of the legendary ThreeDynasties of Xia, Shang and early Zhou or to Confucius himself” (Nylan 2001: 16),neither of these professing to have some divine power or authority. Indeed, in The Analects, Confucius claimed to onlyaspire to be “a transmitter not a maker” (Legge 1815-1897: 78) and only soughtto relay the knowledge of the ancients.
Therefore, unlike for example, theIndian Vedas, described as”possessing “power, authority, unicity and divine inspiration”, … unmistakably a collection of “holy,” “sacred,”or “religious” scriptures” (Girardot 2002: 232-233), the Classics are ratherassociated with “teachings of Confucian morality and virtue” (Oldstone-Moore2002: 39) and thus, do not seem to inspire the awe and reverence among theChinese population as they perhaps used to.Forit is worth noting that because they were instated as the official stateideology during the Western Han Dynasty, the Classics were known and followedby everyone, and thus could be interpreted as “sacred”. However, the 1905abolition of the exam system, symbolised the end of Confucianism and thusprovoked a steady decline of its followers and readers. Therefore, nowadays,the only people who would consider the Classics as “sacred” are Confucianscholars, making up less than one percent of the world population, and thus, tothe majority of the Chinese population, the Classics do not inspire the”powerful and inviolable” (Levering 1989: 8) aspect that other religiousscriptures might do.Toconclude, the Chinese Classics, can be described as “sacred texts” because for morethan two thousand years, the ruling elite found their spiritual and politicalguidance through the texts and the vast majority of the population accepted theteachings. Although Confucianism has declined during the early twentiethcentury, the sacrality of the texts should not be diminished, as Confucianismstill has many followers worldwide who consider these texts as sacred. However,we must also consider that associating texts with adjectives is quite objectiveand thus what someone might believe to be sacred, another might regard as thecomplete opposite.
Nevertheless, despite the Classics not being divinelyrevealed, they are sacred in the sense that they uphold values, such asmorality, filial piety, justice and humanity, that are still considerablyrelevant in Chinese society to this day and will continue to be so in thefuture.1 TheBook of Changes, The Book of Odes, The Classic of History, The Three Rites andthe Spring and Autumn Annals2 TheMencius, The Analects of Confucius, Doctrine of the Mean, The Great Learning