Chinese classic texts or canonical texts (
pinyin: Zhōngguó gǔdiǎn diǎnjí) refers to the Chinese texts which originated before the imperial unification by the
Qin dynasty in 221 BC, particularly the "
Four Books and Five Classics" of the
Neo-Confucian tradition, themselves a customary abridgment of the "
Thirteen Classics". All of these pre-Qin texts were written in
classical Chinese. All three canons are collectively known as the classics (
经, jīng, lit. "
Chinese classic texts may more broadly refer to texts written either in
vernacular Chinese or in the classical Chinese that was current until the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the
Qing, in 1912. These can include shi (
historical works), zi (
philosophical works belonging to schools of thought other than the
Confucian but also including works on agriculture,
astronomy, divination, art criticism, and other miscellaneous writings) and ji (
集, literary works) as well as
jing (Chinese medicine).
Ming and Qing dynasties, the Four Books and Five Classics were the subject of mandatory study by those
Confucian scholars who wished to take the
imperial exams to become
government officials. Any political discussion was full of references to this background, and one could not be one of the
literati (or, in some periods, even a military officer) without having memorized them. Generally, children first memorized the
Chinese characters of the "
Three Character Classic" and the "
Hundred Family Surnames" and then went on to memorize the other classics. The literate elite therefore shared a common culture and set of values.
Scholarship on these texts naturally divides itself into two periods, before and after the
burning of the books during the fall of the Qin dynasty, when many of the original pre-Qin texts were lost.