The Five Classics are the Odes 詩, the Documents 書, the Rites 禮, the Changes 易 and the Annals 春秋. They are China’s oldest, most sacred books. For thousands of years, they have been the canons of Chinese culture, the very heart of its thought and the foundation of its statecraft. Formerly, they were learned by heart by all students. A thorough and profound knowledge of the Wujing and their exegesis was a prerequisite for all candidates at the imperial civil service examinations.

Over the centuries, the study of the Wujing gave rise to a vast corpus of erudite commentaries, philosophical interpretations and text critical editions, just as this has been the case for the sacred canons of other cultures.

This great tradition came to a sudden stop when the imperial examinations were abolished in 1905. Although the study of the Wujing was not abandoned, Chinese scholarship during the 20th century mainly turned to other aspects of China’s cultural heritage. Research on vernacular literature, on Buddhism and Daoism – fields that had been hitherto received little attention – greatly developed. Simultaneously, enormous advances were made in China’s archaeology. The knowledge of Early China, its history, its writing and its material culture, was completely renewed. On this basis, great strides were made in the understanding of the social and science history of later times. In consequence not only China itself has today greatly changed, but also our knowledge and understanding of its unique civilization.

As a corollary to all these new developments, the erstwhile so highly valued Classics have received far less attention. Only one of these sacred books, the Changes 易 has become internationally famous, whereas the others have entered into a relative oblivion. Today, except for a small number of Chinese and foreign scholars, most people do not know very much about the Wujing.

This neglect has certainly gone too far. As many young scholars in the field of classical studies have remarked, the fact so many ancient texts have been rediscovered these last decennia does not entitle us to forget the most ancient and revered Wujing. It is time that Five Classics finds their place among the sacred books of the great world civilizations. The Five Classics have been formerly translated and mainly in English, French and German. Most of these translations are very old, some dating from more than a century ago, whereas the knowledge and understanding of the history and culture have made enormous progress. Therefore new, modern translations should now be made and not only into the major Western languages, but in all important languages of the world. This is our ambition, our project and our great enterprise. Please help us to make it a success!


One of the reasons that the Five Classics remain almost unknown outside China is because their value is not sufficiently understood. Although their importance in the context of world civilization is certainly not inferior to the ancient books of Israel (the Five Books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch) or the Four Veda’s of Ancient India, the Wujing are essentially different. The Sacred Books of Israel are traditionally accepted as the word of God as told to Moses. As to the Four Vedas of Ancient India, they are seen as to be not of the authorship of man, but of divine origin.

In the case of the Wujing, there is no such belief. They are not considered to be of supernatural origin. They rather deal with the human world and the natural universe. In the Songs are heard the voices of the people; in the Documents, we read the words of the ancient kings. The Changes reveal the structure of the natural universe. As to three books that now represent the Rites, they contain the words of the ancient sages for regulating the society and the government. Seen in this way, the Five Classics are to be understood as the fundamental texts for preserving peace and order in the world. As such, the Chinese Classics do not refer to metaphysics, but only to the human world. They thought is not seen as representing a religion, but rather as the basis of a philosophy. This philosophy can be said to be China's one of the most important contributions to mankind.


Until now, most translations of the Five Classics have followed the academic tradition. That is: texts were translated as close as possible to the meaning of the original Chinese, without much regard for the style and usage of the foreign language. Therefore the syntax of the translation often followed the Chinese syntax. Also Chinese idiomatic terms were translated literally.

A literal translation is not the same as a good translation. A good translation conveys more of the real meaning and also the literary value of the original. For this new translation of the five Classics, we aim at translating the texts in a way that the meaning is understandable for everyone and that the translated text is agreeable to read. Classical Chinese is very different from contemporary colloquial English. It is therefore necessary to understand the Chinese profoundly before adapting it in a flexible way so as to translate the meaning in a significant and easily comprehensible way that preserves the flavor of the original.


The idea of making a new translation of the five Chinese Classics into the major languages of the world was first conceived in 1979 by Jao Tsung-I and Kristofer Schipper. After having asked in vain for support from several academic and research institutions, it was tentatively put forward as a scholarly activity of the Library of the Western Belvedere (Xiguan cangshu lou) in Fuzhou but equally without success. . In the spring of 2008 the project was presented to the Confucius Institutes Headquarters in Beijing. After being evaluated by an ad-hoc committee composed of Chinese and foreign scholars, it was accepted by the above–mentioned institution with the undersigned as directing editors and with an international committee of scholars from China and abroad as advisors and supervisors.

The Five Classics represent the very basis of Chinese civilization, yet there are almost no modern translations. For the major part, the existing translations have been made a a hundred years ago. The best-known translation of the Five Classics is by James Legge. Legge first published the Shangshu, the Shijing and the Chunqiu with the Zuozhuan in Hong Kong in 1872. Later Legge also did the Liji and the Yijing. Although they were remarkable for the time when they were made, these translations are now completely out of date with regard to modern scholarship. The other old translation that is still used in the West is the French one by Seraphin Couvreur that appeared between 1889 and 1916. It is also more than outdated.

Among the Classics that have been translated individually, the most famous is the translation of the Yijing by Richard Wilhelm, with an introduction by C.G. Jung. Wilhelm’s translation was originally published in German in 1924. It was later translated into English by Cary F. Baynes and published by Princeton (Bollingen Series) in 1950. Wilhelm’s rendering remains inadequate on many counts, not the least because he added his own commentaries without distinguishing them from the original text. Another translation that remains popular today is the Shijing of Arthur Waley (1937). Although the English is at times beautiful, there are many shortcomings.

Among the scholarly translations, the great Swedish scholar Bernard Karlgren set the model. Along with learned glosses on many of the Classics, Karlgren also published a translation of the Shijing (1944 and 1950) and of the Shujing (1950). Both are only of interest to specialists.

Since the Second World War and until recently, a limited number of new renderings have been appeared, while many important translations, complete or otherwise, have remained unpublished.

From all this we can conclude that the Five Classics are today not available and that China therefore remains the only major civilization in the world whose primal scriptural inheritance remains largely unknown outside China itself. The present project for a new and accessible translation of the Five Classics into the world’s major languages aims to remedy this situation.

Since two thousand years, the definition of the Classics has been the object of much discussion and changes. As known, in ancient China there were not five but six Classics: Shi, Shu, Yi, Li, Yue and Chunqiu. When during the Han the Classics were again assembled, it was found that the Yue was lost. Of the remaining five, the Shi (Shijing), the Yi (Yijing) and the Chunqiu were more or less complete, whereas the Shu (Shangshu) and the Li (Yili) survived in fragmentary state. Many changes took place during the Han. Instead of the Shijing, the Yijing came to be considered as the first among the Classics. The Shu was completed and reedited in a way that has since become one of the most disputed issues in classical studies. The Li was completed by adding to the Yili the Ritual Records (Liji) of the Younger Dai as well as the Zhouli. The origins of this last text remain uncertain, but its influence has been very important.

We speak of the “Three [Books] of Rites” (sanli) when referring to the Lijing among the Five Classics, while often forgetting that most of the Classics are in fact composites. The Shi contains odes from different dynastic periods and intended for diverse ceremonials. The Shu, whatever the true dates of the fifty texts assembled therein may be is, even more diverse. The Liji is by all means a collection of different writings on a great variety of subjects. The Zhouyi is combines the sixty-four hexagrams (gua) with a set of oracular pronouncements. These are clearly two different entities and the exact relationship between the two remains a matter of discussion. And then there is the matter of the commentarial traditions, the zhuan. Both the Zhouyi and the Chunqiu obtained their status as Classics later than the others and both owe this status in the first place to the yuanyi that have been tagged on to them rather than to their core texts. The traditional title of “Five Classics” must therefore be understood in the sense that in China “five” may denote a total figure rather than the true number of texts. This exact number of different texts assembled under the general title of “Wujing” is for the moment hard to asses because, as noted above, in many instances the yuanyi may be considered as important as the core texts themselves. They should therefore be included in the tally and equally part of the translation program.

While keeping a traditional stance as to the definition of the Wujing, the present program will also take into account modern text critical research. The contribution of the studies in the phonology, etymology and syntax of the Wujing cannot be ignored. The data provided by archaeology are also extremely important. The ever increasing number of ancient manuscript versions for almost all the jing and zhuan is of paramount importance. For the Yili and for the Yijing we now have nearly complete early versions that offer important variant readings. The newly discovered “guwen” chapters of the Shangshu may well completely reverse the accepted views on the textual history of this canon. If it can be ascertained that the same hoard of bamboo slips from the middle of the Warring States period also contains parts from the now lost Yue (Book of Music), then we cannot bypass it. Thus our new translation of the Wujing must be based on up-to-date critical text editions and these have to be elaborated in conjunction with the translation work itself.

The initial translation will be in English. It will attempt to do justice to the original meaning (yuanyi) of the text, but without being literal. Neither should the translation be unduly influenced by a particular commentarial tradition. The general idea is to render the original text in a way that it conveys the sense of what is written in conformity to modern usage. Accuracy must be combined with readability.

For each of the Classics and their major subdivisions there will be short introductory essays providing information concerning the history and the significance of the text in question. After this, the Wujing should be read for themselves. There will be no footnotes. Truly important variant readings can be signaled in the margins. The remaining critical materials should be published, if deemed useful, in separate volumes.

On the basis of the English translation, but with continuous reference to the original texts, the Wujing will then be translated into the following languages: French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Malay. These different languages have been chosen because of the number of speakers or for their cultural significance.

Fuzhou, November, 2008

Kristofer Schipper and Yuan Bingling

Annex: Biographical Notes of Kristofer Schipper and Yuan Bingling

Professor Kristofer Schipper (born 1934) is Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He obtained his PhD from the University of Paris (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes) in 1962, and his French State Doctorate in 1983. After having been a Fellow of the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, he was appointed in 1972 professor of Chinese Religions in Paris. In 1992 he was also given the chair of Chinese History at the University of Leiden. As Director of the Daozang Project of the European Science Foundation, he organized and edited the first complete scientific study of the 1500 works contained in the Daoist Canon of the Ming Dynasty published by The University of Chicago Press in 2004. He received the Knighthood of the Legion of Honor of France, the Golden Medal of the Friendship of the Chinese People, the Lifelong Residence Permit of the People’s Republic of China, etc. Professor Schipper is presently Specially Appointed Professor of Fuzhou University.

Professor Yuan Bingling (born 1962) studied Chinese Classical Philology (Jingxue) at the University of Fudan, and Social History of China at Xiamen University. In 1992 she obtained a scholarship for advanced studies at the University of Leiden, where she obtained her PhD in 1998, under the supervision of Professor Leonard Blussé. Her PhD thesis was published by the University of Leiden under the title “Chinese Democracies – A Study of the Kongsi’s of West Borneo (1770-1884).” This book has earned her wide acclaim in scholarly circles. Professor Yuan returned to her Motherland in 2001, and is now full professor of Chinese History of Fuzhou University.