For many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.
These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.
Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.
Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.
Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.
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