Chinese Classic Literature

The ancient classics of Chinese literature, called the Wǔ jīng ‘Five Classics’ were established as long ago as early as the first century BCE. They were said to come from the preceding Zhou dynasty but some were heavily revised during the Han dynasty. These five are considered the Confucian Classics and comprise:

  • Book of Changes Yì jīng. The Yi Jing is considered the first of the classics and although primarily a book of divination it says a great deal about Chinese philosophy. It is the commentaries on the text that are considered of most value. We have a full translation of this work and an online divination.
  • Book of History Shū jīng. Also known as the ‘Book of Documents’ this classic is more a miscellaneous collection of legends and some philosophy. It covers the time up to about 626BCE.
  • Book of Odes or Songs Shī jīng. This is assorted collection of song lyrics up to about 600BCE from a variety of sources. The topics covered include love, marriage, victory celebrations, sacrifices and hunts. They set a moralistic tone and set the early framework for all later poetry.
  • Classic of Rites Lǐ jì. There are three divisions within this rather vague assortment of documents. The Yí lǐ ‘Rites and Ceremonies’ covers correct procedure at all sorts of occasion: marriage, burial, banquets, religious ceremony, Imperial audiences. The second division is the Zhōu lǐ ‘Rituals of Zhou’ which recounts the organization of administration in the Zhou dynasty which was held up as the Golden Age of sound government. The third part is Lǐ jì itself which is a collection of early Han dynasty writings some on general philosophy: Dà xué ‘The Great Learning’ and the zhōng yōng ‘Doctrine of the Mean’.
  • Spring and Summer Annals Chūn qiū. This is a list of important events in the state of Lu (now Shandong) attributed to Confucius himself. ‘Spring and Summer’ in those days referred to a whole year so a more accurate translation might be just ‘Annals’. The classic was so influential that the period of history covered is named ‘Spring and Summer period’ after the book.

As well as being important for their antiquity these books formed the bedrock of a classical education. Students would need to memorize every character in some of these classics to pass the Imperial examinations and so all scholars knew them thoroughly and would often make reference to them in poetry and other writing.

The five ancient classics were soon joined by other notable works. By the end of the Han dynasty the main work of Confucian philosophy the Lún yǔ ‘Analects’ were added. Soon the Xiào jīng ‘Classic of Filial Piety’ joined it, as filial piety was at the heart of Confucian ethics. A very early dictionary, the ěr yǎ was added by the Tang dynasty and in the Song dynasty the second sage of Confucian philosopher Mencius was included with his main work the Mèng zǐ

By the Song dynasty the original five books had swelled to an unmanageable thirteen and so a short series of sì shū ‘Four books ’ were introduced which contain the key parts of the whole corpus: Lún yǔ ‘Analects’; Mèng zǐ ‘Mengzi’; Dà xué ‘Great Learning’ and the Zhōng yōng ‘Doctrine of the Mean’.

One of the best resources to study the Five Classics on the Internet is the CText project , you can browse through the works and see English translations of many of them.

Language primers

Before being able to tackle the great classics the young student must have mastered the language. There are three ‘classic’ language primers learned by heart for hundreds of years: sān zì jīng The ‘Three Character Classic’; bǎi jiā xìngHundred Names’ and the qiān zì wén ‘Thousand character classic’. We provide translations of the first two of these in this section.

One Hundred Names

Part of the Classical Chinese literature is the Hundred Family Names Bǎi jiā xìng. The Han Chinese have a small number of family names, and one colloquial way to refer to the Chinese people is as the lǎo bǎi xìng venerable hundred surnames or just bǎi xìng hundred names. The term refers to the 'ordinary working people' not the government or rulers. There are actually 504 names in this list of names which dates back to the Song dynasty.

Young aspiring scholars would learn these names by heart, it is one way to pick up a few hundred characters. Most of the characters have meanings other than just the name, so learning the names is more useful than would otherwise seem; for example qián as well as a family name also means money. The names are arranged in lines of usually eight names in rhyming couplets.

The names are not in order of frequency of the family names, although it is true that the more common ones are generally included near the top. Some of the most common surnames in China are Wang , Chen , Li , Zhang and Liu . Towards the end of the list are some of the rarer two character family names.

Here is the full list of names, they are written using the modern characters rather than the traditional ones. The Chinese character(s) and Pinyin is followed by the meaning in English and after that different pronunciations of the character according to other Chinese languages such as Cantonese, Hakka, Vietnamese, Malaysian. Because the spoken sound can vary it is important to track down the actual character for the name so that the family ancestry can be traced.


Zhào go away rapidlyChew, Chieu, Chu, Chiu
Qián cashCh'ien
Sūn descendents, grandson
plumLee, Ly (Vietnam)
Zhōu encircleJoe, Chow
JiangsuWoo, Ng, Ang
Zhèng solemnCheng, Chung
Wáng ruler, kingWong, Heng, Ong

Féng running horseFoong, Fung, Pang
Chén displayChin, Chan, Tan
Chǔ
Wèi protect
Jiǎng
Shěn
Hán
Yáng poplar treeYoung, Ye, Yong, Yeung

Zhū scarletChu, Gee (Family name of the Ming Emperors)
Qín
Yóu especially
permitHui, Huie, Hsu
carryHor, Ko
musical note
Shī give awaySze
Zhāng open upCheung, Chong, Teoh, Teo, Chiang, Cheong, Jong

Kǒng holeKung (family name of Confucius)
Cáo severalTow, Tso
Yán fluid, strictYim
Huà
Jīn gold
Wèi Wei, Gooi
Táo pleased, pottery
Jiāng

relative
Xiè thankDea, Der, Deer, Che, She, Tse, Tze
Zōu
analogy
Bǎi cedar
Shuǐ water
Dòu holeTou
Zhāng chapter

Yún cloud
revive
Pān

what
Fàn model
Péng
Láng youth

crass
Wéi leather
Chāng flatter
horseMah, Mar
Miáo sprout
Fèng phoenix
Huā blossom
Fāng square, regionFong

approve
Rèn appoint
Yuán robe
Liǔ willow
Fēng
Bào
Shǐ history
Táng Tang dynasty

Fèi expenses
Lián un-corrupt, reasonable
Cén hillockSam, Sum, Shum, Tsen, Gim
Xuē grassHsueh
Léi thunderLouis, Lui
congratulate

Tāng soupTong, Hong

Téng
Yīn flourishing
Luó snare, arrange Law, Loh, Lo, Lao
complete
Hǎo

Ān peace, calm
Cháng often

happy, musicYue
with, at/in
Shí time
tutor
skin
Biàn hurried
even
Kāng ease, healthHong

battalionNg, Eng
I, meYu, Yee
Yuán first, origin, currencyNgeun
to prospect
look about
Mèng first
Píng level
Huáng yellowWong, Hwang, Ng, Wee, Oei, Ooi, Bong, Huynh, Hwang

harmonious
solemn
Xiāo mournfulSiew, Siu, Seow, Hsiao
Yǐn rule
Yáo
Shào
Zhàn deep water
Wāng lake


Máo fur Mao Zedong's family name

barbarian
uncooked rice
Bèi cowrie shell
Míng clear, bright
Zāng good

ruse, plan
conceal, submit
Chéng complete
Dài wear
Tán discuss
Sòng
Máo thatch
Páng huge

Xióng bear (animal)
discipline
Shū relax
wronged, bent
Xiàng nape
Zhù invoke
Dǒng supervise
Liáng roof beam, bridgeLeong, Leung

fabricate
Ruǎn
Lán basket
Mǐn empathize
banquet
season
hemp, numb
Qiáng

Jiǎ
road
Lóu star
Wēi
Jiāng riverChiang, Gong
Tóng boy, child
Yán color
Guō city wallKwok

Méi plumMoy, Mui, Bui
Shèng flourish
Lín woodsLam, Lim, Lum
Diāo wicked
Zhōng bell
slow, gradualShu, Shaw, Seah, Hsu, Shi
Qiū moundKhu, Kau, Yau, Hui, Hew, Hiu
Luò camel

Gāo
Xià summer
Cài Chai, Chua, Chye, Choy, Tsai
Tián field
Fán cage
beard, reckless
Líng advance, ice
Huò


myriad, ten thousandWan, Mon, Maan, Won
Zhī
branches
Zǎn
Guǎn control

do not, is not

Jīng
Fáng
Qiú fur coat
Miào
Gān dry
Xiè
Yìng answer
Zōng familyDung, Tsung

Dīng 4th heavenly stem
Xuān
Bēn energeticBi
Dèng Teng, Tang, Thien, Thean, Thian
elegant
Shàn
Háng Hangzhou
Hóng floodHung

Bāo wrap, coverGao
Zhū many
Zuǒ left (as opposed to right)
Shí stone, rock
Cuī high mountain, precipice
lucky
Niǔ button
Gōng

Chéng extent
inspect
Xíng
Huá cunning
Péi
landLuk
Róng gloriousWing, Wheng
Wēng old man

Xún
Yáng sheep, goat

Huì favor
Zhēn form

Jiā home, family
Fēng grant, confer

Ruì small
羿
Chǔ savings
Jìn
fetch water
Bǐng happy
dissolved
Sōng loose

Jǐng pit
Duàn portion
rich, good fortune
wizard
crow, black
Jiāo scorched
hope
Gōng longbow

shepherd
Kuí Kui, Wei
Shān mountain
valley
Chē vehicle
Hóu marquis
silent
Péng disheveled

Quán entire
Chī
Bān class
Yǎng admire, respect
Qiū autumn, fall
Zhòng
he/she
Gōng palace

Nìng peaceful
Qiú matchQiu, Chou
Luán
Bào cruel
Gān sweet, pleasant
Tǒu Dou, Tou
severe
Róng weapon

ancestor
martial
coincide
Liú killLau
Jǐng bright, sceneryYing
Zhān excellentChaim
Shù bind
Lóng dragonLung, Loong

leaf, pageYeh, Yap, Yep, Yip
Xìng fortunate
company
Sháo harmonious
Gào
blackLi, Lai, Le

slight, thin

Yìn print
宿 former
Bái gratuitous
怀 Huái cherish

Tái
Cóng unhurried
È Hubei

Suǒ isolated
Xián all
register
Lài disclaim, depend on
Zhuó surpassing, distinguished
Lìn
slaughter
Méng hoodwink

Chí pond
Qiáo tall
Yīn cloudy, negative
melancholy
assist
Néng energy
Cāng dark blue
Shuāng pair

Wén hear
Shēn
Dǎng
Zhái Zhe, Di
Tán chatTam, Ham, Hom, Hum, Thom, Tom
Gòng gift
Láo toil
Páng

concubine
Shēn 9th earthly branch, extend
support
wall, stifle
Rǎn
Zǎi govern, slaughter

Yōng harmonious


jade ring
Sāng mulberry
Guì laurel, cassia

Niú cow, ox
寿 Shòu long life, age
Tōng know well, expert

Biān side, border
retinue
Yān
Hebei
Jiá
river bank, shore
Shàng esteemSheung
Nóng peasant, diligent

Wēn lukewarmWon
Bié leave, classify
Zhuāng village, farmstead
Yàn quiet, late
Chái firewood

Yán village gate
Chōng satisfy, substitute

admire
Lián join
eat, vegetables
practice
Huàn eunuch
Ài
fish
Róng contain

Xiàng towards
ancientKoo
change
Shèn careful
spear
Liào Lew

Zhōng finish

reach
reside
Héng weigh, measure
walk, march
metropolis, all
Gěng bright
Mǎn fill, pack
Hóng liberal, great

Kuāng aid, reformHong
Guó nation, countryGok, Gauk, Gwock
Wén literary
Kòu plunder, bandit
广 Guǎng wide, vast
good fortune
Quē
Dōng east

Ōu brawl
Shū spear
fertile, irrigate
sharp, benefit
impressive
Yuè surpass, exceed
Kuí rain god
Lóng intense, swell

Shī teacher, master
Gǒng secure, solid
Shè
Niè whisper
Cháo
Gōu attract, collude, affair
Áo ramble, rove
Róng melt

Lěng cold
wealth, backbite
Xīn hot, suffering
Kàn glance, peep
that, thenNuo
Jiǎn simple, letter
Ráo abundant, bonus
Kōng empty, sky

Zēng great-grandfatherTseng, Dont, Tsang, Cheng, Chng, Jeng
nobody, no
Shā sandSa
Miē squint
Yǎng
bring up
mustache, beard
Fēng luxuriant, buxom

Cháo nest
Guān shut, passKuan, Kwan, Quan
Kuǎi a rush
Xiāng appearance, mutual
Zhā
Hòu behind, back
Jīng thorns, brambles
Hóng red

Yóu roam, swim
Zhú
Quán power, authority
wandering
lid, canopy

Huán
Gōng public, common, male

Mòqí
Sīmǎ army generalSzema, Seema
Shàngguān superior
Ōuyáng Europe, brightAuyong, Owyang
Xiàhóu
诸葛 Zhūgě

Wénrén Famous person
Dōngfāng the East
赫连 Hèlián
Huángfǔ
尉迟 Yùchí
Gōngyáng ram

Tántái
Gōngyě
宗政 Zōngzhèng
Púyáng
Chúnyú
Chányú

Tàishū
Shēntú
Gōngsūn
Zhòngsūn
轩辕 Xuānyuán
Línghú

Zhōnglí
Yǔwén
Zhǎngsūn
Mùróng
Xiānyú
闾丘 Lǘqiū

司徒 Sītú Sutu, Seto
司空 Sīkōng
丌官 Qíguān
司寇 Sīkòu
Zhǎng mother
supervise

Zǐchē
Zhuānsūn
Duānmù
Wūmǎ
西 Gōngxī

漆雕 Qīdiāo
Yuèzhèng
壤驷 Rǎngsì
Gōngliáng
拓跋 Tuòbá
Jāgǔ

Zǎifù
Gǔliáng
Jìn promote, advance
Chǔ distinct, pain
Yán
law, method


Yān
smear, daub
Qīn respect, venerate
Duàngān
Bǎilǐ

Dōngguō
Nánmén
呼延 Hūyán
Guī give back
Hǎi sea, ocean
Yángshé
Wēishēng

Yuè high mountain
Shuài handsome, graceful
Gōu
Kòng overbearing
Kuàng
Hòu
Yǒu have, exist
Qín musical instrument

梁丘 Liángqiū
Zuǒqiū
Dōngmén
西 Xīmén

Shāng Shang dynasty; merchant
Móu barley, obtain
Shé
Nài
uncle
Shǎng bestow
Nángōng

ink stick
laughter
Qiáo ridicule

Nián year
Ài love, like
Yáng yang as opposed to yin
Tóng Tung

Dìwǔ fifth
Yán speech
Fujian, good fortune

Bǎijiāxìng Zhōng 100 Chinese names complete
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Classics: The 100 Names', last updated 8 Mar 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/lang100names.htm.

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