How were Confucious' Writings Distributed?Who read them at the time, and how? Did they find their widest audience as an oral or written tradition? 

6 Answers | Add Yours

sagesource's profile pic

sagesource | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

How were Confucious' Writings Distributed?

Who read them at the time, and how? Did they find their widest audience as an oral or written tradition? 

There was a major debate between 100 BCE and 100 CE or so in the Confucian school over whether oral or written transmission was more reliable. I'll try to get into it later. One thing to remember is that at the time, books were written on either bamboo slips or silk fabric, and both media are extremely durable. The traditional tales of books being hidden and then dug up again many years later are not entirely impossible -- we are still digging them up in readable form at the present day, two thousand years later.

Wow!  I didn't know that things were written on bamboo skips or silk.  That is fascinating.  The fact that they are still readable today is incredible. 

Some recovered texts are pretty clear; others require all the resources of modern science to make legible. This website has a picture of a slip from the Han dynasty that is in fairly poor condition, but still readable. Quite a few texts, including some that seem related to the modern Analects, have been found. There are also shorter inscriptions on bronze vessels and, earliest of all, the so-called "oracle bone" texts carved into divination bones and tortoise shells from about 1500 to 1000 BCE.

When we find ancient copies of books that have been preserved to the present, it often sets off academic quarreling, with a number of scholars assuming without further argument that the discovered text must be more authentic. I have serious doubts about the validity of this reasoning in all cases (the text discussed on the linked website is a bit of an exception here), since it seems unlikely that the best-quality texts would be buried in tombs. Confucian philosophers argued strongly against making tomb furnishings and goods too realistic, since this would be favoring death over life.

kwoo1213's profile pic

kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted on

How were Confucious' Writings Distributed?

Who read them at the time, and how? Did they find their widest audience as an oral or written tradition? 

There was a major debate between 100 BCE and 100 CE or so in the Confucian school over whether oral or written transmission was more reliable. I'll try to get into it later. One thing to remember is that at the time, books were written on either bamboo slips or silk fabric, and both media are extremely durable. The traditional tales of books being hidden and then dug up again many years later are not entirely impossible -- we are still digging them up in readable form at the present day, two thousand years later.

Wow!  I didn't know that things were written on bamboo skips or silk.  That is fascinating.  The fact that they are still readable today is incredible. 

sagesource's profile pic

sagesource | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

How were Confucious' Writings Distributed?

Who read them at the time, and how? Did they find their widest audience as an oral or written tradition? 

There was a major debate between 100 BCE and 100 CE or so in the Confucian school over whether oral or written transmission was more reliable. I'll try to get into it later. One thing to remember is that at the time, books were written on either bamboo slips or silk fabric, and both media are extremely durable. The traditional tales of books being hidden and then dug up again many years later are not entirely impossible -- we are still digging them up in readable form at the present day, two thousand years later.

sagesource's profile pic

sagesource | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

Confucius is also credited with a mass of other literary work: he is supposed to have edited the Canon of Poetry, rewritten and recast the history of his own state of Lu (inserting subtle moral hints into the text), and written some of the later material appended to the Canon of Changes (Yijing), among other things. It may perhaps be true that he did something with the text of the Poetry, but the other claims are not normally considered credible today. What seems to have happened is that in his general period, there were already nascent academic traditions built around a number of different canonical and historical works. When Confucius became the literatus par excellence, for reasons I hope we can discuss here later, he was posthumously "adopted" by some of these traditions to lend authority to their teachings. This technique also had the convenient effect of helping bring the various texts and traditions in question into a single "Confucian canon."

sagesource's profile pic

sagesource | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

I'll respond to this briefly now, and come back with more detail in a few days -- things are a bit hectic right now.

As far as we know, Confucius himself wrote nothing. He taught his students orally, using the ancient canonical texts as material when appropriate. We do not know the form the canon had during his time, but he did use an early version of the Canon of Poetry, and probably parts of the Canon of Documents as well, with some harder to identify writings on history and ritual practice.

Some of what Confucius said was taken down immediately -- in one case, a disciple wrote it on his sash. However, there seems to have been no organized collection of his writings until the second generation of disciples, when those who knew him personally were dying out. At that time, his sayings and those of his closest followers were collected into a group of loosely connected aphorisms called in English the Analects of Confucius.

The early history of the Analects is exceedingly obscure, and the text circulated in several versions. However, modern linguistic analysis has shown it to be written in a distinctive dialect not found in later works, and so unlikely to be a later forgery. How well it reflects the "real" Confucius is a question as hard to answer as how well the Gospels reflect the "real" Jesus. Chinese scholars divide the text into several layers of somewhat varying reliability, and I find their arguments generally convincing.

kwoo1213's profile pic

kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted on

This is an excellent question!  I'd like to know this, as well.  I'm assuming that during this time period, his teachings would have been passed down orally, but I'm curious to know the answer to your last question.

We’ve answered 318,914 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question