Five classics, Four books

2 June 2015

In the Backhouse Collection there is an edition of the Wujing sishu 五經四書, the most important sections of the Confucian canon and essential reading for anyone about to take the official examinations. This edition has puzzled me for over thirty years. During that time – I can’t remember when, where, or how – I came across a catalogue entry for an edition in the Bavarian State Library which I thought might be the same as ours.

Last month, I was able to see the Munich edition, and it is indeed identical. To judge by the quality of the impression, it may be a little later, but not much. Putting my conclusion before the reasoning, if it were in Oxford I would catalogue it as follows:

線裝33冊 ; 31公分
4° L.sin. C 16

周易 四卷 / (宋)朱熹本義
書經 六卷 / (宋)蔡沈集傳
詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
春秋 三十卷 / (宋)胡安國傳
大學 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
中庸 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
論語 十卷 / (宋)朱熹集注
孟子 七卷 / (宋)朱熹集注

Actually, we have two copies of this edition, but both are incomplete. I was once tempted to shelfmark them together, but this would have been quite wrong as although the paper of both text and covers is the same, as is the thread and the silk used for the corner protectors, the fascicles differ in size by a few millimetres. Also, the seals and tao 套 show that they are ultimately of different provenance (we can ignore the manuscript label 「殿本四書」; if labels were an indication of contents, we would have Song editions – we have none).


The “Five Classics” were originally shelfmarked separately, but as these are obviously part of a set, I have amalgamated them, and now catalogue our copies as follows:

五經四書讀本 殘五經
線裝25冊 ; 28公分
Backhouse 36

周易 四卷 / (宋)朱熹本義
書經 六卷 / (宋)蔡沈集傳
詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
春秋 三十卷 / (宋)胡安國傳

五經四書讀本 殘四書
線裝5冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 229

大學 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
中庸 一卷 / (宋)朱熹章句
論語 十卷 / (宋)朱熹集注
孟子 七卷 / (宋)朱熹集注

In his list of Palace editions (清代殿板書目), the authoritative Republican period bibliographer Tao Xiang 陶湘 inverts the sequence of the two sections of this work in the overall title, calling it Sishu wujing duben 四書五經讀本; and unusually (because for the most part it’s simply a list) he goes into some detail about the edition.

It was supplied to the Guozijian 國子監 (the “Imperial Academy”) and the Baqi Guanxue 八旗官學. The latter was a department of the Guozijian set up in the first year of the dynasty (1644) to educate the offspring of the Eight Banners who were not members of the imperial family. It was also supplied to provincial academies and commercial publishers, who used it as a model for their own editions, which were therefore popularly known as “Academy editions” 監本. When first published, the Chunqiu 春秋 was the version with Hu Anguo’s commentary, as shown above, but during the Qianlong period this was replaced with the Zuozhuan 左傳, and Hu Anguo’s commentary fell into disuse.

In view of all this, it is extraordinary that complete sets of this edition (as distinct from copies of the individual works in it) seem to be rather rare. Other than the Munich and Oxford copies, from both printed catalogues and online databases I have only been able to find copies in the following libraries:


The entry in the descriptive catalogue of government editions prepared by the National Palace Museum Library and Liaoning Provincial Library (清代內附刻書目錄解題, 紫禁城出版社 1995, 18-19) is based on the copies in those libraries, and corresponds with the Munich and Oxford copies in all but one respect: it describes the text frame as having a double border (雙邊), whereas ours is single (單邊), and so does the entry in Weng Lianxi’s 翁連溪 illustrated catalogue of government editions (清代內附刻書圖錄, 北京出版社 2004, 3). The descriptions in the two catalogues are identical, and one must have been copied from the other, or both from the same source.

In WorldCat however, the Liaoning copy is described as having a single border 單邊, like the Munich and Oxford copies. Furthermore, both the CALIS database and WordCat record a copy of the Shijing 詩經 from this edition in the library of the University of British Columbia in Canada which is also described as having a single border. So it seems clear to me that the Chinese printed catalogues are mistaken.

So how do we know that the copies in Munich and Oxford are of the same edition as those in China? In the edition itself there is nothing to help us. The overall title is invented, and there is no prefatory material relating to the edition, only the standard short prefaces to each individual work.

We could make a start with the date, because the edition is a simple, classic example of how works can be dated by examining taboo characters, especially during the reigns of the Kangxi 康熙, Yongzheng 雍正, and Qianlong 乾隆 emperors, when the observance of taboos was particularly strict.

It cannot have been made earlier than the Kangxi period, because the taboo of the first character in the emperor’s personal name, Xuanye 玄燁, has been avoided by omitting the final stroke of the character:

fcfb-02-yi-1-13b   周易 1:13b

Nor can it have been made earlier than the Yongzheng period, because the taboo of that emperor’s personal name, Yinzhen 胤禎, has been similarly avoided:

fcfb-04-shu-2-38b   書經 2:38b

The taboo of the Qianlong emperor’s personal name Hongli 弘曆 is not observed:

fcfb-06-lun-4-13b   論語 4:13b

This does not necessarily mean that the edition was not made in his reign, as only in the thirteenth year (1748) was the order given to avoid the taboo of his personal name by omitting the last stroke. But it is generally reckoned that the edition was made during the Yongzheng period, and the taboos do not preclude that.

We have copies of individual works made from this edition later during the Qing dynasty, and it is instructive to compare them with the orginal edition, and to note how the taboos have been treated.

For example, in this edition of the Shijing, the taboo of Qianlong’s name has indeed been observed:

詩經 八卷 / (宋)朱熹傳
線裝4冊 ; 29公分
Sinica 2607

fcfb-07-shi-5-20a   fcfb-08-shi-5-20a
詩經 5:20a; L: 監本, R: 嘉慶十年本

And consistent with the Jiaqing date of this edition, we find that the taboo of the Jiaqing emperor’s name Yuyan 顒琰 is also avoided:

fcfb-09-shi-5-3b   fcfb-10-shi-5-3b
詩經 5:3b; L: 監本, R: 嘉慶十年本

However the character ning 寧 in the personal name of the Daoguang emperor, Minning 旻寧 is not replaced with ning 甯, which it invariably is in even the Protestant missionary works that were printed in Ningbo (甯波 for 寧波) in that period:

詩經 3:10a

By contrast, in this edition of the Liji:

禮記 十卷 / (元)陳澔集說
線裝10冊 ; 27公分
Backhouse 183

the original edition has been copied without observing the taboo of the Qianlong emperor’s name in the only place in the text where it occurs:

fcfb-12-li-7-31b   fcfb-13
禮記 7:31b

But if we have a Jiaqing edition which doesn’t observe the later taboos (and at this time the observance of taboos was not very strict), how can we be sure that the Munich and Oxford copies are not also a later edition? I believe that a single leaf in one of the Oxford copies provides the answer to that. It is the first leaf of the Four books section:


A large square seal has been excised in the upper half of the leaf and the text replaced in manuscript; and in the bottom right corner, a large vertical seal has been excised and replaced by a new owner’s seal.

What I believe are the same seals are to be found on different pages in this palace edition, and in the same position:

欽定四書文 存化治六卷正嘉六卷隆萬六卷啟禎六卷 / (清)乾隆五年[1740]弘晝等奉敕編
線裝9冊 ; 28公分
Backhouse 5

fcfb-16   fcfb-15

The seals are 「國子監印」 and 「國子監八學官書」, the Imperial Academy and the Baqi Guanxue, precisely the establishments that Tao Xiang says the edition was made for.

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