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Chinese Classics @ Pitt: Home

This guide introduces ways to access Chinese classics at Pitt.

What Are Chinese Classics

Pleated-leaf Binding

Scroll-style Binding

Butterfly Binding

Stitch-thread Bound

Glossary for Basic Types and Styles of Chinese Classical Literature

簡牘 (wood/bamboo slips) is one of the primary media for literacy in early China.  Each long and narrow strip of wood or bamboo carries brush-written text.  Slips might be bound together in sequence with thread.  Bamboo slips were in use as early as the late Shang Dynasty (17-11 century B.C.).  They were the standard writing material during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220).  By the 4th century they were replaced by paper.

• 金文 (Chinese bronze inscription, also known as mingwen 銘文 or  zhongdingwen 鐘鼎文) refers to a variety of Chinese scripts that were cast or engraved on ritually adopted bronze artifacts.  This way of writing dates back to the Shang Dynasty (17-11 century B.C.).

• 帛書 (silk scripts) is another early format of writing that utilizes white-colored silk as media to carry texts and a wide range of graphic representations.  The silk scripts excavated so far were primarily dated at the Spring and Autumn period (770-ca. 475 B.C.), the Warring States period (ca. 475-221B.C.), and the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220).

• 敦煌遺書 (Dunhuang manuscripts, also known as Dunhuang wenshu 敦煌文書, Dunhuang wenxian 敦煌文獻, or Dunhuang xieben 敦煌寫本), approximately 50,000 juan (scrolls) discovered in the Mogao Caves 莫高窟 of Dunhuang, Gansu Province during the early 20th century, is a cache of religious and secular documents originally dating from the 4th to the early 12th centuries.  The majority of manuscripts were written in the Chinese language, while ethnic or foreign languages were also found.  The topics include religion (mainly Buddhism), philosophy (the Confucian classics), literature, history, arts, and mathematics, etc.

• 正史 (standard histories, also translated as “official histories” or “dynastic histories”) refers to officially compiled histories by one dynasty concerning its previous dynast(ies).  They were either commissioned by the emperor, or compiled privately but imperially approved.  During the eighteenth century, standard histories were known as Ershisi Shi 二十四史 (Twenty-four Histories), recording a time period of approximately four thousand years from Huangdi 黃帝 (Yellow Emperor, ca. 2500 B.C.) to the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  Each history comprises a series of (only) annals-biography (explained below) writings.

• 別史 (unofficial histories, literally translated as “separate history”), although its definition changed over time, generally refers to those non-official works that were privately compiled but considered more serious than zashi 雜史 (miscellaneous histories, explained below).  This type of works usually does not adopt the annals or annals-biography form.

雜史 (miscellaneous histories) refers to private records or records of particular events.  It features a remarkably wide range of topics that might not have been sufficiently covered by the above mentioned types of works.  The forms of雜史 are also flexible.  For example, a large number of biji 筆記 (miscellaneous notes or anecdotes, explained below) were classified as 雜史.

• 紀傳體 (annals-biography) is one of the most important styles of history writing through a series of biographies that cover a wide range of characters, including emperors, literati, officials, heroes, and some figures who were considered less famous.  This genre is typically represented in Chinese standard histories, such as Shiji 史記 (Records of the Historian) and Hanshu 漢書 (History of the Former Han). One of the most distinct features of annals-biography history is its character-centeredness.  However, one event might have been recorded repeatedly in many biographies, since one notable event usually involved multiple participants. 

• 編年體 (annals) is another major and also the earliest methods of history recording in China.  Different from jizhuanti, biannianti arranges historical materials chronologically.  Its format evolved from simple catalogues of court events to elaborated chronicles of empire-wide events.  Representative examples of annals history include Chunqiu 春秋 (Spring and Autumn Annals) and Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑑 (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government).

• 紀事本末體 (topically arranged histories), developed in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), is the third major format of historical writing that rearranges already-existing and -recorded events according to their topics.  Notable titles of this style include Tongjian Jishi Benmo 通鑑紀事本末 (Reporting Origin and Result of Events in Zizhi Tongjian) and Mingshi Jishi Benmo 明史紀事本末 (Reporting Origin and Result of Events in the History of the Ming Dynasty).

• 政書 (works relating to government) refers to compilation/collection of official documents (e.g., codes, statutes, regulations) either of a given dynasty, such as Tang Huiyao 唐會要 (Collection of Important Documents of the Tang Dynasty), or of many dynasties, such as Tongzhi 通志 (General Treatises).  Official works relating to law were also listed in the zhengshu category.

類書 (literally meaning “classified books,” customarily translated as “encyclopedia”), as an antique method of information management in China, contains a substantial amount of verbatim excerpts quoted from a large variety of primary sources which were arranged by subject.  Major types of leishu include general encyclopedias, imperial encyclopedias, and riyong leishu 日用類書 (encyclopedias for daily use).

• 叢書 (collectanea, also known as congkan 叢刊, congke 叢刻, huike 匯刻) is a set of individual works collected and published under one title.  General collectanea, such as Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature), provide an overall coverage of field/disciplines, while specific collectanea only gather works in one or a small number of field/disciplines.  One individual title, but possibly with edits, might have appeared in several collectanea.

• 筆記 (miscellaneous notes or anecdotes) is a genre of informal writings, including reading notes, short stories, anecdotes, and many other types of random records, even gossips and rumors.  Authors could, for example, create fictional narrative, present scholastic ideas, trace personal life, and describe local customs.  Biji reached its peak during the Tang-Song period (618-1279).

• 地方誌 (or fangzhi 方誌 for short, local gazetteers, sometimes translated as local histories) stands for comprehensive records of a local area, usually compiled by literati or elites of this area.  Local gazetteer is of either an administrative division (such as province, prefecture, county, town, and street) or a non-administrative division (such as mountain, river, temple, academy, and garrison).

• 總集 (literary anthology) stands for a large collection of literary works (e.g., prose, poetry, letters, memorials, commemorative biographies) by multiple authors.

• 別集 (collected works of individual authors) distinguishes itself from zongji primarily for the number of authors it covers—only one.

Chinese Studies Librarian

Haihui Zhang's picture
Haihui Zhang
420 Hillman Library


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