An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shangshu 尚書 or Shujing 書經

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Shangshu 尚書 "Documents of antiquity" or "Venerated documents", also called Shujing 書經 "Book of documents", is one of the ancient Five Classics (wujing 五經). It is a collection of orations made by rulers and important ministers from mythical times to the middle of the Western Zhou period, and some other texts.

The Shangshu and Related Texts
尚書 Shangshu The "Book of Documents"
禹貢 Yugong "The Tribute of Yu"
洪範 Hongfan "The Great Plan"
尚書大傳 Shangshu dazhuan "Great Tradition of the Book of Documents"

Origin and Composition

The Shangshu consists of five parts. The first and shortest one is the Tangshu 唐書 "Book of Tang" (i.e. the mythical Emperor Yao 堯); the second one the Yushu 虞書 "Book of Yu" (Emperor Shun 舜); the third one is called Xiashu 夏書 "Book of the Xia dynasty" (21th - 17th cent. BCE), which is followed by the Shangshu 商書 "Book of the Shang dynasty" (17th-11th cent. BCE), and finally the longest part, Zhoushu 周書 "Book of the Zhou dynasty" (11th cent.-221 BCE).

Table 1. "Books" of the Shangshu
唐書 Tangshu "Book of Tang" (Emperor Yao 堯)
虞書 Yushu "Book of Yu" (Emperor Shun 舜)
夏書 Xiashu "Book of the Xia Dynasty"
商書 Shangshu "Book of the Shang Dynasty"
周書 Zhoushu "Book of the Zhou Dynasty"

From the language it can be seen that a part, if not all of the documents allegedly derived from the Shang period was written or at least revised during the early Zhou period, supposedly by historians at the court of the state of Song 宋, whose rulers were descendants of the Shang dynasty. Possibly some of the parts covering even more remote times (especially the chapter Ganshi 甘誓 "The speech at Gan") originated during the Shang, but most of it, like Shundian 舜典 "The canon of Shun", Gao Yao mo 皋陶謨 "The counsels of Gao Yao", or the famous chapter Yugong 禹貢 "The tribute of Yu", was written down during the early Eastern Zhou.

The literary style of speech was very common during the Shang and early Zhou periods. This can still be seen in the many bronze vessel inscriptions, a great part of which contains instructions by the king. Other, similar, books including such speeches, are mentioned in the sources (books like the Sanfen 三墳, Wudian 五典, Basuo 八索, or Jiuqiu 九丘), but are long lost. There are six different types of speeches in the Shangshu: dian 典 "canons", mo 謨 "counsels", shi 誓 "speeches", gao 誥 "announcements", xun 訓 "instructions" and ming 命 "charges" (transl. Legge 1865). Yet not all chapters can be assigned to such a type of speech. Some titles are persons' names, while others refer to the events described in the chapter. Their contentes are not really speeches, but rather recordings of events. Especially noteworthy is the chapter Yugong that describes how Yu the Great 大禹 tamed the floods and parcelled out China into provinces, allotting each province a quality label for its soils, tributes and local products. This chapter must have been added later, at a time then China had obtained her traditional geographic extent, presumably in the era of the late Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) or even the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

Table 2. Types of Chapters in the Shangshu
dian "canons"
mo "counsels"
shi "speeches" (to the army)
gao "announcements"
xun "instructions"
ming "charges"

History of the Text

It is not possible to determine the exact size of a book called Shangshu prior to the Han period. Some authors speak of 20 chapters, others of forty. At least 30 of them were lost at an early point of time. Of the 28 chapters transmitted through the Han period 14 are not mentioned in earlier times. During the Han period it became common to arrange the chapters regularly under the title of a dynasty, except for the Yushu, which only seems to have been created during the Han dynasty. The title Shangshu likewise appears first during the Han; before that time, the book was referred to as Shu 書 "The Documents". The Shangshu was soon incorporated into the canon of the Five Confucian Classics. Because Confucius as well as Mengzi 孟子 venerated the sage kings of the past their speeches as recorded in the Shangshu were an integral part of Confucian tradition, as can be seen in the chapter Mushi 牧誓 "The speech at Mu", held before the battle of Muye 牧野, in which the Zhou armies defeated that of the Shang in c. 1046 BCE.

Quotation 1. The Speech at Mu
武王戎車三百兩,虎賁三百人,與受戰于牧野。作《牧誓》。 King Wu, with three hundred chariots of war and three hundred tiger-like officers, fought with [King] Shou in der wilderness of Mu. Then was made the "Speech at Mu".
時甲子昧爽,王朝至于商郊牧野,乃誓。王左杖黃鉞,右秉白旄以麾。曰:「逖矣西土之人!」王曰:「嗟!我友邦冢君,御事:司徒、司馬、司空,亞、旅、師氏,千夫長、百夫長,及庸、蜀、羌、髳、微、盧、彭、濮人。稱爾戈,比爾干,立爾矛,予其誓。」 The time was the grey dawn of the day with the cyclical signs jiazi. On that morning the king came to the open country of Mu, in the borders of Shang, and addressed his army. In his left hand he carried a battle-axe yellow [with gold], and in his right he held a white ensign, which he waved, saying, "Far are ye come, ye men of the western regions!" He added, "Ah! ye hereditary rulers of my friendly states; ye managers of affairs—the Ministers of Instruction [Education], of War, and of Works; the great officers subordinate to these, and the many other officers; the master of my body-guards; the captains of thousands and captains of hundreds; and ye, O men of Yong, Shu, Qiang, Mao, Wei, Lu, Peng, and Pu, lift up your lances, join your shields, raise your spears: I have a speech to make."
王曰:「古人有言曰:『牝雞無晨。牝雞之晨,惟家之索。』今商王受惟婦言是用。昏棄厥肆祀弗荅;昏棄厥遺王父母弟不迪。乃惟四方之多罪逋逃,是崇是長,是信是使,是以為大夫卿士;俾暴虐于百姓,以姦宄于商邑。 The king [then] said, "The ancients have said, 'The hen does not announce the morning. The crowing of a hen in the morning [indicates] the subversion of the family.' Now Shou, the king of Shang, follows only the words of his wife. In his blindness he has neglected the sacrifices which he ought to offer, and makes no response [for the favours that he has received]; he has also cast off his paternal and maternal relations, not treating them properly. They are only the vagabonds from all quarters, loaded with crimes, whom he honours and exalts, whom he employs and trusts, making them great officers and high nobles, so that they can tyrannize over the people, and exercise their villainies in the cities of Shang.
今予發惟恭行天之罰。今日之事,不愆于六步、七步,乃止齊焉。夫子勗哉!不愆于四伐、五伐、六伐、七伐,乃止齊焉。勗哉夫子!尚桓桓,如虎、如貔、如熊、如羆,于商郊。弗迓克奔,以役西土。勗哉夫子!爾所弗勗,其于爾躬有戮!」 Now, I, Fa, am simply executing, respectfully the punishment appointed by Heaven. In today's business do not advance more than six or seven steps, and then stop and adjust your ranks; my brave men, be energetic! Do not exceed four blows, five blows, six blows, or seven blows, and then stop and adjust your ranks; my brave men, be energetic! Display a martial bearing. Be like tigers and panthers, like bears and grisly bears, [here] in the borders of Shang. Do not rush on those who fly [to us in submission], but receive them to serve our western land; my brave men, be energetic! If you be not energetic, you will bring destruction on yourselves." [Legge 1865: Vol. 1, 8; Vol. 2, 300-304; slightly changed]

It is told that during the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE), when the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇 (r. 246/221 – 210 BCE) had all "useless" books burned, including the Confucian writings, Master Fu Sheng 伏勝 immured the Shangshu in the walls of his house in order to hide it. Though it was taken out of its hiding place only a few decades later, just 28 chapters were preserved. This version was copied and distributed in the academies of the Confucian scribes in the regions of Qi 齊 and Lu 魯 (approx. today's Shandong), the ancient home of Confucius. Thus three different versions of the Shangshu circulated during the Han period, namely that of Ouyang Gao 歐陽高 (the tradition of Ouyang 歐陽氏學), Xiahou Sheng 夏侯勝 (the tradition of Xiahou the Elder 大夏侯氏學), and that of Xiahou Jian 夏侯建 (the tradition of Xiahou the Younger 小夏侯氏學). All of them were based on the book preserved by Fu Sheng, plus the chapter Taishi 泰誓 that was discovered by somebody else. The only greater difference seemed to be that the Ouyang tradition divided the chapter Pan Geng 盤庚 into three parts. This is the so-called 100-chapter version (Baipian Shangshu 百篇尚書), each chapter being headed by a short introduction allegedly written by Confucius.

The book preserved by Fu Sheng was written in the chancery script (lishu 隸書) that became common during the late Zhou and became the standard script under the rule of the First Emperor. It was therefore called the "modern-script" or "new-text" Shangshu (Jinwen Shangshu 今文尚書, see old-text/new-text debate). The Ouyang version served as the basis for the stone inscriptions of the Confucian Classics that were produced during the Xiping reign 熹平 (172–177). In the course of time several more fragments of the Shangshu were discovered throughout the country that had likewise been hidden to survive the literary "inquisition" by the First Emperor. These versions, written in an antique seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆) style appeared to be older than Fu Sheng's text and were therefore called the "old-script" or "old-text" Documents (Guwen Shangshu 古文尚書). They included the version detected in the walls of the Kong family's manor in old Lu (the specimen had been saved on the orders of Prince Gong of Lu 魯恭王 (d. 128 BCE) and revised by Kong Anguo 孔安國 (late 2nd cent. BCE), a descendant of Confucius), the version found by Prince Xian of Hexian 河間獻王 (d. 129 BCE), the so-called Zhongbi version 中祕, Zhang Ba's 張霸 (XXX) version in 200 chapters, and Du Lin's 杜林 (early 1st cent. CE) version written with lacquer (Du Lin qi Shu 杜林漆書). The version from Confucius' hometown had 16 chapters more than Fu Sheng's new-script version. The clash between these versions led to the long-lasting strife between the adherents of the old-script and the new-script schools. The most widespread old-script Shangshu was Du Lin's version that contained the same number of chapters as the new-script versions. It was commented by the Han period scholars Wei Hong 衛宏 (1st cent. CE), Jia Kui 賈逵 (174–228), Ma Rong 馬融 (79-176), Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) and Wang Su 王肅 (195-256). Ma Rong and Zheng Xuan divided the chapters Pangeng and Taishi, and extracted the chapter Kangwang zhi gao 康王之誥 from the chapter Guming 顧命, which resulted in a total sum of 34 chapters. This version was the basis for the classic incised into stone slabs during the Cao-Wei period (as part of the the so-called santi shijing 三體石經 "stone Classics in three writing styles").

The many different versions of the Shangshu—and other Confucian Classics—were lost during the disturbances of the Jin period 晉 (265-420). In the early 4th century a certain Mei Ze 梅賾 (c. 300) submitted a Shangshu written in chancery script on the basis of ancient seal script characters (hence called liguding 隸古定 version, "fixed in chancery and ancient script") to the emperor, together with a commentary authored by Kong Anguo. It was thus an old-script version, but of a length of 13 juan containing 33 chapters. It was, nevertheless, possible to reconstruct part of the missing chapters from surviving fragments and the commentaries of Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE) and Zheng Xuan. This reconstructed version with 58 chapters is that which is transmitted to this day, although it contains both new-script and old-script fragments concurrently.

Table 3. Chapters of the Shangshu
N.B. Left number is of 100-chapter version, right number that of the transmitted text. Roman numbers are the "books".
I 唐書 Tangshu The Book of Tang
1 1. 堯典 Yaodian The canon of Yao
II 虞書 Yushu The Book of Yu
2 2. 舜典 Shundian The canon of Shun
3 汨作 Mizuo (lost)
九共九篇 Jiugong jiu pian (lost)
13 稿飫 Gaoyu (lost)
14 3. 大禹謨 Da Yu mo The counsels of Yu the Great
15 4. 皋陶謨 Gao Yao mo The counsels of Gao Yao
(Shangshu dazhuan writes 咎繇謨)
16 5. 益稷 Yi Ji Yi and Ji
III 夏書 Xiashu The Book of Xia
17 6. 禹貢 Yugong The tribute of Yu
18 7. 甘誓 Gan shi The speech at Gan
19 8. 五子之歌 Wu zi zhi ge The songs of the five sons
20 9. 胤征 Yin zheng The punitive expedition of Yin
IV 商書 Shangshu The Book of Shang
21 帝告 Digao (lost)
22 釐沃 Liwo (lost)
23 湯征 Tangzheng (lost)
24 汝鳩 Rujiu (lost)
25 汝方 Rufang (lost)
26 10. 湯誓 Tangshi The speech of Tang
27 夏社 Xiashe (lost)
28 疑至 Yizhi (lost)
29 臣扈 Chenhu (lost)
30 典寶 Dianbao (lost)
31 11. 仲虺之誥 Zhong Hui zhi gao The announcement of Zhong Hui
32 12. 湯誥 Tanggao The announcement of Tang
33 明居 Mingju (lost)
34 13. 伊訓 Yinxun The instructions of Yi
35 肆命 Siming (lost)
36 徂后 Cuhou (lost)
太甲 Tai Jia [King] Taijia
40 17. 咸有一德 Xian you yi de The common possession of pure virtue
41 沃丁 Wo Ding (lost)
咸乂四篇 Xianyi si pian (lost)
46 伊陟 Yizhi (lost)
47 原命 Yuanming (lost)
48 仲丁 Zhong Ding (lost)
49 河亶甲 Hedan Jia (lost)
50 祖乙 Zu Yi (lost)
盤庚 Pan Geng [King] Pan Geng
說命 Yueming The charge to Yue
57 24. 高宗肜日 Gaozong tong ri The day of the supplementary sacrifice of [King] Gaozong
58 高宗之訓 Gaozong zhi xun (lost)
59 25. 西戡黎 Xi kan Li The chief of the west's conquest of the Li people
60 26. 微子 Weizi Prince Wei
V 周書 Zhoushu The Book of Zhou
泰誓 Taishi The great speech
64 30. 牧誓 Mushi The speech at Mu
65 31. 武成 Wucheng The successful completion of the war
66 32. 洪範 Hongfan The great plan
Shangshu dazhuan writes 鴻笵
67 分器 Fenqi (lost)
68 33. 旅獒 Lü'ao The hounds of Lü
69 旅巢命 Lü chao ming (lost)
70 34. 金滕 Jinteng The golden coffer
71 35. 大誥 Dagao The great announcement
72 36. 微子之命 Weizi zhi ming The charge to Prince Wei
73 歸禾 Guihe (lost)
74 嘉禾 Jiahe (lost)
75 37. 康誥 Kanggao The announcement to [Prince] Kang
76 38. 酒誥 Jiugao The announcement about drunkenness
77 39. 梓材 Zicai The timber of Rottlera
Shangshu dazhuan writes 杍材
78 40. 召誥 Shaogao The announcement of [the Duke of] Shao
79 41. 洛誥 Luogao The announcement concerning Luoyang
Shangshu dazhuan writes 雒誥
80 42. 多士 Duoshi The numerous officers
81 43 無逸 Wuyi Against luxurious ease
Shangshu dazhuan writes 毋佚
82 44. 君奭 Jun Shi Lord Shi
83 45. 蔡仲之命 Cai Zhong zhi ming The charge to Cai Zhong
84 成王政 Chengwang zheng (lost)
85 將蒲姑 Jiang pu gu (lost)
揜誥 Yangao (lost, only in Shangshu dazhuan)
86 46. 多方 Duofang The numerous regions
87 47. 立政 Lizheng The establishment of government
88 48. 周官 Zhouguan The officers of Zhou
89 賄肅慎之命 Yousu Shen zhi ming (lost)
90 亳姑 Haogu (lost)
91 49. 君陳 Jun Chen Lord Chen
92 50. 顧命 Guming The testamentary charge
臩命 Guanming (lost, only in Shangshu dazhuan)
93 51. 康王之誥 Kangwang zhi gao The announcement of King Kang
鮮誓 Xianshi (lost, only in Shangshu dazhuan)
94 52. 畢命 Biming The charge to [the Duke of] Bi
95 53. 君牙 Jun Ya Lord Ya
96 54. 冏命 Jiongming The charge to Jiong
97 55. 呂刑 Lüxing [Marquis] Lü on punishments
Shangshu dazhuan writes 甫刑
98 56. 文侯之命 Wenhou zhi ming The charge to Marquis Wen
99 57. 費誓 Feishi The speech at Fei
100 58. 秦誓 Qinshi The speech of Qin


During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) wrote his famous commentary Shangshu zhengyi 尚書正義. It was printed during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), together with the ancient commentary by Kong Anguo, with the title Shangshu zhushu 尚書注疏, zhu being the Kong Anguo commentary, shu the sub-commentary of Kong Yingda. For a third time the Shangshu was incised in stone slabs during the Tang period (Tang shijing 唐石經, the Tang Stone Classics), based on a calligraphy by Wei Bao 衛包 (mid-8th cent.) in the then-modern kaishu 楷書 "standard" writing style.

Cai Shen 蔡沈, a disciple of the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130 – 1200), compiled all Song period commentaries on the Shangshu and published them as Shujizhuan 書集傳. The Shangshu, or Shujing, as it was called from then on, had to be studied by all those wishing to pass the state examinations. During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) it therefore became part of the book Wujing daquan 五經大全 "All about the Five Classics", a handbook that served as a kind of manual for candidates of the state examinations.

The authenticity of Mei Ze's book was questioned at a very early point of time, and many scholars asked whether it was not a forgery. Wu Yu 吳棫 (c. 1100-1154), Wu Cheng 吳澄 (1249-1333), Mei Zhuo 梅鷟 (c. 1483-1553), Yan Ruoqu 閻若璩 (1636-1704) and Hui Dong 惠棟 (1697-1758) called Mei Ze's 25-chapter Shangshu a phantastic invention, but in spite of severe doubts nobody considered eliminating suspicious parts or giving up the study of the Shangshu at all. Scholars continued to be attracted by its contents and studied all aspects of the Shangshu.

Examples of such studies are Wang Mingsheng's 王鳴盛 (1722-1797) Shangshu hou'an 尚書後案, Sun Xingyan's 孫星衍 (1753-1818) Shangshu jinguwen zhushu 尚書今古文注疏, Wang Xianqian's 王先謙 (1842-1918) Shangshu Kong zhuan canzheng 尚書孔傳參證, as well as some texts from the Republican period by Wu Kaisheng 吳闓生 (1878-1949; Shangshu dayi 尚書大義) and Yang Yunru 楊筠如 (Shangshu hegu 尚書核詁, 1959). For modern scholars the Shangshu is of special interest as a source with abundant material comparable with the Shangshu dazhuan 尚書大傳, a parallel tradition of speeches from that period of time, as well as the many bronze vessel inscriptions of the early Zhou period.

Hao Tiechuan 郝鐵川 (1996), "Shangshu 尚書", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed., Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Zhengzhi falü 政治法律卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 7.
Jiang Xijin 蔣錫金 (1990), ed., Wen-shi-zhe xuexi cidian 文史哲學習辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 427.
Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992), "Shangshu 尚書", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 904.
Lin Fei 林非 (1997), ed., Zhongguo sanwen da cidian 中國散文大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 7.
Xu Hongxing 徐洪興 (1992), "Shangshu 尚書" in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed., Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Zhexue 哲學卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 9.
Yang Weisheng 楊渭生, "Shangshu 尚書", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe, 1986), Vol. 2, 694.
Zhu Shunlong 朱順龍, "Shangshu 尚書", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed., Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Lishi 歷史卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 1994), 215.

Karlgren, Bernhard (1948). "Glosses on the Book of Documents", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 20/21: 39-315.
Karlgren, Bernhard (1950). "The Book of Documents", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 22: 1–81.
Legge, James (1865). The Chinese Classics, Vol. 3, The Shoo King, or the Book of Historical Documents (London: Frowde).
Palmer, Martin (2014). Confucius: The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu) (London: Penguin).
Waltham, Clae (1971). Shu Ching: Book of History. A Modernized Edition of the Translation of James Legge (Chicago: Regnery).

Further reading:
Nylan, Michael (2001). The Five "Confucian" Classics (New Haven: Yale University Press).