I am reading Sabrina Knight, Chinese Literature, A very short introduction. The book mentions a fourth century division of literature into:

  • Classics
  • History
  • Daoist and Buddhist Masters, Masters of Strategy, etc.
  • Belles Lettres

What are the Chinese terms?

Below is the actual quote: enter image description here

The rest is possibly off topic. I believe I can resolve it by web search, if I know the Chinese terms, but it is the reason for the question, so I include it as a side note:

I have trouble understanding the fourth category, since it seems not to include 小說。Would it be lyrics? Poetry? Say 樂府,輔鳥賦, non classic poetry like 楚辭? The difference between Belles lettres and 小說 seems to be the conveying of the 道. While I understand the significance (at least a little) it is hard for me to tell what the category would include.

3 Answers 3


since your book is an introduction, i would suggest that the "four main categories" is 經﹒史﹒子﹒集; in sequence:

classics - 經

history - 史

masters - 子

collections of belle lettres - 集

the long explanation: in 漢 dynasty, texts were divided into 6 categories, according to the 七略 (~bc 5):



later, in 西晉 (265 - 316), 荀勖 changed the six categories to four, in sequence:

甲部 - 經書
乙部 - 子書 ( masters is the second category)
丙部 - 史書 ( history is the third category)
丁部 - 詩賦

afterward, in 東晉 (317 - 420), "~fourth century", 李充 rearranged the categories to

甲部 - 五經
乙部 - 史記 ( history is the second category)
丙部 - 諸子 ( masters is the third category)
丁部 - 詩賦


that, the sequence of 經﹒史﹒子﹒集 is unchanged, till today. next, imo, 詩賦 matched "belle lettres" more than 集, in the last category "collections of belle lettres"

you side note about the fourth category, you want to know the contents of it in which dynasty?


ok, the internet archive has the book 補晉書藝文志, which was compiled in 清 dynasty. in 卷四﹒丁部集錄 listed all texts / books / publications at that time (from ~p42 of pdf file). you may glimpse what was included in this "fourth category", in 晉 dynasty (265 - 420).

have fun :)

ps: just curious, may i ask, why you learn chinese literary, or it's history in english?

  • 詩賦 matched "belle lettres" more then 集, in the last category "collections of belle lettres" -- 文 also matched better than 集 for belle lettres because 集 included some metaphysics books.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 20:08
  • Thank you for your answer. Among many good answers, I chose this one, because it helped me most understand the fluidity of those terms. About your question: I just started studying Chinese at university. My Chinese is extremely bad. Beginners like myself can not (obviously) read the classics. Still, we are expected to know a few basics. We learn these in English and German.
    – Ludi
    Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 21:34
  • poor pal 😼 tips for u: learning literary chinese in traditional script, you don't need knowledge of modern vernacular version. amongst literary chinese, literatures of pre-秦 are most difficult, but are the origins of all successors. wish u can have fun. btw, i recommend this book in german, an excellent one about literary chinese: archive.org/details/chinesischegram00gabegoog Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 1:48

I think it probably means 四部分類法: 經史子集

  • 四部分類法,是分類大部分中國古典典籍的方法,分經、史、子、集四类,这四类基本上囊括了中国古代的所有书籍。 zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/… It is four categories of "books"
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:04

what are the Chinese terms?

They are 儒,玄,史,文

  • Classic (儒學)
  • Daoist and Buddhist Masters, (玄學)
  • History (史學)
  • Belles Lettres (文學)

I have trouble understanding the fourth category, since it seems not to include 小說。Would it be lyrics? Poetry? Say 樂府,輔鳥賦, non classic poetry like 楚辭?

Different time period had different major form of "Belles Lettres" for example: 唐詩, 宋詞. Mostly circulated among the upper class circle.

小說 was considered of lower class, not worthy of included in the 文學 category at the time the category was created.

reference: http://r.ilong.cn/article/detail/id/34663.html

立儒、玄、史、文四学为官学 (established: 1.Classic 2.Metaphysics 3.History 4.Fine Writing, four categories of literature study as the official categories of study)


I consulted an expert, he wrote:

"The first response was correct-- the four categories refer to 經 (classics), 史 (history), 子 (masters), and 集 (collection of letters). 經 refers to the main theory in Confucianism, and, in contrast, 子 refers to the challenges and defence from individual thinkers. 史 is the official history, and, in contrast, 集 is the supplementary materials, mostly poems that reflect the thinking of the society at the time. 儒玄史文 makes no sense in this context. It is a phrase rarely used in classical Chinese." - Mr.K

My argument was:

"經史子集 are four classifications of all classical books. It is still in use today; 儒玄史文 are categories of studies specifically refer to 南朝四学, and had became obsolete."

I just didn't know for sure that which one the question was referring to. And based on the time difference, it is most likely refer to 四部分類法-- 經史子集

  • Seems like 經史子集 are categories of books; 儒玄史文 are categories of studies
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 20:11
  • fourth century is 301 - 400, even your quoted link marked 南朝宋文帝元嘉年間 which was 424 - 452; which was later than the "fourth century". secondly, it stated it's 來源 as "網摘"; isn't it doubtful? Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 0:39
  • Even your reference zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/四部分類法 are user submitted articles, we have to just take them as they are-"references" Here is another one. baike.com/wiki/%E5%9B%9B%E5%AD%A6 (2).指 南朝 宋 设立的[儒、玄(道)、史、文四学馆]。《宋书·隐逸传·雷次宗》:“ 元嘉 十五年,徵 次宗 至京师,开馆於 鸡笼山 ,聚徒教授,置生百馀人, 会稽 朱膺之 、 颍川 庾蔚之 ,并以[儒学]监总诸生。时国子学未立,上留心艺术,使 丹阳 尹 何尚之 立[玄学],太子率更令 何承天 立[史学],司徒参军 谢元 立[文学]。凡四学并建。” 南朝 梁 沉约 《为皇太子谢表》:“不闲三善之训,未习四学之仪。”
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 0:59
  • before pickup any info, read the time first :) 元嘉十五年 was 438; which was later than fourth century. Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 1:18
  • zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/… 而四部分類法的正式確立,即首次使用經史子集分類的是唐初官修的《隋書 經籍志》(李延壽,敬播等編著).....此後歷代圖書目錄皆以經史子集為名
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 1:28

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