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Confucius in History and Tradition: A Historical-critical Analysis of Literacy in the Time of Confucius


  • Andreas Källström

Summary, in English

This thesis sets out to answer the question: “Why didn’t Confucius write a book?” It investigates literacy and textual tradition in the time of Confucius based on research on archaeology, historical text sources and textual analyses of samples of preserved text. Throughout the thesis, observations and analyses on the textual tradition is based on the historical critical method, as practiced in the field of biblical scholarship. Through an overview of the sources of literacy in ancient China, beginning in the Shang dynasty 商 ca.
1200 BC., down through the Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國) ca. 300 BC., archaeology, history and textual analysis is used interrelate the question of literacy in China during the estimated time of Confucius in the late Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu 春秋) ca. 500 BC. For the textual analysis, books III-IX of the Analects were chosen, representing what is probably the earliest layer of the Analects. Some observations and analysis on the textual tradition of the Analects are also included, based on readings using the historical-critical method.
The research shows that it is unlikely that writing had, in the time of Confucius, moved beyond the exclusive realms of divination and elite society. Since Confucius was not a part of either of these worlds, the conclusion is drawn that Confucius, living in a mostly illiterate society, and moreover, living outside the sphere of the political elite, was most likely not literate.


Publishing year




Document type

Student publication for Master's degree (two years)


  • Languages and Literatures


  • Confucius
  • Analects
  • lunyu
  • literacy
  • Spring and Autumn period


  • Elisabet Göransson
  • Arthur Holmer (docent)