Six Arts of Ancient China

During the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC), students were required to master the six arts (liù yì – 六艺 – in Chinese), which included rituals(礼), music(乐), archery(射), charioteering(御), writing(书) and mathematics(数). The six arts emphasized comprehensive development in all subject area, and attempted to educate students to be well-rounded, which parallels the Western concept of the Renaissance man. Men who excelled in these six arts were thought to have reached the state of perfection.

Ritual is an extraordinarily important cornerstone in Chinese culture. Without rituals, the 5,000-year-old country would never exist. In ancient China, there were officers in charge of rituals for every aspect of life, like marriage, funerals, and sacrifice. Chinese people started to live with a sense of ritual thousands of years ago and nothing can remove it from Chinese culture.

Music was not just a melody or a pastime for entertainment in ancient China. It was a symbol of great manners and a well-educated person. To learn music, one should have high aesthetic standards. Confucius himself studied from three different people to learn courtesy, music and how to play music. A famous saying of Confucius on music education is: “To educate somebody, you should start from poems, emphasize ceremonies and finish with music.” In other words, one cannot expect to become educated without learning music.

Music was also an indispensable part of Chinese culture. People play music in every ritual to express feelings and emotions. Also, there was a special position for a music officer in the court.

Archery was not only a way to protect the kingdom or to kill enemies, but was also a good sport. China measured its force of strength as much as literature. A real gentleman should not only be well-educated but also should be strong and demonstrate great archery skills. A good archer was highly admired in ancient China not only among the nobility but also among ordinary people. The ancient emperors took archery classes as a required course and it was a tradition to hold a big hunting ceremony every year.

The chariot had an important place in war, in hunting and in the parades that expressed the power of the nobles in ancient times. To become a charioteer is also an excellent form of training that requires the combined use of intellect and physical strength.

Writing usually included handwriting, reading, drawing and composition. There have been so many great calligraphers throughout the history of China and Chinese greatly valued handwriting. There’s a saying that your handwriting reflects your alter ego. Especially in ancient China, it was necessary for an emperor to write beautifully. There were many emperors in China who were not only calligraphers, but also poets.

Having the ability to compose poems is the skill of an educated person. Chinese ancient poetry is a precious heritage for every Chinese and to the whole world.

In ancient times, mathematics was a useful method to make predictions. Ancient Chinese used mathematics to develop astronomy, to predict the weather and applied knowledge to real life. The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art was the earliest Chinese math book. The ancient Chinese also developed the abacus to benefit daily living and this invention is one of China’s material cultural heritages.

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