Six Arts

Six Arts

The Six Arts formed the basis of education in ancient Chinese culture. During the Zhou Dynasty (1122–256 BCE), students were required to master the "liù yì" (六藝) (Six Arts):

  1. Rites (禮)
  2. Music (樂)
  3. Archery (射)
  4. Charioteering (御)
  5. Calligraphy (書)
  6. Mathematics (數)

Men who excelled in these six arts were thought to have reached the state of perfection, a perfect gentleman.

The Six Arts have their roots in the Confucian philosophy. As such, Xu Gan (170–217 CE) discusses them in the Balanced Discourses.

The Six Arts concept developed during the pre-imperial period. It incorporated both military and civil components. The civil side was later associated with the Four Arts (qin playing, chess, calligraphy and painting). However, the latter was more a leisure characteristic for the late imperial time. It evidently overlaps with the Six Arts, since the qin epitomized music, the chess (Go, a board-game known by its Japanese name) related to the military strategy, while calligraphy dealt with the aesthetics of writing and the character cultivation (the rites).


The requirement of students to master the six arts parallels the Western concept of the Renaissance man. The emphasis on the Six Arts bred Confucian gentlemen who knew more than just canonical scholarship. The classical interest practical scholarship invigorated Chinese mathematics, astronomy, and science (e.g. Liu Hui, Zu Chongzhi, Shen Kuo, Yang Hui, Zhu Shijie). This tradition receded after the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), when neo-Confucianism underscored the importance of the four books Analects over the other arts and technical fields.

By the Qing dynasty, the Chinese specialists were not able to manage the lunar calendar accurately, and the calendar was going out of phase with nature. This was a great embarrassment to the Chinese court, as the adherence to the lunar calendars by the vassal states was a recognition of the sovereignty of the Chinese court over them. Western astronomical expertise (see Jesuit China missions) was welcomed much as an aftermath of Chinese interest in astronomy and mathematics, partially formulated in the classical Six Arts agenda.

See also