The term liuyi 六藝 "six arts" refers to two different groups of skills, firstly, the ability to perform six different types of physical exercises, and secondly, to master the Six Confucian Classics, each of which concentrates on one aspect of social and ritual performances.
In the latter sense, the term liuyi can be translated as the "Six Classics" and refers to the Classics Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs", Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", li 禮 "ritual text(s)" (see Liji 禮記 and Yili 儀禮), Yue 樂 "Book of Music" (see Yueji 樂記), and Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals".
The biographic chapter "The Jesters" (Huaji liezhuan 滑稽列傳) in the history book Shiji 史記 explains what these books were concretely used for. Confucius is quoted to have said that the ritual books had the aim to regulate men (jie ren 節人), the "Book of Music" to "produce harmony" (fa he 發和), the "Book of Documents" to provide a guideline to historic incidents (dao shi 道事), the "Book of Songs" to express emotions (da yi 達意), the "Book of Changes" to reveal spiritual influences (shenhua 神化), and the "Spring and Autumn Annals" to show what is right (transl. according to Yang & Yang 1979).
Following the assumption that each of the "six arts" served political or administrative reasons, the Former Han-period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) bibliographer Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE) created the "Seven Abstracts" (qilüe 七略), the first of which was the "Abstract of the Six Arts" (Liuyi lüe 六藝略). The early Later Han-period 後漢 (25-220 CE) historian Ban Gu 班固 (32-92 CE), author of the bibliographic treatise Yiwen zhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書, divided literature into the two parts yi 藝 "Classics", and wen 文 "other writings".
Ban Gu's interpretation of the policital function of the Classics is different than that of Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145－c.86 BCE) in the Shiji. Ban Gu says that music served to "harmonize the spirits" (he shen 和神) and was an "expression of kindheartedness" (ren zhi biao 仁之表). The "Songs" served to "rectify words" (zheng yan 正言) and were a practical adaption of righteousness (yi zhi yong 義之用). The rites "elucidate one's standing" (ming ti 明體), so that no further instruction is needed. The "Documents" served to spread information and were a "skill of wisdom" (zhi zhi shu 知之術). The "Spring and Autumn Annals" could be used to "evaluate incidents" (duan shi 斷事) and were a token of trust (xin zhi fu 信之符). These five books were instruments of "the way of the five constancies" (wu chang zhi dao 五常之道, i.e. of the Confucian virtues kindheartedness, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness), and were all based on the "Changes".
Han-period scholars assed further three writings to this canon, namely the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", Xiaojing 孝經 "Book of Filial Piety", and the glossary Shizhou 史籀, a text of elementary learning.
In the sense of physical educations, the "six arts" were rituals (li 禮), music (yue 樂), archery (she 射), steering the chariot (yu 馭, also written 御), writing (shu 書) and arithmetics (shu 數). The chapter on the Guardian (Baoshi 保氏) in the Classic Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou" explains how princes were educated with the help of the "six arts" (Biot translates as "six sciences"). These were, according to the Zhouli, six groups of performances, namely the five types of rites (wu li 五禮), the six kinds of music (liuyue 六樂), the five skills of archery (wushe 五射), the five methods to steer the chariot (wuyue 五馭), the mastering of the six types of characters (liushu 六書, see Chinese characters, six types), and the nine rules of arithmetics (jiushu 九數).
The Later Han-period master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) explains these "sciences" in the following way: The Five Rites were auspicious rites (jili 吉禮), funeral rites (xiongli 兇禮), hosting rites (binli 賓禮), military rites (junli 軍禮), and congratulatory rites (jiali 嘉禮).
The Five Kinds of Music were "Cloudy Gate" (Yunmen 雲門), "Grand Reunion" (Daxian 大咸), "Grand Concord" (Dashao 大韶, the music of Emperor Shun 舜), "Grand Airs of the Xia" (Daxia 大夏, of Yu the Great 大禹), "Grand Airs of Humidification" (Dahou 大濩, of Emperor Jing 漢景帝), and "Grand Martial Airs" (Dawu 大武, of King Wu of Zhou 周武王).
The Five Skills of Archery were the "white arrow" (baishi 白矢), the "three joint" (arrows, sanlian 參連), the "falling tip" (yanzhu 剡注), the "ceding step" (xiangchi 襄尺, i.e. rangchi 讓尺, meaning that a superior is allowed to stand one step ahead of an inferior person while shooting), and the "well" or square figure (jingyi 井儀).
The Five Methods to Steer the Chariot are "concordance of the patter of the hooves and the bells on the holm" (ming he luan 鳴和鸞), "following the movements of the waves" (zhu shui qu 逐水曲), "passing the signal of the lord" (guo jun biao 過君表), to perform the "criss-cross dance in the road" (wu jiao qu 舞交衢), and to follow "to the left of the game" (zhu qin zuo 逐禽左).
The six types of characters are figurative characters (xiangxing 象形), characters as united ideas of two others (huiyi 會意), mutual explanation (zhuanzhu 轉注), describing an affair (chushi 處事), loan characters (jiajie 假借), and combinations of meaning and sound (xiesheng 諧聲).
The nine rules of arithmetics are field measurement (fangtian 方田, planar geometry), millet and rice (sumi 粟米, three-dimensional geometry), distribution by proportion (chafen 差分), short width (shaoguang 少廣, i.e. roots and radicals), construction consultations (shanggong 商功, e.g. volumes of earthworks or capacities of barns), fair levies (junshu 均輸, further ratio and proportion theory), excess and deficit (fangcheng 方程, solution of linear equations by using the Rule of Double False Position), rectangular arrays (ying buzu 贏不足, linear equations), and right-angled triangles (bangyao 旁要; translation of these terms according to Shen, Crossley & Lun 1999).
There is also the distinction beween the "lesser arts" (xiaoyi 小藝) and the "greater arts" (dayi 大藝). The former, learned by children, were writing and arithmetics, while rituals, music, archery and charioteering belonged to the greater arts, to be learned by teenagers and young adults.
These two concepts of the "six arts" are not identical, yet they overlap in many points. The themes of the ritual classics (sanli 三禮, i.e. Yili 儀禮, Zhouli 周禮 and Liji 禮記) also include most of the "five types of rites". The Song-period 宋 (960-1279) scholar Xu Tianlin 徐天麟 (jinshi degree 1205) authored a statecraft encyclopaedia about the Han period, the Xihan huiyao 西漢會要, in which he says that the jili included the offerings for Heaven and Earth on Mt. Taishan (fengshan 封禪), the suburban sacrifices conducted by the emperor (qinjiao 親郊), the sacrifices to the earth conducted by the empress (qinsi Houtu 親祠后土), the ceremonies at the suburban sacrifices (jiaoyi 郊議), those at the ancestral altar (miaoyi 廟議), the offerings at the ancestral altar (miaoji 廟祭), and all types of sacrificial rites (jisi 祭祀), but also rites the ploughing and the spinning ritual performed by the emperor and the empress at the beginning of the year.
The funeral rites also included rites to honour those who have died in battle for the dynasty. The guest rites also include those at the ancestral altars (hosting their souls). The term "martial rites" refers to all enterprises of the emperor outside the capital, from military campaigns to hunts, but also the sacrifices made in the context of these enterprises. The word jiali "congratulational rites" is used for a wide range of rituals at the court, from audiences, inspection tours, the submission of memorials and the issuing of decrees to personal matters of the imperial family like the naming of a heir apparent, his capping, marriage, and also the bestowal of posthumous titles, honorific names and granting the imperial family name to ordinary persons.
Compared to the earlier concept of "rites", which were a general view of behaviour in society, these later "rites" are more exact descriptions of the performance of ceremonies, and of practical skills like shooting, charioteering or writing and calculating.