The Five Best Books on or by Confucius

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This page contains a list of the best books on or by Confucius. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on Confucius. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about him. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.

Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on or by Confucius in no particular order.

The Analects – Confucius

Category: Classic | Length: 352 pages

Confucius (551-479 BCE) was born in the ancient state of Lu into an era of unrelenting, escalating violence as seven of the strongest states in the proto-Chinese world warred for supremacy. The landscape was not only fierce politically but also intellectually. Although Confucius enjoyed great popularity as a teacher, and many of his students found their way into political office, he personally had little influence in Lu. And so he began to travel from state to state as an itinerant philosopher to persuade political leaders that his teachings were a formula for social and political success. Eventually, his philosophies came to dictate the standard of behavior for all of society–including the emperor himself.

Based on the latest research and complete with both Chinese and English texts, this revealing translation serves both as an excellent introduction to Confucian thought and as an authoritative addition to sophisticated debate.

Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction – Daniel K. Gardner

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 152 pages | Published: 2014

To understand China, it is essential to understand Confucianism. First formulated in the sixth century BCE, the teachings of Confucius would come to dominate Chinese society, politics, economics, and ethics. In this Very Short Introduction, Daniel K. Gardner explores the major philosophical ideas of the Confucian tradition, showing their profound impact on state ideology and imperial government, the civil service examination system, domestic life, and social relations over the course of twenty-six centuries. Gardner focuses on two of the Sage’s most crucial philosophical problems-what makes for a good person, and what constitutes good government-and demonstrates the enduring significance of these questions today.

This volume shows the influence of the Sage’s teachings over the course of Chinese history–on state ideology, the civil service examination system, imperial government, the family, and social relations–and the fate of Confucianism in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as China developed alongside a modernizing West and Japan. Some Chinese intellectuals attempted to reform the Confucian tradition to address new needs; others argued for jettisoning it altogether in favor of Western ideas and technology; still others condemned it angrily, arguing that Confucius and his legacy were responsible for China’s feudal, ”backward” conditions in the twentieth century and launching campaigns to eradicate its influences. Yet Chinese continue to turn to the teachings of Confucianism for guidance in their daily lives.

Thinking Through Confucius – D. L. Hall & R. T. Ames

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 416 pages | Published: 1987

Thinking Through Confucius critically interprets the conceptual structure underlying Confucius’ philosophical reflections. It also investigates “thinking,” or “philosophy” from the perspective of Confucius. Perhaps the philosophical question of our time is “what is philosophy”. The authors suggest that an examination of the Chinese philosophy may provide an alternative definition of philosophy that can be used to address some of the pressing issues of the Western cultural tradition. This book finds an appropriate language for the interpretation of traditional Chinese philosophical thought ― a language which is relatively free from the bias and presuppositions of Western philosophy.

Confucius: The Secular as SacredHerbert Fingarette

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 84 pages | Published: 1998

An ideal way to discover the teachings of Confucius! Fingarette’s primary aim is to help readers discover what is distinctive in Confucius and to learn what he can teach us. Fingarette—who thinks the best way to discover Confucius’s teaching is by taking him at his word—uses original text as his principal resource in an effort to try to see what it says, what it implies and what it does not say or need not imply.

A Concise Companion to Confucius – Paul R. Goldin

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 408 pages | Published: 2017

A Concise Companion to Confucius offers a succinct introduction to one of East Asia’s most widely-revered historical figures, providing essential coverage of his legacy at a manageable length. The volume embraces Confucius as philosopher, teacher, politician, and sage, and curates a collection of key perspectives on his life and teachings from a team of distinguished scholars in philosophy, history, religious studies, and the history of art. Taken together, chapters encourage specialists to read across disciplinary boundaries, provide nuanced paths of introduction for students, and engage interested readers who want to expand their understanding of the great Chinese master.

Divided into four distinct sections, the Concise Companion depicts a coherent figure of Confucius by examining his diverse representations from antiquity through to the modern world. Readers are guided through the intellectual and cultural influences that helped shape the development of Confucian philosophy and its reception among late imperial literati in medieval China. Later essays consider Confucius’s engagement with topics such as warfare, women, and Western philosophy, which remain fruitful avenues of philosophical inquiry today. The collection concludes by exploring the significance of Confucian thought in East Asia’s contemporary landscape and the major intellectual movements which are reviving and rethinking his work for the twenty-first century.


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