This page contains a list of the five best books on or by Confucius. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Confucius” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on Confucius. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Confucius. Here are the best books on or by Confucius in no particular order:
The Analects – Confucius
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
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
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 Sacred – Herbert Fingarette
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
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.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Confucius
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Confucius
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