From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on Chinese philosophy, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on Chinese philosophy. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on Chinese philosophy in no particular order.
Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy – Bryan W. Van Norden
Category: General Introduction | Length: 291 pages | Published: 2011
Publisher’s description: This book is an introduction in the very best sense of the word. It provides the beginner with an accurate, sophisticated, yet accessible account, and offers new insights and challenging perspectives to those who have more specialized knowledge. Focusing on the period in Chinese philosophy that is surely most easily approachable and perhaps is most important, it ranges over of rich set of competing options. It also, with admirable self-consciousness, presents a number of daring attempts to relate those options to philosophical figures and movements from the West. I recommend it very highly.–Lee H. Yearley, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor, Religious Studies, Stanford University
A Short History of Chinese Philosophy – Fung Yu-lan
Category: History | Length: 400 pages | Published: 1997 (reissue)
Publisher’s description: The classic chronicle of Chinese philosophical thought from the third millennium to the 20th century.
From the sage-kings of ancient China to the 1911 overthrow of the oldest monarchical system in the world, Chinese philosophy has evolved and influenced schools of thought around the world. In an accessible voice, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy clearly illuminates Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Yin-Yang, and more. For those interested in philosophy or Asian studies, this is the perfect window into ancient and modern Chinese ideology.
Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy – P. J. Ivanhoe & B. W. Van Norden
Category: Anthology | Length: 416 pages | Published: 2005 (2e)
Publisher’s description: This new edition offers expanded selections from the works of Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), and Xunzi (Hsun Tzu); two new works, the dialogues Robber Zhi and White Horse; a concise general introduction; brief introductions to, and selective bibliographies for, each work; and four appendices that shed light on important figures, periods, texts, and terms in Chinese thought.
Dao De Jing – Laozi
Category: Classic | Length: 256 pages
Publisher’s description: In 1993, archaeologists unearthed a set of ancient bamboo scrolls that contained the earliest known version of the Dao de jing. Composed more than two thousand years ago, this life-changing document offers a regimen of self-cultivation to attain personal excellence and revitalize moral behavior. Now in this luminous new translation, renowned China scholars Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall bring the timeless wisdom of the Dao de jing into our contemporary world.
In this elegant volume, Ames and Hall feature the original Chinese texts of the Dao de jing and translate them into crisp, chiseled English that reads like poetry. Each of the eighty-one brief chapters is followed by clear, thought-provoking commentary exploring the layers of meaning in the text. This new version of one of the world’s most influential documents will stand as both a compelling introduction to Daoist thought and as the classic modern English translation.
The Analects – Confucius
Category: Classic | Length: 160 pages
Publisher’s description: The Analects are a collection of Confucius’s sayings brought together by his pupils shortly after his death in 497 BC. Together they express a philosophy, or a moral code, by which Confucius, one of the most humane thinkers of all time, believed everyone should live. Upholding the ideals of wisdom, self-knowledge, courage and love of one’s fellow man, he argued that the pursuit of virtue should be every individual’s supreme goal. And, while following the Way, or the truth, might not result in immediate or material gain, Confucius showed that it could nevertheless bring its own powerful and lasting spiritual rewards.
This edition contains a detailed introduction exploring the concepts of the original work, a bibliography and glossary and appendices on Confucius himself, The Analects and the disciples who compiled them.
Mencius – Mencius
Category: Classics | Length: 304 pages
Publisher’s description: Mencius was one of the great philosophers of ancient China, second only in influence to Confucius, whose teachings he defended and expanded. The Mencius, in which he recounts his dialogues with kings, dukes and military men, as well as other philosophers, is one of the Four Books that make up the essential Confucian corpus. It takes up Confucius’s theories of jen, or goodness and yi, righteousness, explaining that the individual can achieve harmony with mankind and the universe by perfecting his innate moral nature and acting with benevolence and justice. Mencius’ strikingly modern views on the duties of subjects and their rulers or the evils of war, created a Confucian orthodoxy that has remained intact since the third century BCE.
Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings – Chuang Tzu
Category: Classic | Length: 160 pages
Publisher’s description: The basic writings of Chuang Tzu have been savored by Chinese readers for over two thousand years. And Burton Watson’s lucid and beautiful translation has been loved by generations of readers.
Chuang Tzu (369?-286? B.C.) was a leading philosopher representing the Taoist strain in Chinese thought. Using parable and anecdote, allegory and paradox, he set forth, in the book that bears his name, the early ideas of what was to become the Taoist school. Central to these is the belief that only by understanding Tao (the Way of Nature) and dwelling in its unity can man achieve true happiness and freedom, in both life and death. …
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life – Michael Puett
Category: Pop Nonfiction | Length: 240 pages | Published: 2017
Publisher’s description: For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas—like the fallacy of the authentic self—can guide you on the path to a good life today.
Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.
Astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy – Compiled by Bryan W. Van Norden
- Classical Chinese Philosophy – University of Texas at Austin
- Chinese Philosophy – CSU Sacramento
- Classical Chinese Philosophy – University of Utah
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Chinese Philosophy
- Let’s talk about Chinese Philosophy!!
- Help with buddhism and chinese philosophy
- Are there any eastern philosophers who are must reads? Are they any different from their Western counterparts?
- The best books on Chinese Philosophy recommended by Michael Puett
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.