The best books about how ancient Confucianism tells us to live well today

Stephen C. Angle Author Of Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life
By Stephen C. Angle

Who am I?

The first time I ever had Chinese food was as a 20-year-old junior in college, on the first night of studying abroad for a semester in Nanjing, China. (Luckily, I liked it.) Confucianism was not in my upbringing, at least not explicitly or on purpose. I happened upon China as a freshman at Yale in the 1980s, immersed myself in the language, and went on to earn a PhD in Chinese philosophy. I have taught at Wesleyan University since 1994, and my favorite comment from students is that they find my classes among the most “relevant” things they take—even when we’re studying twelfth-century medieval Confucianism. 

I wrote...

Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life

By Stephen C. Angle,

Book cover of Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life

What is my book about?

For over three decades I have studied Confucius and all the brilliant philosophers who came after him, developing his ideas for their own times. I gradually came to realize this wasn’t just “academic” to me: Confucian insights and values made sense of my life, here and now. At its core, Confucianism describes a way for us to live and grow together in our worlda way characterized at its best by joy, beauty, and harmony. By drawing on the greats of the Confucian tradition as well as modern feminists, psychologists, and even Jimi Hendrix, I explain what Confucianism is and make a case that it is worth trying out today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Why did I love this book?

In this deeply personal book, philosopher Amy Olberding shows how ancient Confucians can help us to grasp the centrality of manners and civility to good lives today. The book has important lessons for anyone who has ever struggled to be politeor wondered whether it's worth the bother. It’s also frequently hilarious. 

By Amy Olberding,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wrong of Rudeness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a time of fractious politics, being rude can feel wickedly gratifying, while being polite can feel simple-minded or willfully naive. Do manners and civility even matter now? Is it worthwhile to make the effort to be polite? When rudeness has become routine and commonplace, why bother? When so much of public and social life with others is painful and bitterly acrimonious, why should anyone be polite?

As Amy Olberding argues, civility and ordinary politeness are linked both to big values, such as respect and consideration, and to the fundamentally social nature of human beings. Being polite is not just…

Book cover of Ethical Excellence: Philosophers, Psychologists, and Real-Life Exemplars Show Us How to Achieve It

Why did I love this book?

Giebel succeeds brilliantly at the challenging task of weaving together ancient philosophical insight from both East and West, modern psychological research, and stories from the lives of exemplary individuals. Each strand of the book expands on and reinforces the others: Confucians fill out gaps in Socratic theory, and vice versa; psychologists test, tweak, and confirm ancient theories; and contemporary lives give richness and realism to the ideals. The whole tapestry, conveyed in Giebel’s lovely, accessible prose, is nothing short of a master class in how to cultivate a better, more meaningful life for oneself and all those for whom one cares.

By Heidi M. Giebel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ethical Excellence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why do some people achieve ethical excellence while others fail? For example, how did Gloria Lewis overcome a lifetime of difficulty and go on to found a non-profit focused on feeding the homeless while Danny Starrett, despite a seemingly ideal childhood, became a rapist and murderer? Why did some Germans rescue their Jewish neighbors while others stood by?

One recent study found that four personal variables, taken together, differentiated Nazi-era bystanders from rescuers with startling 96.1% accuracy: social responsibility, altruistic moral reasoning, empathic concern, and risk-taking-traits related to ethical excellences (virtues) like justice, benevolence, and courage. Drawing from the combined…

Book cover of Understanding the Analects of Confucius: A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations

Why did I love this book?

Peimin Ni’s translation of the foundational Confucian text, the Analects of Confucius, is not for those who want to zoom through the book looking for catchy phrases. Ni presents the text as a living document, embedded in two thousand years of conversation over its meaning. He strives to mirror ambiguities in the original in his translation, and his comments do a lovely job of opening the text up for the reflective reader. 

By Peimin Ni,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Understanding the Analects of Confucius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2019 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature presented by the Modern Language Association

The Analects of Confucius is arguably the single most influential work of China's cultural heritage. In this new English translation, Peimin Ni accomplishes the rare feat of simultaneously providing a faithful translation of the text, offering his own reading based on gongfu (practice) perspective, and presenting major alternative readings to help the reader understand how diverse interpretations and controversies arise. In addition to the inclusion of the original Chinese text, Ni adds a comprehensive introduction, a…

Book cover of Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically

Why did I love this book?

Zhu Xi (also written Chu Hsi; 1130-1200 C.E.) was among the very greatest Confucians both as theorist and as teacher. I love how contemporary his concerns seem; when he worries about students who are "just hurrying through the texts, reading for their literal meaning and taking little pleasure in them," he might as well be talking about most of us today. In Gardner’s fluid translation, Zhu’s millennium-old ideas about how and why to learn—ultimately aimed at becoming a “sage”—turn out to be remarkably relevant. 

By Chu Hsi, Daniel K. Gardner (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Learning to Be a Sage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Students and teachers of Chinese history and philosophy will not want to miss Daniel Gardner's accessible translation of the teachings of Chu Hsi (1130-1200)--a luminary of the Confucian tradition who dominated Chinese intellectual life for centuries. Homing in on a primary concern of our own time, Gardner focuses on Chu Hsi's passionate interest in education and its importance to individual development. For hundreds of years, every literate person in China was familiar with Chu Hsi's teachings. They informed the curricula of private academies and public schools and became the basis of the state's prestigious civil service examinations. Nor was Chu's…

Book cover of Confucianism in China: An Introduction

Why did I love this book?

Most books on the history of Confucianism are dry and concentrated on the earliest period, during and soon after Confucius lived. I’m not saying Confucius himself wasn’t important, but the greatness of Tony Swain’s book is that it manages to be both fascinating and engaging, even occasionally snarky, while also bringing the story of Confucianism all the way up to the twenty-first century. If you want to think about Confucianism as something important today, it helps to understand the evolving ways the tradition has been lived throughout the centuries. 

By Tony Swain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Confucianism in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This accessible history of Confucianism, or the 'Way of the Ru', emphasizes the religious dimensions of the tradition. It clearly explains the tradition's unique and subtle philosophical ideals as well as the 'arts of the Ru' whereby seemingly simple acts such as reading, sitting quietly, good manners, and attending to family and state responsibilities, became ways of ultimate transformation.

This book explains the origins of the Ru and documents their impact in imperial China, before providing extensive coverage of the modern era. Confucianism in China: An Introduction shows how the long history of the Ru is vital to comprehending China…

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