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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Amy Olberding,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Heidi M. Giebel,

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

Why 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.


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

By Peimin Ni,

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

Why 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. 


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

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

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

Why 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. 


Confucianism in China: An Introduction

By Tony Swain,

Book cover of Confucianism in China: An Introduction

Why 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. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Confucianism, philosophy, and China?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Confucianism, philosophy, and China.

Confucianism Explore 12 books about Confucianism
Philosophy Explore 297 books about philosophy
China Explore 377 books about China

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Eastern Philosophy, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, and The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao if you like this list.