The best Confucianism books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about Confucianism and why they recommend each book.

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The Wrong of Rudeness

By Amy Olberding,

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

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. 


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.

Ethical Excellence

By Heidi M. Giebel,

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

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.


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.

Understanding the Analects of Confucius

By Peimin Ni,

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

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. 


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.

Learning to Be a Sage

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

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

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. 


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.

Confucianism in China

By Tony Swain,

Book cover of Confucianism in China: An Introduction

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. 


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.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants

By May-Lee Chai,

Book cover of Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

This story collection is mind-blowing in the best way. As its name suggests, a lot of the stories in this book deal with immigrants, including Chinese people who've immigrated to the United States, but also rural people who've migrated to cities. Chai's characters are struggling to balance traditional Confucian values with postmodern urban existence, and a lot of these stories feature tensions between different generations in a single-family. The best story is probably the award-winning "Fish Boy," in which a boy moves from the Chinese countryside to the big city and ends up working at a seafood restaurant whose offerings sound pretty unappetizing. Chai is brilliant at picking up on the subtle nuances of damaged families, and every one of these stories hits home.


Who am I?

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which Time Magazine listed as one of the hundred best fantasy novels of all time. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night, Victories Greater than Death, and Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories. She organizes the long-running spoken word series Writers With Drinks, helps to organize tours of local bookstores, and also co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, Conjunctions, Wired Magazine, Slate, and the Boston Review.


I wrote...

Even Greater Mistakes

By Charlie Jane Anders,

Book cover of Even Greater Mistakes

What is my book about?

Even Greater Mistakes is a collection of 19 short stories that straddle the line between speculative fiction and literary fiction. These stories explore the saving power of love, friendship, and community in the face of total absurdity and weirdness. In "Six Months, Three Days," two people who can see the future enter into a relationship they know is doomed. In "Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue," a trans woman is trapped in a nightmarish facility with her former best friend. In "The Bookstore at the End of America," the United States has broken into two separate countries, with a tiny bookstore straddling the new border.

These stories have won the Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon awards.

A Single Shard

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of A Single Shard

I adore this Newbery Medal book and read it with my students often. I especially love this edition because it includes the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech. A Single Shard features a plucky homeless orphan and the incorrigible master potter he yearns to emulate despite limitations placed on orphans by the remnants of Confucian philosophy and hierarchy. In addition to absorbing social customs of the Joseon era, readers will learn about the creation of celadon pottery that renowned Korean artisans have produced for centuries. A Single Shard is a beautiful novel I recommend for all ages.  


Who am I?

My kids tease me that I’m the family member (Nordic-European ancestry all the way) who first became fascinated with Korean culture despite their dad having been born in Busan. (Like me, my husband was raised on bologna and French’s mustard sandwiches, not bibimbap and kimchi). My research journey led me to travel to Korea multiple times. There, I discovered the remote island of Jindo, famous for delectable seaweed, the Jindo dog, a decisive battle in which Admiral Yi Sun-shin outwitted the Japanese, as well as a mysterious land bridge that parts the sea every year. I photographed the magnificent sunset overlooking Jindo and pictured my characters there. 


I wrote...

Moonlight Dancer

By Deb Atwood,

Book cover of Moonlight Dancer

What is my book about?

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her. Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog’s fear. That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity. 

Soon, the mysterious NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue. Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor. It’s up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to understand the past and prevent murder. Everything depends upon Kendra’s success, even—she discovers to her horror—her own life. 

Eastern Philosophy

By Mel Thompson,

Book cover of Eastern Philosophy

If Bertrand Russell’s book is about Western Philosophy, our rational need to investigate objects and minds, as unwilling observers, then Mel Thompson’s book explores the ideas of the East, where immersive philosophies don’t just employ thought, but also feelings and physical reactions, ritual, and meditation. Where mind and body aren’t just separate entities on the end of a stick, but an integral part of the environment that surrounds us. This eloquent book, equally unpatronising and rigorous, puts thicker tomes to shame. If you’re willing to believe that a long-distance bicycle ride is a pilgrimage of sorts, an experiment in self-understanding, then this book might just help you reach a different destination.


Who am I?

I’m a writer, musician, and psychiatrist, a member of the Philosophy Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the owner of far too many bikes. I cycled four thousand miles from Bristol in the UK to India. But I didn’t just want to write a travel book, I wanted to take apart my experiences with the tool kit of philosophy, and then put them back together again, in a long-distance bike ride. Freewheeling down the mountains, clutching at the brakes.


I wrote...

Mind is the Ride

By Jet McDonald,

Book cover of Mind is the Ride

What is my book about?

When Jet McDonald cycled four thousand miles to India and back, he didn’t want to write a straightforward travel book. He wanted to go on an imaginative journey. Mind is the Ride takes the reader on a physical and intellectual adventure from West to East using the components of a bike as a metaphor for philosophy, which is woven into the cyclist's experience. Each chapter is based around a single component, and as Jet travels he adds new parts and new philosophies until the bike is ‘built’; the ride to India is completed; and the relationship between mind, body, and bicycle made apparent.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey,

Book cover of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

Enriched by more than 200 pictures, mostly in color, as well as maps and line drawings, it is an illuminating and succinct account of Chines civilization from prehistoric times through the rise of the “Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) to the modern communist state. As someone who taught a popular undergraduate college course on Chinese civilization for many years, I can testify that the overall length (384 pages) of the book and its structure of 12 chapters plus an epilogue make it a perfect choice of required texts.

Who am I?

I am a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. I was brought up in the family of a Chinese poetry scholar. Arriving in the States for my graduate studies at Harvard in 1982, I have engaged myself in academia here ever since. Acutely aware of, and deeply fascinated by, the cultural similarities and differences of China and the West, I have continued my learning experience, in my thirty years of college teaching, often from direct exchanges with my students. The books on my list of recommendations include both required texts chosen for my courses, and those I want to share with what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader.

I wrote...

Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

By Yang Ye (translator),

Book cover of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

What is my book about?

More than two decades after its publication, this anthology of seventy pieces from fourteen representative writers remains a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, selection of belles-lettres non-fictional essays from the Chinese tradition which provide invaluable glimpses of the colorful daily life of the Chinese society during the Late Ming period, especially that of the literati or men of letters. Generically meant to amuse and entertain its readers, as well as the authors themselves, the vignette (hsiao-p’in) focuses on sensual pleasures and triviality, and more than often displays individual personality and wit in a playful manner. It could help the reader to better appreciate and understand the psyche and spirit of an important epoch of new developments in literature and fine arts in Chinese history.       

Viet Nam

By Ben Kiernan,

Book cover of Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present

This work is thorough and informative on the US invasion and defeat but unlike many books on the war also provides extensive discussion of Vietnam’s long history, which dates back more than two millennia. It covers Vietnam’s contentious relations with China and France.


Who am I?

I have a strong, if contrarian, interest in modern history, Asian history in particular. I have published more than a dozen articles and book reviews on the subject, and I have taught courses on modern Asian history (China, Japan, Vietnam, India) at New York University, where I have been a professor since 1968. A brief history of my somewhat unusual academic career may be found in a 50-page memoir published via Amazon in 2020 together with an appendix containing a sampling of my short writings. It is titled Moss Roberts: A Journey to the East. The memoir but not the appendix is free via Researchgate. In addition, I have studied (and taught) the Chinese language for more than half a century, and published translations of classical works of literature and philosophy.   


I wrote...

Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

By Guanzhong Luo, Moss Roberts (translator),

Book cover of Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

What is my book about?

Although a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) epic, Three Kingdoms has contemporary relevance since it involves China’s recurring experience of national unity and national division. This may explain why it is still widely known in China, and also in Korea and Vietnam, which have suffered internal division, and even in Japan, which shares so much culture and history with them. These four nations may be said to constitute Confucian Asia.

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