The Most Important Chinese Philosophy Books
Whenever I publish a reading list of philosophy books, it’s always wildly popular. For a long time, I’ve wanted to compile a special list of the most important Chinese philosophy books. Although there are many schools of philosophical thought with Chinese philosophy; the three main ones are Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism. Each of these philosophical schools of thought has had a huge impact on Chinese culture, past and present. To build a list of the most important Chinese philosophy books; I would need to assemble a panel of experts. Using my network; I reached out to some of the world’s leading scholars on the topic of Chinese philosophy. I encouraged them to include both primary and secondary texts; meaning we’d end up with a wonderfully eclectic mix of the most important Chinese philosophy books. Before we discover the most important Chinese philosophy books, we must first meet that panel of experts…
Alexus Mcleod is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut, with a joint appointment in the Philosophy Department and Asian and Asian American Studies Institute. Alexus Mcleod works primarily in the areas of Chinese Philosophy, Mesoamerican Philosophy, and Comparative Philosophy. He recently edited The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Early Chinese Ethics and Political Philosophy.
Franklin Perkins is a Professor at the University of Hawaii. He received his PhD from Pennsylvania State University and has been a professor at Nanyang Technological University and at DePaul University. His main research interests are in classical Chinese philosophy. His most recent book is entitled Heaven and Earth Are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy.
Jana Rosker is a Professor at the University of Ljubljana. Her research mostly examines subjects related to Chinese philosophy, Chinese logic and Chinese epistemology. Since 1995, she has been a professor at the Chair of Sinology, Department of Asian Studies at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana. Jana’s most recent book is entitled Following His Own Path: Li Zehou and Contemporary Chinese Philosophy.
Paul J. D’Ambrosio
Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China, fellow of the Institute of Modern Chinese Thought and Culture, Dean of the Center for Intercultural Research, and the program coordinator ECNU’s English-language MA and PhD programs. His most recent book is entitled Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy.
Robin R. Wang is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Asian Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA. Dr. Wang is the author of Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture and the editor of Chinese Philosophy in an Era of Globalization. She has published many articles and essays and regularly has given presentations in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Hans-Georg Moeller is a senior lecturer in the Philosophy Department at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. Hans-George Moeller is the author and editor of ten books, his works include The Philosophy of the Daodejing, The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality, both Choice outstanding academic titles, and Luhmann Explained.
Now, let’s discover some of the best Chinese philosophy books…
This book is a groundbreaking and pioneering work by a an outstanding sinologist, first published in 1934. It was foundational for the whole contemporary European and North American discourse on Chinese Philosophy and had a thorough impact beyond Sinology, connecting with the works of other French structuralists of the period. Unfortunately, its immense influence has been somewhat neglected in English-language dominated contemporary academic literature.
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About The Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About The Good Life is an international best seller—and for good reason. In this short “anti-self-help” book, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh introduce general audiences to the major classics in early Chinese philosophy. They start by unhitching “Zen-like” notions of dao(“the way”), nonaction or “doing non-doing,” and self-cultivation from familiar exoticized misunderstandings. Complex ideas and arguments are pulled out of a far away “long, long ago” China-fied fantasy land into the nitty-gritty everydayness of contemporary life. Puett and Gross-Loh beautifully weave together classics to give readers a clear depiction of what was at stake in classical Chinese philosophy, and how different thinkers and texts tackled similar problems—problems that, like their solutions, are still relevant today. In particular Puett and Gross-Loh review Analects, Mengzi (Mencius), Laozi/Daodejing, Nei-Ye (Inward Training), Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi.
Although hitherto not translated into English, the book is a wonderful lead-in into the world of a tradition, which is well-aware of the fact that, as the author notices, all paradises are lost paradises, either vanished in the distant past, or misplaced in the distant future, always existing in another land, or on another star, in another heaven. Yet, it allows people to search for their own, private or common happiness, “invisible like the air we breathe and yet perceivable only at a distance, where it gains its color…”. The book is a classic work of German Sinology, and a brilliant introduction to the Chinese intellectual history through the lens of human dreams.
This is both one of the greatest and one of the most underappreciated texts in the history of Chinese Philosophy, and perhaps my favorite book of any kind. The premise of the Huainanzi, a massive treatise on the arts of rulership, self-cultivation, and order compiled by a group of scholars under the direction of Liu An, king of the vassal state of Huainan, is the unification and synthesis of all things—all peoples, all philosophical schools, all arts, and all knowledge under the heavens. It was a massively ambitious project. The 21 chapters of the text range from accounts of the creation of the cosmos, astronomy and seasonal patterns, to the grounding of social customs, moral and political norms, and self-cultivation. The text attempts to unify the disparate schools of earlier periods (Confucianism, Daoism, etc.) into a comprehensive account of human knowledge that can be used by a ruler to maintain order.
The Huainanzi encapsulates everything one needs to know in order wisely rule the world. It begins with metaphysics, arguing that all things emerge spontaneously through a process of increasing diversity and complexity. It then moves into philosophy of nature, philosophical anthropology, ethics, and political theory. That is just the first nine chapters. Its foundations are Daoist, but it compares philosophies to tools–you need different ones for different tasks. Success requires attending to the singularity and complexity of each situation, and that depends on freedom from intellectual attachments and emotional disturbances. As political philosophy, it opposes standardization, centralization, and coercion. The Huainanzi was compiled by Liu An (the “master of Huainan”), a regional king under the Han dynasty, and was presented to the emperor in 139 BCE. The emperor was not persuaded. Liu An was later forced to commit suicide and Confucianism became state ideology. Its focus on the value of difference makes the Huainanzi particularly relevant now.
The book establishes the interpretive context necessary to read Chinese philosophical texts on their own terms and unlock Chinese philosophical and cultural DNA. It traces the historical genesis of Yinyang, shows how it shaped Chinese conceptions of the world, society, and humankind; and how it was concretely applied in practical fields ranging from body cultivation to city planning, from sexuality to warfare.
Paul J. D’Ambrosio:
Yin-yang is widely known as a central concept in Chinese philosophy in particular, and Asian thinking in general. Mastering this foundational concept, which is truly a way of thinking about everything from concrete objects to abstract ideas, is absolutely pivotal for any treatment of the Chinese tradition. Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture, by Robin Wang is the first English-language monograph on the central Chinese concept of yin-yang. It is a must for anyone trying to understand what makes Chinese thought and thinking different, in some respects, from “Western” thought and thinking. In addition to yin-yang Wang provides an excellent introduction to other key conceptions including Dao (“the way”), qi (“stuff/force”), li (“principle/coherence”), and taiji (“supreme ultimate”). For serious academics to undergraduates, Yinyangis absolutely essential.
A list of the most important books on Chinese Philosophy should probably also include books by Chinese authors. Feng Youlan is one of the most influential, productive, and intriguing Chinese philosophers of the 20th century. He contributed significantly to the “modernization” of Chinese philosophy and its integration with Western philosophy. His short overview of the historical development of Chinese Philosophy from antiquity to the 20th century, first published in 1947 in English translation, is both inclusive (i.e. not overly Confucianism-centered) and “systematic”; it is not only a history of philosophy, but a philosophical history of philosophy in a Hegelian vein. It deeply influenced the understanding of Chinese philosophy in both modern China and the West.
The Zhuangzi tops my list not just for Chinese philosophy but of all books. Zhuangzi the person lived in the 4th century BCE. The book incorporates different philosophies, but the first seven chapters are commonly taken to most represent Zhuangzi’s own thought. The central goal is free and easy wandering (xiaoyaoyou), which means engaging life with playfulness and avoiding frustration, anger, and grief. Freed from psychological friction, one can respond skillfully to whatever happens. The philosophy in support of this goal primarily uses skeptical arguments to undermine fixed attachments, absolute judgments, and all forms of provincialism. The Zhuangzienacts its own philosophy by juxtaposing perspectives and careening from arguments to parodies to anecdotes. It promotes an ethics of non-coercion, tolerance, and appreciation of differences. It is one of the founding texts of Daoism and has been a source of inspiration throughout Chinese history. There are several translations, but I recommend the one by Brook Ziporyn.
Certainly one of the best written and most profound works of Daoist philosophy. Large parts (but certainly not all) of the book were probably written by Zhuang Zhou from the 4thcentury BC. It is a great work about the freedom from convention, from stupid rulers and their rules, and from one’s own alienated self, which always manifests itself in our artificial desires. It reveals the falsehood of culture and helps us find back to our genuine integrity and dignity, to our everlasting home of nature. Zhuangzi teaches us how to become a part of the happy mind of the fish and how not to feed seabirds with sandwiches. He takes us along on a journey of free and easy wandering, to a faraway land without masters and slaves.
These are a primary texts for learning about the basic terms, orientations, arguments and analysis in Chinese/Daoist philosophy. One cannot truly study of Chinese philosophy without reading these two books. They are meant to read over and over again through the time.
This book is a foundational text of the Daoist tradition. It is of extraordinary literary quality and a most inspiring and thought-provoking text that has lost nothing of its fascination today, as multiple translations, philosophical reflections, and artistic resonances still prove in the globalized world of the 21st century.
Although it was first published three decades ago, the book is still a most valuable presentation of Chinese philosophy. It contains a great introduction of the history of ancient Chinese philosophy, especially for those readers who are interested in similarities between classical Chinese and modern Western philosophy. It is interesting, lucid, well-written and it shows that its author had a rare ability to explain complex and difficult issues in an comprehensive and easily understandable way. The book is also backed up with an amazingly wide and deep background knowledge. Because of all this, it represents a true shift in the Western interpretations of Chinese philosophy.
Though among early Confucian texts the Mengziis better known and more widely studied today, the Xunzirepresented the pinnacle of Confucian learning for people during the Han Dynasty (roughly the 400 years after the Warring States period in which the text was written). The Warring States Confucian Xun Qing, or Xunzi (“Master Xun”) was one of the final generations of Confucians before the unification of the Warring States in 221 BCE. The Confucian conception of ritual (li) lies at the heart of the text. Xunzi’s conception of ritual is brilliantly constructed to offer an account tying moral motivation to self-cultivation and political activity. The elegance of Xunzi’s solution to problems concerning ritual and morality in early Confucian thought is unsurpassed even to the modern era.
Buddhism has long fascinated “Western” societies. Today millions of American (up to 27%) identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”—often taking a cue from their own (mis)interpretations of Buddhism. But long before Zen was Zen it was Chan Buddhism, and Chan Buddhism is arguably much more Daoist than Buddhist. And while many excellent secondary sources on Confucianism and Buddhism have been available in Western decades, Daoism has lagged far behind. Hans-Georg Moeller’s Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory has done a lot to remedy this imbalance. It is succinct and philosophically poignant. Moeller breaks down major images and allegories, themes, and structures—which include generic comparisons with Western philosophies—in a book that more than lives up to its name. For anyone interested in a rigorous but completely accessible treatment of Daoism Moeller’s Daoism Explainedis an absolute must.
This impassionate and forceful book published in 2015 represents the application of traditional Chinese philosophy to a contemporary global philosophy at its best. It demonstrates how Chinese philosophical sources can be revived in order to develop highly critical and innovative challenges of established dogmatisms stemming from Western philosophical traditions.
TheMengzi (Mencius) is the most influential work of Confucian philosophy, which makes it one of the world’s most influential books. Kongzi (Confucius) articulated a vision of the good life but it was Mengzi (4th century BCE) who built up a philosophy to justify that vision. He is most famous for his claim that natural human dispositions are good, but that just means that our deepest motivations come from feelings such familial care, compassion for those suffering, senses of shame and disgust, a desire to show deference and respect, and a felt compulsion to make sense of the world. Becoming good is a matter of strengthening, extending, and properly directing feelings we already have. A good society relies on these feelings rather than coercing people with rewards and punishments. The whole book is an argument for why we should dedicate ourselves to making the world a better place.
The Lunheng represents the collected works of the philosopher Wang Chong (c. 25-100 CE), whose idiosyncratic style and method represents a turning point in early Chinese thought. Wang’s primary concern was with establishing truth and offering a method for discerning truth in the teachings and texts of others. Much of the Lunhengis devoted to applying this method in connection with well known texts throughout the history of Chinese Philosophy and history to his time. Wang’s irreverent style and wit, his refusal to accept positions based on the authority or antiquity behind them, and his determination to hold even the most revered texts and thinkers to standards of rationality are admirable. The method Wang offers for appraising of texts and teachings, which he calls “questioning and challenging,” as well as his expansive conception of truth or reality (shi) are perhaps the centerpieces of his voluminous work.