Notes on Approaching the Confucian Canon

Let me begin with something of a disclaimer. Though I’ve read all but one of the Four Books and Five Classics, and even written about some of them, I don’t consider myself an expert on Confucianism by any means. So take this post with a grain of salt, and expect it to be revised in the future as I read and reflect on the subject more. I’m writing it simply because I am asked occasionally how to approach the Confucian canon, so I thought it would be helpful to have a single place to point these people to, where I lay out some basic advice based on my experience.

Much as with choosing a translation of the Analects, which I’ve addressed previously, the main questions are how deep you want to go, and how much guidance you’d like. What I’ll do here is lay out which books you should read in the order I’d recommend reading them, with a few comments on each covering their main topic, availability, a link to my reviews where available, and whatever else may be relevant. Keep in mind that the reading order is a bit loose; for the Four Books I’m drawing from Chu Hsi’s recommendations given on this page.

If you just want the bottom line, I’d say if you just read one book it should be the Analects. If you want one more add Mencius, then the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning together. Add An Introduction to Confucianism if you want the big picture, and The Everlasting Empire if you’re addicted to context. For the Five Classics, add the Odes if you’re interested in poetry, the Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals for history. Finally, add the Changes and Rites if you want to be a completionist.

Preliminary Reading: Though not necessary, these books are helpful if you want to know a bit about the context and history of Confucianism.

An Introduction to Confucianism, by Xinzhong Yao is just what the title advertises. Covers the sources and basic doctrines of the philosophy, questions like whether it’s a religion, and some of its history and development within China and the rest of East Asia. Easy to recommend, but not necessary for those who want to jump right into the source material.

The Everlasting Empire, by Yuri Pines is a history of China’s political culture, focusing on the Chinese Empire’s remarkable stability. Much of the work is tangential to Confucianism, but valuable to those interested in its historical influence and why it became the empire’s official orthodoxy.

A Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-Tsit Chan collects excerpts from a wide variety of works, including each part of the Confucian canon. Chan’s translation of these excerpts is very good and is valuable just for that, but his comments, introductions, and including material from other schools will be invaluable if you’re interested in Chinese philosophy broadly.

The Four Books:  These, especially the Analects, are what most people think of when discussing Confucianism, and they’ve become the primary source for those wanting to know about the philosophy. They’re also directly didactic, while the Five Classics generally aren’t, which makes them the best place to start since they’re the most straightforward about what lessons you’re supposed to take away. For all of these, though, I’d highly recommend reading the translator’s introduction and notes to whichever edition you choose, and to read multiple translations if possible, because they’re not always easy to follow, the Analects in particular.

The Great Learning - attributed to Tseng Tzu, one of Confucius’ students, and discusses moral self-cultivation and learning. It’s short and since its subject is one of Confucianism’s central concerns, it makes a good appetiser for the rest of the canon. It’s included in Dover’s edition of James Legge’s translation of the Analects, and you can also easily find it online in either Legge’s translation or A. Charles Mullers’. Ezra Pound translated it as The Great Digest, included in both his volume of Confucian translations and Library of America’s collection of his work, though I’d recommend beginning with Chan’s, Legge’s, or Mullers’, because Pound is rather idiosyncratic.

The Analects of Confucius - by far the most famous part of the canon, covering a wide variety of topics. It was compiled by Confucius’ students and their students, featuring a number of aphorisms and short anecdotes mostly of Confucius himself, but also associates and students of his. This is probably the most essential work here, but note that because of the format it’s also the most difficult to follow apart from the Book of Changes and, to a lesser extent, the Spring and Autumn Annals. So, I’ll once again emphasise that you should read the introduction and notes to whichever edition you get. It is easily available; again, I’ve discussed the issue of choosing a translation at some length, but Chan and Leys are probably the most beginner-friendly.

Mencius  - titled after its author. In topics, it’s as wide-ranging as the Analects, but because follows just one person, Mencius himself, and because most entries are substantially longer it’s also easier to follow. In fact, one could probably begin with Mencius then move on to the Analects. Regardless, Legge’s version is easily available both online and in print; those who prefer more modern translations may also look at David Hinton’s, which is also good but doesn’t have anywhere near as much supplemental material.

Doctrine of the Mean - attributed to Confucius’ grandson Tzu-ssu, though modern scholars doubt that attribution, and actually originally an excerpt from the Book of Rites. It’s another short work, and one can see it as a guide to perfecting oneself at the end of studying the other books. Again, though it’s not totally necessary to read all of these in a specific order, it is easier to understand the concept of the mean if one is already somewhat familiar with other Confucian works. James Legge’s version is the most easily available, but Chan’s and Muller’s are also good.

The Five Classics: These are a diverse set of five books, concerning history, poetry, and divination, that form the original source material for Confucianism. For the most part these are less explicitly philosophical than the Four Books, and if you’re just interested in what the Confucians taught and less so with why they came to their conclusions you could skip these. That said, they do contain a wealth of interesting material, and are essential for the serious student of Confucianism.

The Book of Documents - starting with this one since it’s the most clearly relevant to the Four Books. It collects a number of historical documents, such as speeches, imperial decrees, and anecdotes, some authentic and some not (the exact proportion is under debate). The purpose of each document is primarily, in essence, moral instruction for kings and their ministers, so the significance for the Confucians is easy to understand. James Legge’s is available online, but unfortunately I’m not aware of an in-print edition, though there is a revised version of Legge’s translation and one or two others floating around as used copies.

The Book of Odes - a collection of 305 poems and folk songs, traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius but that attribution is dubious. Sometimes the philosophical point is clear, but most of these are essentially just poems and folk-songs, with no clear “moral.” That said, they’re also fine poems, so this book is worth reading just for its literary value. Arthur Waley’s translation (published as The Book of Songs) is in-print and a solid choice, but Legge’s is also common. Ezra Pound’s version is, as usual for his Chinese translations, interesting but idiosyncratic.

The Spring and Autumn Annals - a chronicle of the history of Lu, Confucius’ home state, and said to have been edited by Confucius though, again, that attribution is dubious. Because of the sparse text of this chronicle it’s generally read along with a commentary, of which three are particularly prominent, the Guliang, Gongyang, and Zuo. Only the latter two are available in English, and not cheaply. Each provides context for the events noted in the Annals, as well as the Confucian interpretation of them.

The Book of Changes - also commonly called by its Chinese name, the I Ching, a book of divination with ten appendices of commentary. Once again, Confucius traditionally receives credit as the author of these appendices, though it appears he actually wrote few or none of them. Aside from a few passages in a couple of these appendices, the philosophical significance is abstract and difficult, and honestly it’s only the praise the Confucians give the work that keeps me interested in it. Oh, and its role as Philip K. Dick’s co-author of The Man in the High Castle. Legge’s translation is popular and common, as is the Wilhelm version.

The Book of Rites - a varied collection of works touching on the rites, some describing how to conduct rituals, others commenting on them and explaining their significance. I’m not aware of any in-print English edition, but one can occasionally find a used copy of Legge’s translation published under its Chinese title Li Chi.