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The best books on Confucius

recommended by Daniel A. Bell

As Confucianism makes a comeback in China, Daniel A. Bell, a professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, lists which books to read for an understanding of Confucius and his legacy.


Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University. He has held research fellowships at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science. He is the series editor of a translation series by Princeton University Press that aims to translate the most influential and original works of Chinese scholars

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Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University and professor at Tsinghua University. He has held research fellowships at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science. He is the series editor of a translation series by Princeton University Press that aims to translate the most influential and original works of Chinese scholars

Daniel Bell's Homepage

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As China modernises, it is increasingly returning to its traditional culture. Certainly, the resurgence of Confucian thinking is part of this re-evaluation. But what is Confucianism?

Confucianism is like liberalism or Christianity. It’s a very rich and diverse tradition and it’s at least 2500 years old. It’s based on the idea that the good life lies in social relations, starting with family, extending to friends, and to other communities in the country and eventually to the whole world. The key question Confucians ask is: What are the roles we occupy? What are the sorts of obligations that we have in those roles?

Of course, Confucius himself is the most famous representative of the tradition which is why I selected The Analects as my first book, though he viewed himself as the transmitter of an earlier tradition.

What are The Analects?

It’s a compilation. It’s not written by Confucius himself. It is more a collection of anecdotes of how he engaged his students, almost in dialogue form. And in them, he comes off as a very charming, humorous figure, not at all dogmatic and very modern. I think that’s partly why he’s been so influential.

There’s this view that Confucius was a conformist, but that’s partly because of the way Confucianism has been misused throughout Chinese history. Also because he does have a somewhat different approach to critical thinking than we have today. For him learning is a question of learning in stages, and the early stages have to do with improving understanding. It’s only once one has a good grasp of what our ancestors have said that one is in a position to evaluate it and to think critically about it. So the idea that children should engage in critical thinking would seem very odd to Confucius. More generally in Chinese education, and certainly still today, rote learning is considered important at early stages, to get a grasp of what the great thinkers have said in the past. Then at a certain point we have to think critically about what we learn.

From its origins as a philosophy, how did Confucianism come to be so closely related to the state?

Well, Confucius himself was pretty much a political failure. It took about five hundred years for his ideas to become politically influential. He was advocating his ideas in the Spring and Autumn period when China was not yet unified and basically he roamed from state to state trying to persuade rulers of his political ideals and he wasn’t successful. His most influential interpreter was Mencius, one hundred years later. And he too was pretty much a failure in terms of political influence. It’s only in the Han dynasty, about five hundred years later after Confucius’ time, that Confucianism became the official state ideology. So that was about 2000 years ago.

And even then, the Confucianism that became the official state ideology was arguably different from the original views of Confucianism. It was combined to a certain extent with Legalism, which is the other key political tradition in China. Legalism advocates the use of harsh punishments to control people and it almost justifies a totalitarian form of social control. Confucianism is in favour of light government, of informal means of social control, of harmony based on emotions. And, in principle, that became the official ideology. But in practice it was combined with Legalist ideas.

So, in fact, what many people think of as Confucianism is actually closer to ‘Legalism’?

It’s both. It’s a combination that varied throughout Chinese imperial history. It certainly was not exactly the sorts of ideas that Confucianism had in mind, although there was some continuity.

Confucianism is often equated with conformism. Is this a fundamental part of Confucius’ philosophy?

Actually, it’s the Legalists who are in favour of intellectual conformity as a way of securing social order. The Confucians are not in favour of conformity at all. Indeed one of the most famous sayings from the Analects is: “Exemplary persons should pursue harmony but not conformity.” Harmony really is this idea that you have differences – explained by metaphors like: very tasty dishes composed of many different ingredients that are bland on their own but together they combine to form this delicious dish; or else music, where you have one instrument that sounds OK on its own but when it’s combined with other instruments it produces a beautiful harmony. Confucius himself, if you look at his model as an educator, very much encouraged a constant questioning and constant self-improvement and definitely not a conformist attitude to learning. Rather the opposite I’d say.

So tell me about Mencius, your second choice.

Mencius lived about one century after Confucius but it was not until the Song dynasty, some 1000 years later, that Mencius’s interpretation of Confucius became the most influential one. Mencius believed that we are born good. He had a fairly optimistic view of human nature as well as the view that the government should rely upon informal means of social control rather than harsh punishment as a way of securing social order and harmony.

He’s also known for his views on what constitutes a just war. Could you expand on that?

Mencius is often viewed as the softest of the Confucians, as an idealist who wasn’t sensitive to realpolitik. But he was writing in the Warring States era, which was an age of constant conflict, and he had some principles for warfare–for when warfare is moral or just–which I think are quite well grounded in reality. To my mind they are quite realistic and feasible, and have much in common with modern ideas about just war. He provides an account of when defensive warfare is justified, namely when one is attacked in an unprovoked way by a neighbouring country. In this situation military force is legitimate if the ruler has the support of the people. He also has this idea– equivalent to the modern idea of humanitarian intervention–that when there is a ruler who is systematically oppressing the people, there might be a case for using military force to liberate the people. But he is quite clear that certain conditions have to be in place for this to be legitimate. One is that the people have to welcome the invading army, and that the welcome has to be long lasting, not just short-term. Also, there has to be the equivalent of international support for the invasion. He also investigates what we mean by oppression. And for him, oppression means that the ruler is violating the most basic needs; most notably that of survival. Mencius wouldn’t argue that you could legitimately invade another country in order to promote democracy. If a ruler is systematically killing the people, or systematically starving them, only then might there be a case for humanitarian intervention.

So Mencius would not agree with the Chinese Communist Party’s central foreign policy tenet—that outside interference in the internal affairs of a country should never be permitted?

The idea of sovereignty was emphasised throughout most of the 20th century in China, which made sense when China was being bullied by foreign powers and it needed to strengthen itself. Now China is a relatively powerful and stable country, with international influence. I think it will need to think a bit outside of the box, and that’s why some people are retrieving some of the ancient Confucian sources, including Mencius, which have worthwhile things to say about modern day humanitarian intervention.

Let’s talk about Xunzi, your third choice.

Mencius was followed about one hundred years later in the 3rd century B.C.E. by Xunzi, who had an opposite view of human nature, that basically we are born evil. His view of Confucianism was pretty marginalised in theory but in practice it was quite influential throughout imperial Chinese history.

So, he’s the Machiavelli of the Confucians?

Xunzi is certainly viewed as a realpolitik guy. But there’s more to it than that. If you look at the texts, he favours the use of ritual as a way of providing social order. He uses the example of marriage rituals, or burial rituals, even drinking rituals, that would lead to the coming together of people of different classes. So if you have a rich person and a poor person involved in a common drinking ritual, part of the effect is that eventually the rich person develops some sort of bond with the poor person and they are more willing to do things on the poor person’s behalf.

So in a way he is saying that ritual–rather than law and harsh punishment–is key to securing solidarity in society, especially a feeling of commonality between the rich and the poor. It’s a way to make people care about the interests of the disadvantaged as opposed to using the law which, ultimately, is not effective in transforming the motivation, especially of the rich and powerful. It’s always been easy in a big county like China to evade the laws if you have to or you want to. The question is: how do we change the motivation of the rich and powerful? Xunzi’s idea about ritual has a lot to say in that respect.

Your next book is the Yueji or Records of Music, part of the Record of Rites, various texts that were put together at the time Confucianism became the official state ideology during the Han dynasty. How is music relevant to Confucian society?

The Records of Music is not as influential historically as some of the other texts, but I think it’s very interesting. It illustrates how music is key for producing a sense of harmony. If the ruler pays attention to the uses of music in securing social order, co-operation and harmony, it is ultimately much more effective than using the law, than using punishment to control people. Rulers, throughout Chinese history, did pay attention to the function of music in securing harmony. Sometimes they would even send out emissaries to find out what music people were listening to. It’s the equivalent to modern day polling. If people are listening to harmonious music you can tell things are roughly OK. But if music, to use a modern example, like Punk music is widespread in society then you know that something is wrong. People wonder today, why do East Asians, whether it’s Koreans or Japanese or Chinese, societies with a Confucian heritage, why do they love Karaoke so much, and why do they like singing whenever there is any sort of opportunity? I think some of the earlier roots of those ideas can be traced to those texts, and how they had some sort of political usage throughout Chinese history.

Could you talk a little bit about the Da Xue (the Great Learning)?

The Da Xue is another of the texts that was part of the Record of the Rites. Zhu Xi, who was the most famous interpreter of Confucianism in the Song dynasty, regarded it as one of the four great books of Confucianism. Basically it provides an account of morality and how to become an exemplary person. It begins with self-cultivation and learning and improvement which is a lifelong pursuit but then it also extends to the family. The family is a site where morality is learned and practised but then it is extended to the country, in a kind of diminishing extent. The love that I’ll feel for a stranger in my country is never the same as the love that I’ll feel for my mother but there is still an element of love. Eventually it is extended to the whole world. That’s why Confucianism, in some senses, is a universalistic philosophy. It does involve some sort of concern, almost love for the whole world, not just for the current generation, but for our ancestors and future generations as well. I think to a certain extent, it is a much more realistic psychology than religions or philosophies which call for complete impartial love. The fact that it is easier to practice makes it more attractive to me and to many people who think of Confucianism as having something to tell us today.

So all these texts you’ve chosen, with their emphasis on ancestors and tradition, were pretty much rejected by the Communists when they came into power?

Well, throughout most of the twentieth century both the Communists and liberal intellectuals in China were very much against tradition. They viewed traditional values as the sources of China’s backwardness and they thought that they must overcome tradition– basically learn from the West–to become a modern country. Now many intellectuals in China view that as an over reaction, not just intellectuals but also many people in the party itself. They see the over-reaction as partly the result of a misunderstanding of what traditional values really were. That’s why now there’s an effort to revive tradition at different levels of society. Partly it is government-led, and partly it’s from independent and critical intellectuals. Sometimes it’s businessmen who have made their fortunes and say: ‘What am I going to do now?’ And they may decide to fund experiments in education. There’s a general sense of malaise in Chinese society. Capitalism has made people feel that life has become overly materialistic, and there’s this feeling that we need to improve social responsibility. How do we do that? Partly by retrieving our traditional values which aim to promote a sense of social responsibility. There are surveys that measure social and political attitudes. It is really quite unexpected that as China has modernised over the past 15 years, there has been a very substantial increase in attachment to traditional political and social attitudes at different levels of society, even at a very popular level. For example, there is a book by a female academic called Yu Dan, on the Analects of Confucius, that has sold over ten million copies. It’s bought not by intellectuals, but by average readers.

And she is writing about Confucianism?

She applies Confucianism more as an individual ethics, as a way of finding meaning in life and in social relations but she really neglects the political aspects of it, which is problematic. Early Confucians, in their own day, were radical social critics. I think Confucianism has this critical edge to it. If you just look at the opening of the book of Mencius, it opens with him directly criticising political rulers in very harsh and moralistic terms. She doesn’t discuss any of that. It’s a very depoliticised form of Confucianism, which probably helps to explain why she’s always on TV, and receives more official support than others who would have more critical views to put forward. An example of the more critical viewpoint might be Jiang Qing, who is a very powerful intellectual. Jiang Qing is putting forward alternatives for thinking about political reform in China today, some even going beyond democracy.

Do you think that these ideas are really undercurrents in Chinese history that keep resurfacing, reflecting periods of unity and chaos in the Chinese state?

I think that’s right. The 1st Emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, who unified China, buried the Confucians alive with their books. His slogan was “A rich country and a strong military”. The 20th century was similar, and Mao himself was inspired more by the first Emperor and the Legalists, than the Confucians. When China is in a period of chaos and when it is weak and bullied and at odds with itself then the Legalist ideas become more important. But when China is more stable and wealthy and doesn’t have to worry so much about being bullied then the soft power of Confucianism becomes more influential. That happened earlier and I think it might help to explain the slow revival of Confucianism now.

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