In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classical Confucianism

  • Introduction
  • Defining Confucianism

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Chinese Studies Classical Confucianism
Paul R. Goldin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0060


As one of the oldest and most widespread belief systems in East Asia, Confucianism has meant different things to different people. For the purposes of this bibliography, “classical Confucianism” refers to the foundations of the Confucian tradition, that is, the philosophy of Confucius (Kong Qiu, Kong fuzi; traditional dates b. 551–d. 479 BCE) and his followers down to the 3rd century BCE, an interval that is sometimes called the Warring States period. Reconstructing the historical parameters of Confucianism is increasingly difficult the further back one goes in time, as the first masters did not leave written summaries of their views. What we know of Confucius and Mencius (Meng Ke, Mengzi; b. c. 372–d. 289 BCE), for example, comes from books that were compiled after their deaths under unknown circumstances. Moreover, it has always been a tenet of Confucianism that acting on one’s knowledge is as crucial as knowledge itself, and thus the domain of Confucianism includes socially constructive action, ritual practice, and other activities that are not always directly recorded in historical documents. If there are three basic convictions shared by all classical Confucians, they are that (1) human beings are born with the capacity to develop morally; (2) moral development begins with moral self-cultivation, that is, reflection on one’s own behavior and concerted improvement where it is found lacking; and (3) by perfecting oneself in this manner, one also contributes to the project of perfecting the world.

General Overviews

Overviews of Confucianism inevitably have differing foci, for the tradition endures in the early 21st century and has had untold numbers of self-conscious adherents over the centuries. Some Western scholars, such as Max Weber (Weber 1951), have focused on the points of divergence between Confucianism and familiar Western traditions, arguing that these are also the source of cultural differences. (For critical responses to Weber, see Schluchter 1983.) Another important theme advanced by scholars, as in Tu 1993, has been the concept of Confucian humanism: concern for the world and one’s fellow human beings dwelling in it rather than God, the afterlife, or some other transcendent notion. More recently, Nivison 1996 and Goldin 2011 have discussed the importance of archaeologically excavated material, including manuscripts of previously unknown texts, to our understanding of classical Confucianism. Other collaborative volumes offering general introductions to Confucianism are Yao 2003 and Tu and Tucker 2003–2004.

  • Goldin, Paul R. Confucianism. Ancient Philosophies 9. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    Focuses on the Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi, with an introduction attempting a workable definition of Confucianism and a final chapter on Neo-Confucianism and Confucianism in the early 21st century. Includes suggestions for further reading.

  • Nivison, David S. The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Bryan W. Van Norden. Chicago: Open Court, 1996.

    Nivison trained many scholars of Chinese philosophy but left some of his most influential papers unpublished for years. Van Norden, his student, brought them together in this volume, which includes Nivison’s investigation of the term de 德 (frequently translated as “virtue”) and studies of Mencius.

  • Schluchter, Wolfgang, ed. Max Webers Studie über Konfuzianismus und Taoismus: Interpretation und Kritik. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983.

    This collected volume represents the most sustained critique of Weber’s influential treatment of Confucianism and Daoism (for which see Weber 1951). Weber’s approach is generally out of favor in the early 21st century, but students and scholars who wish to reconsider it must first come to terms with the responses that it engendered in the 20th century.

  • Tu, Wei-ming. Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    These diverse essays by Tu, who is one of the most respected Confucian scholars in East Asia, emphasize his understanding of Confucianism as a kind of humanism. One’s concern is for the world here and now rather than for some metaphysically divorced afterlife.

  • Tu, Weiming, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds. Confucian Spirituality. 2 vols. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest 11A/B. New York: Crossroad, 2003–2004.

    Extensive collection of papers by several authors focusing on practice rather than theology but with enough of a disciplinary range (intellectual history, religious studies, and philosophy) to cover many aspects of Confucianism. Does not attempt a synthetic narrative, but selections from these volumes would be ideal for undergraduate instruction.

  • Weber, Max. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth. New York: Free Press, 1951.

    In a nutshell, Weber’s theory was that Confucianism and Daoism fostered an acceptance of nature’s limitations rather than rebellion against them and thus inhibited the drive to dominate the world that has been characteristic of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. His view has sometimes been denounced as reductionist, but it was highly influential in the West in its time.

  • Yao, Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism. 2 vols. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedias of Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    The only encyclopedia of Confucianism in English, with dozens of contributors. Entries tend to be short rather than essay-length, but together they cover many aspects of Confucian philosophy and practice throughout history.

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