Wisdom of the East

SuperSnail asks:

Hey Razib, could you compile a list of Chinese and Indian religious history/philosophy books?

I’ve actually made the call for books on Indian religion and philosophy elsewhere. My knowledge set in this domain is very thin, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending anything. I have read primary sources such as The Bhagavad Gita and The Rig Veda, as well as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, but I have no sense of the lay of the land. To be frank Indian religion and philosophy has minimal appeal for me. The materialist school, the Carvaka, is generally characterized by its opponents, so it isn’t as if I find any succor in that direction (imagine that everything you knew about classical paganism was purely through the polemics of Christian apologists).

When it comes to China I am a bit more comfortable. Unlike the case with the Abrahamic religions I assume many readers are not so familiar with the primary texts. So the list below is more weighted toward the “sources,” though I think one can argue that Confucianism as it is lived has as much to do with The Analects as Christianity does with the synoptic gospels. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make an inference as to the lesson one takes from this analogy!

I am personally rather positively inclined toward the “black sheep” of the early Confucian sages, Xunzi, who I suspect would be most comprehensible to those with a “Secular Right” perspective. Xunzi’s emphasis on the necessity of social order and regulation had a more jaundiced tinge than that of Confucius, and especially Mencius, but some have argued that in practice the Confucianism of Chinese civilization owes more to him than to his more well regarded predecessors.

Because of its concrete and “this worldly” emphasis Chinese religion and philosophy can’t be understood well without a reference to the broader history of China, so there are many general history books on the list. Additionally, the final section has a periodic temporal focus, going from dynasty to dynasty. I’ve omitted any books on Buddhism because I think in the Chinese context this religion can be decomposed mostly into its “foreign” and “indigenous.” The synthesis may be novel (e.g., Chan Buddhism, more commonly known as Zen in the West), but usually I think its antecedents in indigenous Chinese or exogenous Indian & Central Asian traditions are pretty clear.

Primary sources & surveys:
The Analects of Confucius
The Authentic Confucius
An Introduction to Confucianism
The Philosophy of Xunzi
Neo-Confucianism in History
Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1
Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 2
A Short History of Chinese Philosophy

General Histories:
China: A New History
China: A History
The Open Empire
A History of Chinese Civilization

Period Histories:
The Early Chinese Empires
China between Empires
China’s Cosmopolitan Empire
T’ang China
The Age of Confucian Rule
The Troubled Empire
China’s Last Empire

If you read one book on the list, I think Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization is the way to go.

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6 Responses to Wisdom of the East

  1. Sumit Chavan says:

    I suggest you also read Buddha & His Dhamma by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

  2. David Hume says:

    from all i’ve read ambedkar had a rather idiosyncratic view of buddhism, so unless you’ve read a lot of background stuff that seems an inappropriate place to start.

  3. On Chinese history, Nicola di Cosmo’s Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (which I review here) is useful for exploring how important the nomad-pastoralist interaction with China was.

    From a more general perspective on such interactions, but one which fits in with the wider question of this post, Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (which I begin to review here) is a history of central Eurasia that anyone interested in the wider patterns of world history should read. It is a somewhat polemical corrective but touches a lot of issues, including the spread of ideas and outlooks.

  4. John Emerson says:

    Mark Elvin, “Pattern of the Chinese Past”. General History from the point of economic and political development.

    Lao Tzu is not Razib’s style but it’s indispensable. The Lau and Waley translations are classics. There are many more recent translations, some excellent and some utter crap, but none supersede Lau and Waley in my opinion.

    Wing-Tsit Chan’s big “Source Book of Chinese Philosophy” is a great one-stop collection for less than $10.00 used.

    Things to remember about Chinese philosophy: almost all of it is simultaneously about socio-political organization and self-cultivation / personal subjectivity. Most Chinese philosophy buffs only want the subjective and moralistic, but the institutional / political (Mo Tzu and the Legalists: Han Fei Tzu and Shang Yang) can’t be skipped. China developed rationalized government long before Europe, more so than Rome, and many Enlightenment political principles (benevolent despotism, non-hereditary non-noble officials) were partly inspired by Chinese examples.

    Needham’s “Science and Civilization in China” is about ten – 20 volumes but there are shortened editions and you can also zero in on your own area of interest. Probably the greatest single work of Sinology (though it’s not really single, multiple authors by now). Chinese philosophy assumes various physical / scientific principles, and China developed a lot of science, but almost all of the science was developed either in a technical craft or industrial context (often very advanced for the time) or in a symbolic cosmological form similar to alchemy or astrology. So there was a lot of empirical observation there, but developed in a different direction.

    On history it’s important to take the traditional interpretation with a grain of salt. For example, from about 800 BC — 200 BC, 200 AD — 500 AD, and 900 AD — 1200 AD China was not unified and can be analyzed as a multi-state system like Europe. But to the traditional Chinese multi-state systems were abhorrent and these eras are spoken of as periods of terrible disunity, when actually they were quite productive and not always terribly violent.

    Lewis’s “Sanctioned Violence in Early China” describes the military culture of China, which was slighted and ignored by the early missionary translators and their Confucian sources.

  5. Hugh says:

    Next week’s BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time is on the Bhagavad Gita.


    I don’t know if you can get it in the States but it’s often interesting despite host Melvyn Bragg’s interjections.

  6. Roger H. says:

    I might add the works of Paramahansa Yogananda. His “Autobiography of a Yogi” was a driving force in bringing Eastern spirituality to the modern West and led to a two volume work, “The Second Coming of Christ” which examines the teachings of Christ from a from the perspective of a practitioner of yoga spirituality and philosophy.

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