A Guide Map for Reading the East Asian Canon

Readers may remember my stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the “East Asian” section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?

What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:

First, see my post “Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List.” In addition to the books mentioned in that post, you might consider:

  • A survey text on the philosophical debates of ancient China (which covers the first third of the readings). The “Making Sense of Chinese History” post has one very entry level text, but there are better, more thorough texts, such as Benjamin Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China, a book I love. I wouldn’t read this book before I read the works it comments on, but along side them (e.g. read his chapter on Confucius while reading Confucius, and so forth). AC Graham’s Disputers of the Dao is another classic text of this sort; Paul Golden has written a similar book titled The Art of Chinese Philosophy: Eight Classical Texts and How to Read Them for his undergraduate survey course, but I have not read it yet so cannot recommend it from experience. I suppose you could read Golden’s introduction, read the text in question, then read the heavier chapter from Schwartz or Graham. That wouldn’t be a bad way to approach the classics of Warring State philosophy.

  • With some ancient Chinese texts I think it is imperative to read them in more than one translation. This is true for the Analects, the Dao De Jing, the Sunzi Art of War, and probably also for the Zhuangzi. I specifically chose translations I like in the Great Books list. For a secondary translation of the Analects and the Dao De Jing you might consider Roger Ames’ “philosophical translation” of each work. Their commentary and translation are radically different from the ones I first recommended and will give you a good sense for the range of interpretations possible. I do not have strong feelings on the best Zhuangzi translations.

  • Yuri Pines has this wonderful little book called The Everlasting Empire which reviews the unifying themes of warring states philosophers and explores how these ideas were used to order Chinese life in the imperial era. It will give you a good idea of the significance that Warring States thought had on the long duree of Chinese history. Kim’s A History of Chinese Political Thought is a fair guide to Chinese political philosophy over time: it is dry but interesting, and is especially useful for thinking through changes that occur in the later eras. Fingarette’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred is another important, but very small, work that will challenge you to think differently about The Analects and the broader Confucian project. Peter Bol’s Neoconfucianism in History is a must-read. I had not read it when I created the “Making Sense of Chinese History” post, but were I write that reading list today, I would include it over many books that made the cut. Although it is showing its age, the Bloodsworths’ Chinese Machiavelli is also a good companion piece to many of the thinkers on the Great Books list.


  • Mote’s Imperial China, 900-1800 may be the best history of China written in the English language. It will contextualize all developments of note for the later dynasties. You don’t have to read it all at one time; reading it dynasty by dynasty as you read the corresponding works on the Great Books list will be sufficient. There is no comparable work for earlier eras. Feng Li’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History is a staid yet serviceable overview of the pre-imperial period.  Mark Edward Lewis’ The Early Chinese Empires: Han and Qin is probably the best companion piece to your Sima Qian readings. David Graff’s Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900 is actually a political-institutional history of China from 200 AD-1000 AD, and is probably the best political narrative history we have for the time period.

  • Poetry in translation is hard. I think the best way for someone who speaks no Chinese to do it might be through a larger anthology like Michael Fuller’s An Introduction to Chinese Poetry. Cai Zongqi’s How To Read Chinese Poetry is also a useful resource.

  • I have not delved much into Mahayana Buddhism since graduating university. This is where my recommendations are shakiest. General introductory overviews of Buddhism such as Keown’s Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction and Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy might be the place to start. A book like Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations is a useful reference text; I would not read it straight through. You might also consider reading the Buddhist works from the “Indic tradition” section of the Great Books list before delving into the Chinese or Japanese Buddhist works.

    You may also want to read books on Buddhism in East Asia specifically, such as Arthur Wright’s Buddhism in Chinese History or Ch’en’s Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. I am not familiar enough with the terrain to give recommendations on the best surveys of Japanese Buddhism.

  • There are numerous works (and two chapter by chapter podcasts!) on Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, Tale of Genji, and the other works of literature that can serve as proper guides to these books when you get there. But if you do it chronologically (as I recommend you do below) you will not get to these works until quite late in the game. You do not have to worry about it now.


So to put it all together:

Pick up Feng Li’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History. That will give you the broader historical context for the first third of the list. Buy Goldin’s The Art of Chinese Philosophy or Van Norden’s An Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Read the companion chapter for each text as you read the text in question. If you would like to go one layer deeper at this point, purchase Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China, but only read the corresponding chapters at after you have read the texts in question. For Confucius and the Dao De Jing, also read the Roger Ames translation and commentary. Those books are worth reading slowly. I further recommend picking up the slim volumes Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Fingarette) and Understanding the Dao De Jing (Moeller). Pines’ Everlasting Empire is a good simultaneous capstone to this era and introduction to what comes next. This gets you through the first seven readings.

Guidance after those readings are harder—you could make a rough analogy to the place the Warring States texts have in the East Asian tradition to the place of ancient Greek literature in the Western tradition. Just as an unusual amount of our great works are concentrated in a narrow period of Athenian history, so a disproportionate number of the great Chinese works come from a narrow slice of history. Sima Qian’s History caps this period off; you should probably read it along with the Mark Edward Lewis Early Empires book. Mountain of Fame (included in the “Making Sense of Chinese History” list) has some other chapters useful for understanding this era.

From this point forward, the works vary more greatly in both physical location and time. I suggest progressing thematically: your choices are politics, poetry, or religion. If religion, first read the introductory books on Buddhism (Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction + Buddhism as Philosophy + Buddhism in Chinese History ), then proceed on to the Buddhist works on the list.

If poetry is your choice, read Finding Them Gone first, for a historical highlights reel, and then pick either Cai or Fuller for a proper literary tour of China from the Zhou dynasty through the Song. Tao Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, and Su Shi are all included in these anthologies, so you could just declare victory then and there. Otherwise, you could secure translations of devoted to each of these and read them in turn.

Finally, if politics is the route you’d like to go, you could start by reading Medieval Chinese Warfare paired with the relevant mini-biographical readings in Mountain of Fame. The early imperial chapters of Kim’s A History of Chinese Political Thought would also be great. This takes you up to the Song Dynasty and the rebirth of Confucian thought (“Neoconfucianism”). Here the books Neoconfucianism in History and Imperial China, 900-1800 will provide you with the context you need to understand Zhu Xi and Wang Yuanming. I strongly recommend reading Confucian Moral Cultivation along with or after those two great Neoconfucian thinkers.

Having gone through the religious, literary, and political history of China up to the early modern era, you will then be able to read the Four Great Books. These works of literature tap the entirety of the Chinese tradition.

There will still then be the matter of the Japanese tradition. I would start that journey with the very readable Japan and the Shackles of the Past. If you would like a meatier introduction, Farris’s Japan to 1600 or Friday’s Japan Emerging both work.   I have not opened Morris’ World of the Shining Prince, but it is usually described as the essential guide to court social life in the era and the literature it produced. Charles Jones’ new book Pure Land might be the ticket for contextualizing the Japanese Buddhist works on the list.

The last few works on the list come from the moment of East-West contact. I suspect the introductions to these works will be sufficient for this period, but see my “Understanding Chinese History” post for various books on that moment.

To sum up the summary: I would divide the list into seven big chunks:

1) Ancient Chinese philosophy and history (Analects, Mozi, Mengzi, Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi, Han Feizi, Xunzi and Sima Qian, plus supporting texts);

2) Chinese poetry (Tao Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi, plus those anthologies I mentioned)

3) Buddhist works (Indic: Pali Canon, Lotus Sutra, Nagarjuna, Santideva; Chinese: Hui Neng, Platform Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Heart Sutra; Japanese: Kenko, Shinran/Nichiran debates; plus the supporting texts)

4) Chinese political philosophy/history: (Zhu Xi, Su Shi, Wang Yuanming, plus the histories mentioned)

5) The big novels (Journey to the West [which can also count under the ‘Buddhist’ category’], Water Margin, Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Mansions/Story of the Stone) + the one Viet novel (Tale of Kieu)

6) Japanese works (Tale of Genji, Tale of Heike, Kenko, Shinran/Nichiran, plus supporting texts)

7) Contact with the west (Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki)

While it might be possible to do some of these at the same time (the poetry anthologies in particular could be read as one poem a day while reading through the other texts), you are probably best off splitting these things up into category chunks like these for most effective reading. Depending on your reading speed you could make a project out of one or two of these chunks a year!

Finally, a member of the Scholar’s Stage forum has also been reading through the list. You can find his observations and translation choices in a thread on the forum and on his personal substack.


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3 Comments

Robert Langlands, a Canadian mathematician, taught himself Russian in order to read certain math texts in the original language rather than use a translation. Would you recommend learning Chinese, or is the modern language too different from the classical that makes it not worth the effort?

“Modern Chinese” is a creature of the eighteenth century. There’s a lot of scholarship about classical Chinese in modern Chinese… but if you learn Japanese or Korean instead, you’ll be just as well off. The modern language has about as much relation to the ancient as Latin to French.

Learning modern Chinese would make learning classical Chinese easier, if for no reason more than they are written in the same characters. But modern Chinese is also very different from classical Chinese — think of learning English to read Beowulf. It is the way most people do it (and most classical Chinese textbooks assume the reader has 2-3 years of modern Chinese under the belt), but if you solely have interest in the classics you might as well try to go straight to the classical.