Annotated Bibliography of Neo-Confucianism

December 7, 2022

Yehia Amin is currently studying Arabic at al-Azhar University in Egypt. He has an MA in Near and Middle-Eastern Studies from the University of Toronto. Yehia is interested in Islamic and Confucian philosophy, Sufism, and Chinese historiography. On the Islamic philosophy side, he is fascinated with legacies of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) and Suhrawardī (d. 1191), while on the Confucian side, with Song-Ming Confucianism stemming from Zhu Xi (d. 1200). Yehia Amin looks forward to translating these influential figures between Arabic, Chinese, and English.

Annotated Bibliography of Neo-Confucianism

One of the most interesting fields in Islamic Studies is Chinese Muslim, or Han Kitab studies. I can tell you right now that the  barrier of entry is high – dishearteningly  high. You must learn Chinese, maybe Japanese, and a new system of philosophy. I can provide a guide to the latter based on my own journey and love of Confucianism . Muslims practicing Confucian philosophy have been doing it  for a long time. The controversy over whether foreigners could even comprehend Confucianism was sparked around a Muslim who competed in the civil service exams.   The Study of Confucianism is a worthwhile pursuit  for Muslims. Whether you are interested in it for Chinese Muslim studies, planning an Eastern religions class, looking for an alternative to Western philosophy, or want to know more about China, this annotated bibliography will get you started.

My aim is to equip you with the best primary and secondary sources for beginners. I will include a mix of sources that can either benefit those looking to study Chinese Islam, or Muslim academics looking to study Confucianism. What makes this different from, say, the Oxford Bibliography entry is that I am  gearing this towards an educated Muslim audience with a fascination  for the Han Kitab tradition. Where I can, I highlight the main philosophical points central to understanding the Confucian side of Chinese Muslim texts.

What is Confucianism? Confucianism (Ru) was one of many philosophies and religions that grew out of China’s classical pre-dynastic period. It extends to a time before Confucius, purporting to be the distillation of the Sages and Sage Kings of China’s legendary origins. It is concerned with cultivation of the individual and society by perfecting the bonds and relationships that make up our lives. I want to avoid the Euro-centric hairsplitting about whether it is a religion or philosophy, and I advise any reader to make that decision for themselves. Confucianism generally does not have salvific properties like the Abrahamic or Indian religions. It provides many insights on our individual experiences as humans, and how best to achieve a harmonious society. Having existed for thousands of years, it proved to be very adaptable.

One such adaption is Neo-Confucianism (Daoxue), or the school that developed out of Zhu Xi’s (d. 1200 CE) writings. Neo-Confucianism will be the focus of our bibliography. This is the school that the  Chinese Muslims passionately followed. This is also the school Confucians in China, Korea, and Japan followed after the Mongol invasion. What makes Neo-Confucianism exciting is how it responds to Buddhist speculation on  ontology and epistemology using Confucian concepts drawn from earlier eras. This left a rich philosophical system that the Chinese Muslims would use to philosophize. Ancient Confucianism is the fertile soil Neo-Confucianism grew out of, and even though our focus will drift away from that era, I will still include some entries for a fuller understanding. I made sure all the entries use the Pinyin transliteration system as it is more current and easier to follow.

Tanner, Harold M. China: A History. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009. 

History is central to Confucianism. Many of the classics studied are historical works because Confucians look for moral examples in history. Seeing as Confucianism is so tied to Chinese identity, an understanding of that history is undeniably important. This book is a good introduction to the massive scope of Chinese history and is a good starting point as a general history. From here, one can consult more comprehensive overviews, or focus on specific dynasties. Chinese history is usually divided into dynasties. The story of classic Confucianism takes place in what is called the Eastern Zhou period (771-256 BCE). The Dynastic period begins with the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE). The Qin almost wiped out  Confucianism as well as most of Chinese philosophy but was quickly replaced by the Han (206 BCE-220 CE), who made Confucianism central to the state bureaucracy.  Neo-Confucianism sees its roots in the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) but is fully formed in the Song (960-1279 CE). Under the Song, the Confucian examination system for civil service was open to all levels of society, meaning peasants could engage in what was once an elite system to achieve class mobility through Confucianism. The Mongols unseated the Song dynasty, and Chinese control returned with the Ming (1368-1644 CE). Neo-Confucianism became the preferred institutional form of Confucianism, and the basis for the civil service examinations. This continued in the Manchu-led  Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE) until several disasters weakened the authority of Confucianism, culminating in the end of the examination system in 1912 when China transitioned into a republic. As for Han Kitab studies, the Muslims began to engage in Confucianism systematically during the Ming and Qing dynasty, although Muslims have become officials and scholars as early as the Tang.

Rainey, Lee Dian Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

This is a vastly underrated introduction to Confucianism. Rainey balances the historical and philosophical concerns when it comes to presenting Confucianism to a new audience. Rainey follows Confucianism’s development chronologically, presenting the philosophy and its major doctrines as it developed and changed over millennia while giving historical context. Her coverage starts before Confucius’ (d. 479 BCE) time all the way to our present. As such she covers way more than just Neo-Confucianism, so it’s  beneficial to filling in the gaps and providing crucial information to Neo-Confucianism’s debt to Classic and post-classical Confucianism. What I find very insightful of Rainey, is that she gave  a detailed explanation of the role of ritual in Confucianism. She provides details as to how Chinese culture changed over the millennia and how Confucianism adapted.

Nylan, Michael The Five “Confucian” Classics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Confucianism is built off the back of the Five Books. These are 1. the Book of Odes, a collection of ancient poems. 2. The Book of History, a narrative text made up of disparate documents 3. The three books of rites, compendiums of ritual law based on the Way of the Sage Kings 4. The Book of Changes, a divinatory manual said to express what the course of action of the Sages  5. The Spring and Autumn Annals, an impressively terse history of the later Zhou dynasty written by Confucius along with its three canonical commentaries. Most of these books are confirmed to be older than Confucius, but tradition states Confucius either edited, re-organized, or composed parts of them. Before Zhu Xi and even Confucius himself, the books were the Confucian curriculum.  Students and scholars memorized them and quoted them the way educated Muslims quoted the Qur’an and Hadith in their writings, but they were not particularly  religious. Some of these books concerned ritual, others history and poetry. Most contained philosophizing on theoretical and practical matters. Many of these classics require a “user’s manual”. They have been translated in the distant past, require a traditional understanding that comes from repeated exposure to the literature, or they are plain difficult texts. Nylan charts out the changing approaches various eras of Confucians and modern scholars took to understanding them. This includes how they were used across the eras. For the books that require some context, Nylan provides it . While the Neo-Confucian understanding is de-emphasized, it is still included and contrasted to earlier eras.

Palmer, Martin, trans. With Ramsay, Jay and Victoria Finlay. The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu) London: Penguin Books, 2014.

This is a collection of documents or narratives describing early Chinese history. We do not know when each individual document was written, but we know they describe a time that was already very ancient to the writers. The main subjects are the Sages and Sage Kings of antiquity, and their dynastic history. It is easy to claim they are prophets, and they are very prophet-like from a Muslim perspective. It may be better  to think of them as proto-Confucian philosophers. They are close to al-Fārābī’s conception of prophets, in which they are drawing truths from philosophy, while remaining engaged as philosophers. They received revelations and even took part in the flood narrative, but they still philosophized. King Yu speculated on the metaphysics underlying the natural world and how his government can emulate that order. This text’s subjects play a foundational role for Confucianism, as Confucius himself aimed to emulate them .

Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to Ancient Chinese Philosophy, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011.

This is one of  my favorite introductions to Chinese philosophy. Focusing on the ancient schools gives us a snapshot of Chinese philosophy before the collapse of the ancient schools and the incursion of Buddhism. This means that we  have at our disposal native concepts as they developed and were debated by the ancient schools and shaped Confucian doctrines. Van Norden introduces the context to early Confucianism. Debates between early Confucian schools and rival non-Confucians are included.

Gardner, Daniel K. trans. The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007.

The Four Books and Zhu Xi’s commentary dethroned the Five Classics as the cornerstone of the Neo-Confucian curriculum. With Neo-Confucianism’s spread to Korea and Japan, these books, and Zhu Xi’s understanding of them became foundational cultural landmarks throughout East Asia. These books are 1. The Analects of Confucius 2. The Mengzi, or Mencius in English 3. The Great Learning, a manual for cultivation and learning 4. The Doctrine of the Mean, a metaphysical text. These books became textbooks for the civil service in East Asia. Each Confucian philosopher since has had to memorize them and use them as a base for philosophizing to even touch the lower ranks of government bureaucracy. Gardner’s volume includes selections from these texts with Gardner summarizing Zhu Xi’s commentary rather than translating them. Take that as you will, but Gardner uses the opportunity to introduce Zhu Xi’s thought as they relate to the classics. Some such doctrines are a. The Investigation of Things, an epistemological concept that held that the Principle (Li) of an object must be examined thoroughly to gain deeper knowledge the object and its place in our world. This made Neo-Confucianism receptive to Western science during the Ming and Qing dynasty. On a practical level, Gardner focuses on how Neo-Confucians read the texts as part of their civil service training, giving us a glimpse into the practiced reality.

Van Norden, Bryan W., trans. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2008.

It is argued that the first primary text you should start with is Mengzi (d. 289 BCE), otherwise known as Mencius in English. I agree. The Mengzi is very approachable and lacks the density of Islamic and Western philosophy. Some of the sections are in dialogue, perfect for those who studied Plato. Philosophical themes developed here become debating points in later Neo-Confucianism. The text is usually remembered for Mengzi’s position that human nature is good. Mengzi plays a thought experiment where you witness a child about to fall into a well. He posits that any human being would lunge to save the child, positing that human nature is good. Bryan Van Norden’s translation contains a selection of Zhu Xi’s commentary, sometimes paraphrased like Gardner’s renderings.

Hutton, Eric L. trans. Xunzi: The Complete Text, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Before Neo-Confucianism, Xunzi’s philosophy was the most dominant. Xunzi (d. 238 BCE) is remembered for two doctrines: His understanding of Heaven, and his observation that human nature is malicious. He relegated Heaven to a more naturalistic force of fate rather than a god-like entity. This impacted the “theology” of later Confucians like Zhu Xi, even if they disagreed with him about much else. Scholars of Islamic philosophy would find his treatise on the Nature of Heaven interesting in comparing Ibn Sīnā and the philosophers’ metaphysical speculation on the First Principle. His stance on human nature became anathema in Neo-Confucianism when his influence was finally dethroned. He puts the stress on rituals as the purifier of humanity’s maliciousness; meaning he presents a philosophical defence of ritual.

Angle, Stephen G. and Justin Tiwald. Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017

Van Norden, Bryan W. and Justin Tiwald ed. Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2014.

A topical approach to Neo-Confucianism’s main areas of inquiry. Angle and Tiwald write an approachable philosophical introduction to Zhu Xi and his followers. As of yet, we do not have many full translations from this area of philosophy. Considering almost 2000 years passed between Mengzi and Zhu Xi, Chinese philosophy underwent many changes. Confucian concepts such as the philosophy of the Heart-Mind (Xing) had long histories of ethical, psychological, and epistemological development. Native scientific concepts like Qi developed in medical, and philosophical texts that pointed to a physical substance in humans that contains a metaphysical or spiritual value connected to moral development. Influence from Daoism and Buddhism’s arrival changed Chinese philosophical discourse by including reframed Confucian concepts such as Principle (Li) which now take a role similar to a locus of existence central to this era of philosophy. Jumping in from classical Chinese philosophy can be difficult, and Angle and Tiwald introduce these concepts to a philosophically-literate  modern audience. Thinkers and schools tended to focus on one of these themes over the others, to the point where  schools of Neo-Confucianism can take the name of these concepts. These are also the same concepts the Han Kitab engaged with and internalized, making it an invaluable source for scholars looking to read those texts but are unfamiliar with the ideas discussed. The use of these concepts by the Han Kitab makes this one of the most valuable books in my list for Han Kitab studies. Tiwald also worked with Van Norden to produce an earlier selection of translations that acts as a companion piece to this book.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. ed. Zhu Xi: Selected Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Unfortunately, there are many selected translations of Zhu Xi’s works rather than full translations. It is still important to remember many of his surviving writings are conversations between him and his students, so selections act as a good introduction. These collections highlight many facets of his thought, from his ontological position that the world is filled with Principle connecting existents, to moral positions about human nature. Developing Confucian debates on human nature from Mengzi and Xunzi, human nature for Zhu Xi is Principle. Principle and therefore human nature are good. The embodiment of people in their environments distorts human nature based on their own bodily and moral dispositions, which can be worked out with moral cultivation. If you ever wondered why villains in Japanese pop-culture tend to be reformed at some point, it traces its way to this aspect of Zhu Xi’s philosophy. Also included in the collection are his polemical works against Daoists and Buddhists, arguing against perrenialist claims that the three traditions are one. We also get selections from Zhu Xi’s legal and ritualistic writings as an active official within the system he revolutionizes.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. trans. Readings from The Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009.

Wang Yangming (d. 1529 CE) is going to be a lot of readers’ favored Neo-Confucian. Wang Yangming believed that following Zhu Xi’s focus on Principle would make Confucians favor intellectual speculation over action. This would create a culture of bookish nerds who did little else but speculate, to the detriment of moral development brought about by learning. Wang Yangming posited that knowledge and action are united, and that if one had knowledge, one is compelled ethically to act on that knowledge. Instead of Principle, Wang Yangming highlights the importance of the Heart-Mind (Xing) as a source of moral and epistemological truths. He is an idealist and deals with epistemology that would be more recognizable to a Muslim audience. He posits that the knowledge of Principles leads to pure knowledge, which can cloud our perception. It is the Heart-Mind that perceives knowledge of objects, and it must be subject to self-cultivation so that it does not become distorted in its perceptions. Wang Yangming’s approach became the biggest internal opposition to Zhu Xi.

Komjathy, Louis. Daoism: A Guide for the Perplexed, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

The issue with studying Daoism is the overwhelming focus on Early or Philosophical Daoism. Laozi’s Daodejing and Zhuangzi tend to monopolize the studies and conversations around Daoism. While both are excellent and influential texts , they were only a drop in the bucket when it comes to the totality of Daoism. Daoism is filled with alchemical texts, meditation practices, stories of gods and monsters, and has its own system of nuns and priests. How did we get from Laozi to the many cults and sects that make up Daoism? There have not been as much scholarship about Neo-Confucianism’s relationship with Daoism, so it helps to have an understanding of Daoism to make up for that.

Johnston, Ian. trans. The Book of Master Mo. London: Penguin Books, 2014.

If Confucius wrote for the elites and ruling class, Mozi (d. 438 BCE) wrote for the working class. There isn’t much known about Mozi as a person, but we do know that Mohists were serious rivals to Confucianists. Mohism was systematic and organized. It shared many similarities with Confucianism, making it an excellent comparison for those exploring Confucianism. Not only did Mozi provide a rival understanding of the Classics, but his philosophy was much more in touch with the working class and their concerns. For Mozi, the state should be run by the worthy, measured by Righteousness (Yi) rather than station. A consequentialist ethics was put in place to hold those in power accountable, rivaling Confucianism’s virtue ethics. Mozi also wrote of a more personal God in contrast to the more philosophically-distant  Heaven of the Confucians. Tying back to righteousness, Heaven was the ultimate arbiter of Righteousness, thus worship of Heaven was a more explicit doctrine for the Mohists and lends them something of a theology. As a rival ‘maḏhab’, Mohism sought to reform the more extravagant rites as even the Canons of Rites acknowledge that some rituals are too expensive for the masses. Contrasting this approach to Rites, Confucius advocated for keeping rites as they are, even if they fell into disuse. Mohism is also one of the few native Chinese philosophies with a system of logic, preserved in this book.

Hakeda, Yoshito S. trans. Awakening of Faith. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

There is no Neo-Confucianism without Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism came to China in the Han, but really developed during the Six Dynasties period and reached dominance in the Tang dynasty. Mahayana Buddhism developed several branches, some populist, while others intellectual. On a basic level, Buddhism’s system of celibate monks and withdrawal from the world was at odds with Confucianism’s ethos of participation in society and family. Where Buddhism and Confucianism saw sharp contrasts, early translators of Buddhist texts used Daoist concepts and terminology, pitting the two as eternal rivals. Buddhist philosophy focuses on salvation, meaning achieving enlightenment and breaking the cycle of rebirth. Most doctrines whether epistemological, metaphysical, or ethical point towards achieving that salvation through accepting Buddhist practices and doctrines. Perhaps for this reason we did not see the Falsafa translation movement under the Abbasids focus on Mahayana Buddhism despite its presence in the Persianate Islamic World. As Neo-Confucianism takes on these doctrines and Confucianises them, it should be a go-to  for people interested in the insights of Buddhist philosophy outside its salvific goals. The Awakening of Faith is an exposition of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. Here is the basis  for Zhu Xi’s Principle: Buddha Nature and the Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness as the grounding of phenomenon in our world. Another interesting inclusion here is Buddhist epistemology of the storehouse of knowledge, a forerunner of Wang Yangming’s theories of the Heart-Mind. All perception is collected in the storehouse consciousness before it is processed by the mind. Without the salvific techniques of Buddhism, this storehouse faculty jumbles our perceptions, keeping us from enlightenment.

Goldschmidt, Asaf. The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty 960-1200. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Chinese medicine might seem off-topic . This is the story of how the Song Confucian emperors responded to epidemics of the era by codifying various medical traditions and using the Confucian framework to create Chinese medicine as we know it today. Medicine was not a field of Chinese philosophy the way it was in Hellenic thought. Philosophical approaches to medicine were related to Daoist texts, while practical medicine was considered a lowly trade practiced by masters and apprentices. The two approaches did not overlap systematically. The Song emperors ordered the various medical texts collected and standardized. They established medical education facilities based on the new and growing Confucian examination system. Medicine even became an elective Confucian scholars could pick up as part of their education. This book shows how intimately Confucians approached scientific inquiry  even before Zhu Xi laid the groundwork for the Investigation of Things. For scholars engaged with natural philosophy or medicine in Islam, this book is a good look into another philosophical system’s engagement with natural philosophy and science.

Kelleher, M. Theresa trans. The Journal of Wu Yubi. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2013.

The journal of a Neo-Confucian scholar who documented his attempts to put the Way of the Sages into practice. This would be of interests to those approaching Han Kitab studies from Sufi studies, or those interested in how philosophers applied their learning to daily life. He struggles with neighbors, old age, and other mundane issues as he applies the philosophy of Zhu Xi to solving them. He cites  Zhu Xi,  and his teachers as he attempts to put their doctrines into action.


[1] Benite, Ben-Dor. The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2.


Published Date: December 7, 2022

Yehia Amin

Yehia Amin is currently studying Arabic at al-Azhar University in Egypt. He has an MA in Near and Middle-Eastern Studies from the University of Toronto. Yehia is interested in Islamic and Confucian philosophy, Sufism, and Chinese historiography. On the Islamic philosophy side, he is fascinated with legacies of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) and Suhrawardī (d. 1191), while on the Confucian side, with Song-Ming Confucianism stemming from Zhu Xi (d. 1200). Yehia Amin looks forward to translating these influential figures between Arabic, Chinese, and English.
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