Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine

Chinese Philosophy

An introduction for busy practitioners and students.

On this page, you find a small and somewhat random list of basic resources on classical Chinese philosophy. The present selection is obviously not a comprehensive compilation (there are lots of them out there, compiled by professors at university graduate programs with a lot more time on their hands), but meant merely as a starting point for Chinese medicine students and busy practitioners, a first stop to dip your feet in the waters of Chinese philosophy, well-worn favorites of mine that for some reason stand out in my personal library or have elicited positive feedback from my students. For now, I have divided them into three categories, to be expanded on over time.


1. Introductory Books

Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Hackett, 2011. This book serves as a highly readable yet comprehensive and well-balanced introduction, in the best sense of that term, to classical Chinese philosophy. It is on my required reading list for my Chinese History and Culture classes at the National College of Natural Medicine. It works well with the following book, which contains literal translations.


Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Hackett, 2006. I use these two books together in my Chinese Language, History, and Culture classes. They are easy to read, intended as undergraduate textbooks, and give you a broad overview of classical Chinese (i.e., Warring States) philosophy. There are other similar introductory texts out there, and I am sure other readers will have their own preferences. These are simply two options that have worked well for me and my students, for the particular needs of one particular class within the constraints of an intensive and demanding clinical program.


A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao

Open Court, 1989, reprinted in 1991. See below. A wonderful book.


Chad Hansen, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought

Oxford University Press, 1992. Graham and Hansen are a good choice for the more serious reader who has a deeper appreciation for Chinese philosophy. They work well together and, I believe, will give you a well-rounded foundation with which to read the texts themselves. They were definitely my two favorite Chinese philosophy books during my years in graduate school and I continue to refer back to them. I love them both and wouldn't know how to choose one over the other.


Livia Kohn, Daoism and Chinese Culture

Three Pines Press, 2001: A very readable introduction to the role of Daoism in Chinese culture, written as an undergraduate textbook, and in my eyes, the only book that makes the wonderful and absolutely confusing world of religious Daoism a bit more accessible to people without a substantial background in early Chinese philosophy and culture.  So this book will also take you into the realm of “religious Daoism” – but as medical people, you will probably enjoy that.


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2. In-depth Studies

Roger T. Ames, ed., Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi

State University of New York, 1998. A collection of serious scholarly articles on various aspects of the Zhuangzi. For a reader with high tolerance for philosophical discourse.


Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel, eds., Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion

Yale University Press, 1979. Not for the casual reader, this book compiles articles from the early stages of Daoist studies in the West. In my graduate student days, it was such a treat to have anything available in English (instead of Chinese, French, or Japanese), that I remain very grateful for this book. It includes fairly specialized articles on subjects like "The Ideology of the T'ai-p'ing ching," individual figures and local cults, "The Chinese Belief in Baleful Stars," "Taoist Monastic Life," and "The Formation of the Taoist Canon."


Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body

University of California Press, 1993. Written by an eminent Dutch scholar who became an ordained Daoist priest in the course of his fieldwork in the 1960s in Taiwan, this book offers unique insights into Daoism as a lived religion, a set of practices, habits, attitudes, ideals, and views that provide a very necessary compliment to the sanitized "Daoism as philosophy" approach that is still being taught in many undergraduate courses. While it is definitely not an introductory text, I have included it here because of its special significance for Chinese medicine practitioners who may be interested in the religious roots of their cultivation practices.


Herbert Fingarette, Confucius - The Secular as Sacred

Harper Torchbooks, 1972. Another really old but treasured presence on my bookshelf. In only 82 pages, this influential little text gives a refreshing perspective on Confucianism as a living practice that you wouldn't get from the standard works.


Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation

Hackett Publishing, 2000. I am including this one because it again seems to be particularly relevant to practitioners of Chinese medicine and their interest in self-cultivation. This book introduces the topic of moral cultivation by surveying the views of the great thinkers of the Confucian tradition, from Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi to Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, Yan Yuan, and Dai Zhen.



3. Translations

3.a Daoism

Note: Laozi's Dao De Jing has supposedly been translated more often than any other book in the world, with the exception of the bible. I simply cannot recommend one translation over any other but refer interested readers to this online review of translations, so you can pick your personal favorite yourself.


My personal explanation for the existence of all these translations is that it is simply impossible to adequately present the wisdom and profundity of this text in any modern language: For free on-line access to an old translation by James Legge, side-by-side with the Chinese text, see the website at this link: All this said, two very solid translations are:

Roger Ames and David Hall, Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation

Ballantine Bookes, 2003.


Victor Mair, Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way

Bantam, 1990.


Translations of the Zhuangzi are not quite as numerous and varied as those of the Laozi, so I have attempted a list below. But again, the best way to fully experience Zhuangzi is by reading and ruminating over his own writings directly.


Burton Watson, Zhuangzi. Basic Writings

Columbia University Press, 2003. This is the classic translation of the Zhuangzi. You can’t go wrong with this one.


A.C. Graham, Chuang-Tzu. The Inner Chapters

Hackett, 2001. Originally published in 1981, this tried and true translation only covers the inner chapters but is very solid, meticulously researched, and reads quite well. Highly recommended.


Harold D. Roth and A.C. Graham, Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters 

University of Hawai’i, 2003. Only for the advanced Zhuangzi connoiseur who is reading the Chinese. This is a publication of Graham’s notes and writings on the Zhuangzi, which were meant to accompany his translation but were never published for a larger audience. Harold Roth, the author of a wonderful translation of the Neiye (Inner Cultivation) chapter in the Guanzi, has collected and commented on the notes here.


Livia Kohn, Chuang-tzu, The Tao of Perfect Happiness

Skylight Paths, 2011. This is a collection of selections, annotated and explained for a general audience with no background knowledge in Chinese culture, translated by Livia Kohn. It’s readable and has extensive explanatory comments so may be easier to read and enjoy than Watson’s or Graham’s literal translations. Some of the commentary is a bit self-evident though.


Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu

Penguin Books, 2010 or other editions. I love this book, absolutely love it. Written by a Cistercian monk who doesn’t know any Chinese, it beautifully expresses the wisdom of the Zhuangzi. A beautiful little book. With a preface by the Dalai Lama. Not a literal translation, obviously, just a treat for you when you want a bit of Zhuangzi in your life. This would be a beautiful book to have lying around the waiting area in your clinic.


Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience

State University of New York, 1993. A selection of translations to blow your mind open. Probably not easily understood without some background knowledge in Daoism.


Harold Roth, Original Tao. Inward Training (Nei-Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism

Columbia University Press, 1999. This is a wonderful little book with a highly informative introduction and very readable translation of an extremely important, if much lesser known, classic of Daoism, the text called "Inner Training/Cultivation" Nei Ye 內業, which constitutes chapter 49 in the Warring States compendium Guanzi 管子 I cannot recommend this book highly enough, my only criticism being that it does not include the Chinese text alongside the English translation. Nevertheless, like any other classical text from Chinese history, the Chinese source is freely available online, such as through the website, at this link:




2.b Confucianism


Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont, The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation

Ballantine, 1999. While Confucius' Analects 論語 is a much more straight-forward text than Laozi's Dao De Jing, it is still difficult here to recommend one translation over any other. This is simply one excellent one among many. If you want to read the Chinese side-by-side with the English, visit the website at this link:


Edward Slingerland, Confucius. The Essential Analects. Selected Passages with Traditional Commentary

Hackett Publishing, 2006. This is a selection of key passages, followed by select translations of traditional commentaries. This book might work well when read together with the following one, and the Chinese text by your side.


Daniel K. Gardner, Zhu Xi's Reading of the Analects. Canon, Commentary, and the Classical Tradition

Columbia University Press, 2003. Sooner or later, any serious student of Chinese philosophy and culture who does not want to limit him- or herself to purely classical philosophy, is bound to encounter Zhu Xi (1130-1200). His commentaries on the early classics formed the orthodox reading of the classics and the foundation of traditional education in preparation for the civil service examination until its abolition in 1905. Gardner juxtaposes his own explanations with a translation of Zhu Xi's commentary and a translation of He Yan's commentary from the early third century CE.


Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames, The Chinese Classic of Family Reverence: A Philosophical Translation of the Xiaojing

University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. A wonderful book that stands out not just because of its rich and thoughtful introduction and the high quality of the translation, but also because of the inclusion of the Chinese source text, a feature that I value highly for both beginners and more advanced readers. One of the great Classics in the Confucian tradition, the Xiao Jing 孝經 is a text that anybody with a serious interest in Chinese culture has to be familiar with.