Chinese Literature

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Chinese Literature, writings produced in the Chinese language. Two distinct traditions exist in Chinese literature: the literary and the vernacular, or colloquial. The latter can be traced back more than a thousand years before the Christian era and has existed almost continuously until modern times. Consisting originally of poetry and later of drama and fiction, it grew to include histories and popular stories and tales, as well. Folk, or vernacular, literature was long considered beneath the notice of members of the scholar-official class, who were the arbiters of literary taste. Their own polished and highly stylized writings set the standards for the orthodox literary tradition that began about 2000 years ago. Not until the 20th century did colloquial literature gain the support and esteem of the intellectual class.

Chinese literature may be divided into three major historical periods that roughly correspond to those of Western literary history: the classical period, from the 6th century BC through the 2nd century AD; the medieval period, from the 3rd century to the late 12th century; and the modern period, from the 13th century to the present.

Classical Period

The oldest examples of Chinese writing are inscriptions on bones and tortoise-shells, dating probably from the 14th century BC. The inscriptions represent divinations performed for the kings of the Shang dynasty (circa 1766?-1027? BC), the earliest confirmed dynasty. Although not literature in the strictest sense, they represent the earliest specimens of Chinese script, which became the vehicle for all subsequent Chinese literature.

The classical period in Chinese literature corresponds to the same period in Greek and Roman literature. The formative stages took place during the 6th to the 4th century BC, at the time of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027?-256 BC). This period encompassed the work of Confucius (K'ung Fu-tzu), Mencius (Meng-tzu), Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu (flourished 4th century BC), and many other great Chinese philosophers. It culminated in the compilation of the Five Classics, or Confucian Classics, and other philosophical treatises. In the following centuries of the classical period, the Confucian canon was fixed, and Confucianism became the orthodox teaching, establishing a classical tradition that was to last until the present century.


The most important poetic work produced during the classical period was the Shih Ching (Book of Poetry), an anthology of ancient poems written in four-word verses and composed mostly between the 10th and the 7th centuries BC. The Shih Ching is classified as the third of the Five Classics; legend has it that Confucius himself selected and edited the 305 poems that constitute the work. Instead of glorifying gods and heroes, as was the custom of other cultures, many of these poems sing of the daily life of the peasants, their sorrows and joys, their occupations and festivities. These poems mark the beginning of the vernacular tradition in Chinese poetry and are characterized by simplicity of language and emotion. They make up about one-half of the book. The other half of the Shih Ching is made up of dynastic songs and court poems. These songs and poems give a colorful picture of the life and manners of the Chinese feudal nobility, just as the folk poems depict the simple and yet bountiful life of the peasantry. The court poems were originally sung to music and accompanied by dance; Chinese poetry and music were closely linked from earliest times.

The aristocratic, or court, style finds its best expression, however, in a group of poems known as the elegies of Ch'u. A feudal state in south-central China, Ch'u was the home of Ch' Yan, the first great Chinese poet. A noble by birth, Ch' Yan wrote Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow), a long, autobiographical poem full of historical allusions, allegories, and similes, lyrically expressed and concerned with the intimate revelation of a poetic soul tormented because it has failed in its search for a beautiful ideal. Other poems by Ch' Yan are equally rich in images and sentiment, and they form a body of romantic poetry entirely different from the simple, realistic poetry of the Shih Ching.

During the 400 years of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) the romantic and realistic modes developed into schools of poetry with many followers. The verses of Ch', which were irregular in form, initiated a new literary genre, the fu, or prose poem. Chinese poetry was further enriched by the folk songs collected by the Music Bureau (Yeh-fu), an institution founded about the 2nd century BC.


The seminal works of Chinese prose are those that, with the Shih Ching, constitute the Five Classics. These are the I Ching (Book of Changes), a divination text; the Shu Ching (Book of History), a miscellanea of ancient state documents; the Li Chi (Book of Rites), a collection of ritual and governmental codes; and the Ch'un Ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), a history of the state of Lu from 722 to 481 BC. From the 6th to the 3rd century BC, the first great works of Chinese philosophy appeared. Foremost are the Analects of Confucius, aphoristic sayings compiled by his disciples; the eloquent disputations of Mencius, a Confucian scholar; the Tao-te Ching (Classic of the Way and Its Virtue), attributed to Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism; and the high-spirited essays of Chuang-tzu, the other great Taoist philosopher. Also important, for their prose style as well as their philosophic import, are the essays of Mo-tzu, Hsn-tzu (flourished 3rd century BC), and Han-fei-tzuhe Shih Chi (Records of the Historian) of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, a monumental work dealing with all Chinese history up to the Han dynasty, provided the pattern for a long series of dynastic histories compiled over a period of about 2000 years. In political and moral philosophy, the Confucian scholars also set the precedent for the literary tradition in Chinese prose, and a standard literary language was adopted, which gradually became divorced from the spoken language. In this period of the Han rulers, the scholars were incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Appointments to all important official positions were based on mastery of the Confucian Classics. This practice continued with few interruptions until the 20th century AD and hardened the literary tradition into a national cult.

Medieval Period

From the beginning of the medieval period in the 3rd century AD until the 7th century, China was not only divided into warring states but suffered invasions by Tatar tribes as well. Nevertheless, these centuries in China were by no means as barren of literary production as was the corresponding period in the history of western Europe known as the Dark Ages. The spread of Buddhism from India, the invention of printing, and the flowering of poetry and prose illuminated the entire period and made it one of the most brilliant in Chinese literary history.


During periods of social and political upheaval, from the 3rd to the 7th century, poets found refuge and consolation in nature. Some were hermits who created a so-called field-and-garden school of poetry; others produced some of the best Chinese folk lyrics, such as the love poems attributed to Tzu-yeh, a woman poet who wrote the Ballad of Mulan, celebrating the adventures of a woman soldier disguised as a man; and The Peacock Flew to the Southeast, a long narrative of tragic family love, written in plain but vivid language. The greatest poet of these troubled centuries was T'ao Ch'ien, also known as T'ao Yan-ming, who excelled in writing of the joys of nature and the solitary life. His Peach Blossom Fountain became the classic expression of the poet's search for a utopia.

The greatest Chinese poetry was created during the Tang dynasty (618-907), a period of general peace and prosperity ending in a decline. Despite the passage of more than ten centuries, as many as 49,000 Tang poems by 2200 poets have survived. The three most famous poets were Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Po), and Du Fu (Tu Fu). They started their lives in the early splendor of the Tang era but lived through the subsequent troubled years of war and rebellion. Wang Wei, a meditative philosopher and painter with Buddhist inclinations, depicted the serenity of nature's beauty; it has been said that poetry is in his pictures and pictures are in his poems. Li Bo, a leader of the romantic school, rebelled against poetic conventions, as he did against society in general. Passionate and unruly, he embraced the realm of the immortals, whence, he claimed, he had been exiled to this world. Li Bo was at his best when he sang of love and friendship; of the delights of wine; and of the strange, majestic, and awe-inspiring aspects of nature. His friend and rival Du Fu, on the other hand, was conscientious and painstaking in his efforts to achieve startling realism. A humanitarian and historian, Du Fu recorded faithfully and intimately his worldly attachments, his family affections, and an infinite love for humanity, as well as the injustices of the age. The realism of Du Fu's work influenced another Tang poet, Po Ch-i, who viewed poetry as a vehicle for criticism and satire. This moralistic tendency, developed in succeeding centuries by other poets, was broadened to include didactic and philosophical disquisitions. In general, however, Chinese poetry was essentially lyrical.

Rhyme had always been an essential part of Chinese poetry, but verse forms did not become well established until the Tang poets. The typical poem of the Tang period was in the so-called shih form, characterized by the five-word or seven-word line, with the rhyme usually falling on the even lines. The shih verse form evolved from the four-word verse of the Shih Ching.

The Tang period also produced a new poetic form called the tz'u. Although each tz'u may have lines of varying length, the number of lines, as well as their length, is fixed according to a definite rhyming and tonal pattern. The writing of tz'u, which is somewhat analogous to putting new words to popular melodies, requires a great deal of skill. The melodies employed were usually of foreign origin.

During the Song (Sung) dynasty (960-1279) the tz'u reached its greatest popularity. Initially the trend was toward longer tz'u, written to be sung to popular tunes and commonly dealing with themes of love, courtesans, or music. Su Tung-po, the best-known tz'u poet of China, liberated the tz'u from the rigid forms that music had imposed on it and introduced more virile subjects. In the 11th century more and more nonmusical tz'u were written, that is, tz'u written with no intention that they would be sung. In the late 11th to the 13th century, however, the tradition of writing musical tz'u was revived. The great Chinese poet Li Ch'ing-chao is renowned for tz'u concerning her widowhood.


Chinese prose also prospered in the Tang dynasty. Chief among the Tang prose masters was Han Y, who advocated a return to simple and straightforward writing in the classical style, as a reaction to the artificial prose of his time. As a result of Han Y's efforts, political and philosophical treatises, informal essays, and tales of the marvelous (ch'uan-ch'i) were all written in the neoclassical style. The latter represent some of the early specimens of Chinese literary fiction.

The first group of tales written in the vernacular tradition appeared in the Tang period. In an attempt to spread their religion, Buddhist preachers wrote stories for the common people in colloquial language and evolved a form of narrative known as pien-wen, sometimes translated as "popularization," which marked the beginning of popular fiction in China.

In the 11th century, although few examples of the ancient tradition of storytelling had been preserved, a revival of interest in the art took place, and it was practiced with much skill during the Song dynasty (960-1279), a period of spectacular literary achievement. During this medieval period, storytelling became a popular form of entertainment. The stories told by the professional entertainers, each of whom specialized in a certain type, not only were written down but also were printed in storybooks, called hua-pen, which later inspired the longer novels of China.

In the literary tradition, the revival of the terse classical style initiated by Han Y was carried on during the Song dynasty by Ou-yang Hsiu and Su Hsun, among others. The former is distinguished for his essays on Confucian philosophy, politics, and history, but he is better known for his breathtaking descriptions of the landscapes of China. Su Hsun's witty essays were generally regarded as the ultimate in classical stylistic accomplishment.

Miming, singing, and dancing had existed from ancient times, but the drama proper did not develop until the later Middle Ages. As early as the Tang period, however, actors had been prominent among the popular entertainers and were organized into professional companies that performed in theaters built to accommodate as many as several thousand people.

Modern Period

The modern period began in the 13th century and continues in the present. Initially, it was characterized by a vigorous vernacular literature that preceded by several centuries the appearance of modern colloquial literatures in the West. The growth of Chinese fiction and drama during the Yuan (Yan or Mongol) dynasty (1279-1368) may have been the result of the refusal of many scholars to serve the Mongol regime; instead they turned their talents to new fields, such as fiction and drama. Vernacular literature continued to develop through the modern period, until it finally coalesced with a new and more inclusive literary movement in the early years of the 20th century.

Since the 13th century Chinese drama has followed a pattern of local development, with the most popular of local dramas acquiring national importance. The Yuan drama, a creation of northern China, relies on northern dialect in dialogue and song. The lute is the chief instrument used, and the songs, which constitute the poetic portion of the play and are generally considered more important than the dialogues, are written in the ch', a new poetic form more flexible and expressive than the previously mentioned shih of the Han period and the tz'u of the Tang period. A Yuan play has four parts, corresponding to the four acts of a Western play; often an additional short act that serves as a prelude and sometimes as an interlude is added.

In the 14th century the art of vernacular fiction reached a new height in China. Two of the earliest Chinese novels of this period, San-Kuo-Chih Yen-i (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a historical novel of wars and warriors, and Shui-hu Chuan (Water Margin, known to the West as All Men Are Brothers), a novel of the adventures of bandit-heroes, may be called the prose epics of the Chinese people. As composite works of folk art created from oral tradition and bearing the stamp of genius of a number of writers, they differ from the works of individual novelists. Generally, Chinese novels of both types are immensely long, vast in scope, and vivid in characterization and description. All these characteristics are found also in Hung-lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), a realistic novel by Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in, which vividly details the prosperity, decline, and fall of a rich official family.

Many important collections of short stories appeared in the 17th century, consisting of compilations handed down from an earlier period or of works by contemporary writers. Like the novels, the stories are colloquial in style and realistic in presentation, giving an intimate picture of Chinese society. The most popular anthology is Chin-ku Ch'i-kuan (Marvelous Tales of the Past and Present), which consists of 40 stories.

As the modern age progressed, the vernacular tradition became ever larger and richer. Conventional literature, on the other hand, was less fruitful, although it continued to be cultivated by members of the scholarly gentry, some of whom were fine writers. Literary orthodoxy was, however, no longer capable of producing more than stereotypes. This decline in the literary tradition continued until the beginning of the 20th century, when it became obvious to Chinese writers that they had to seek new inspiration. Stimulated by the literature of the West, Chinese writers, led by Hu Shih, started a literary revolution known as the Chinese Renaissance in an attempt to urge the written use of colloquial language and to heighten its status as a means of scholarly expression.

After 50 years of experiment in this direction, contemporary Chinese literature has come of age and shown considerable creative vitality. During the first half of the 20th century Chinese writers used literature as a mirror to reflect the seamy side of life, as a weapon to combat the evils of society, and as a form of propaganda to spread the message of class struggle. By using trenchant essays and stories to attack traditional society, writers such as Lu Xun, whose real name was Chou Shu-jen, helped advance the socialist revolution. Although the spirit of Chinese literature changed, the background, characters, and events depicted remained typically Chinese.

During the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-78), writers and artists were expected to serve the needs of the people, and bourgeois Western influence was zealously attacked. Since then, despite setbacks in 1981 and 1983 (the year of the campaign against so-called spiritual pollution), more freedom of expression has been allowed and a new interest in Western forms and ideas tolerated.

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