literature has been written in one language for more than
3,000 consecutive years. This continuity is due to the nature of
the Chinese written language and Chinese characters (most of them
are ideograph characters). The characters stand for things or ideas,
unlike groups of letters. Thus Chinese language could be read by
people in all parts of the country in spite of gradual changes in
pronunciation and the emergence of regional and local dialects.
Actually in 221BC the written language in China was standardized
by Emperor Qinshihuang.
The dominance of the written language had significant effects on
the development of the literature. The main disadvantage of written
Chinese is the great number of characters it contains: Even basic
reading and writing require mastering 2,000 characters. This has
often made it difficult to spread the skills of reading and writing
all over the country. But even with this disadvantage, Chinese literature
maintained a cultural continuity for thousands years because the
written characters tended to keep the language stable. Chinese languare
never developed into distinctly separate languages as did Latin
in southern Europe with the formation of the several Romance languages.
China has a very old and rich tradition in literature and the dramatic
and visual arts. Early writings generally derived from philosophical
or religious essays such as the works of Confucius (551-479 BC)
and Lao-tzu (600BC-500BC). These writings were often about how people
should act and how the society and political system should be organized
and operated. A strong tradition of historical writing was also
evolved. The history of a fallen dynasty would be written by scholars
in the succeeding dynasty. In addition to philosophical, religious,
and historical writings, China also produced poetry, novels, and
dramatic writings from an early date.
China was the first country to invent paper making and printing
that also greatly help the development and spreading of Chinese
Chinese Literature chronically developed as follows:
Pre Qin Classical literature
The Book of Songs is the first poem collection covering 305 poems
from the early Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC - 711 BC) to
the middle Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC). As the starting
point of Chinese literature, it enjoys a high reputation of artistic
value and had a great influence on the works that followed. The
works can be divided into three parts: Feng, Ya, and Song (Ode),
which derived its name from music items. Feng indicates the local
tune and collected folk songs of 15 states, Ya including Daya and
Xiaoya are the movements for nobles; and Song is the music used
during sacraments in temple. The writing skills rely on the 'Fu'
(narrative), 'Bi' (simile and metaphor), and 'Xing' (symbolization,
and contrast), and give aesthetic feelings in tone. Throughout the
book you can read by means of the connotation between the lines
the reality of people of different classes.
Chu Ci( Elegies of Chu), is another important poem collection which
appeared 300 years after The Classic of Odes. It collected works
of the noted poet Qu Yuan and his disciples. Chu Ci, as the book's
name indicates, is derived from the songs of the southern state
Chu during the Warring States Period (476 BC - 221 BC). This poetry
book changed the simple and brief style of The Classic of Odes,
and completely distinctive. It is magnificent in its length and
rhetoric and ornate diction, and shows the writers' fertile imagination
and effusive emotion. The ancient poetry really enlightened the
poets that came after with its romanticism.
During the Spring Autumn and Warring state Period (770BC-221BC)
various schools of thoughts appeared. Many scholars such as Confucius,
Laozi, Sunzi, Mozi, Han Feizi wrote a lot of articles with great
value. The literature and thoughts were in full blossom during that
Classic literature was destroyed by Emperor Qinshihuan due to his
burning books and burying scholars in the year of 213BC. The simple
reason to do this was to unify the thoughts and solidify his empire.
Literature of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD)
The Han Dynasty actively promoted the restoration and teaching of
the Classics. In 124 BC a national university was opened for the
purpose of teaching Confucianism. Probably at about this time civil-service
examinations, which determined the appointment and promotion of
government officials, began to be based on the Classics. It was
also during the Han period that the Classics became established
as the basis of Chinese education.
Literature flowered again during the Han Dynasty. Traditional poetry
and prose forms, especially the Fu (the Han Dynasty Ode) prose poems,
flourished. Which is a popular style originated in the first unprecedented
powerful empire - Han. It is an artistic reflection of the optimism
and self-reliance of that time. Although the mode of expression
is a little bit flowery, it gives an insight into the abundance
of products, vastness of the country, splendor of the palace and
the achievements of emperors. Lament for Qu Yuan, Ode of Returning-to-Land,
and Ode of two Capitals are the most sublime representatives.
The most notable achievement of literature came with the emergence
of the Yue Fu, or Music Bureau, which compiled folk songs. The most
outstanding folk ballad of the period, about AD 200, was “the Peacock
Flies to Southeast”. It tells of the tragedy of a young married
couple who committed suicide as the result of the cruelty of her
mother in law.
The major prose authors of the Han Dynasty were Liu An, Sima Qian,
and Ban Gu. Liu An was a prince of Huai Nan in the 2nd century BC.His
work is “Huai Nan Zi” probably coauthored with his understrappers.
It is a compilation of 21 chapters on cosmology, philosophy, politics,
and ethics. Some ideas of cosmology in his work were highly regarded
by the Taoists and became part of their accepted teaching.
The masterpiece of that period was the “Shi Ji', meaning "Historical
Records," of Sima Qian. It was completed in about 85 BC. It
contains events and historical figures for the previous 2,000 years.
The text is divided into 130 chapters with more than 520,000 words.
It was the first general history work in China, and it set the pattern
for the histories of dynasties in the following centuries.
Ban Gu, another historian who was born about AD 32 and died about
AD 92. He was also a poet, soldier, and the author of “Han Shu”,
meaning "History of the Former Han Dynasty." Completed
after 16 years of study, the history contains more than 800,000
words. Because he was court historian, Ban Gu could get all the
official records as well as the family histories of the emperors.
In addition to information about the rulers, the author added sections
on geography, natural phenomena, memorable biographies, and a descriptive
account of books in the imperial library.
The literature in Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty (AD
221 to 618)
The major poet of this era was Tao Yuanming (365-427AD). In his
20s he became a government official, but after about ten years he
resigned and with his family went to live in a farming village to
contemplate nature and to write poetry. His verse was in a plain
style that was imitated by poets long after. He was a master of
the five-word line and has been called the first of China's great
nature poets because most of his writings deal with rural activities.
Although he was essentially a Taoist, his work also showed elements
of Confucianism and Buddhism.
The 3rd and 4th centuries were, for prose writers, a time of individuality
and partial rejection of slavish imitation of past models. Lu Ji
(261-303) was a renowned poet and literary critic who emphasized
originality in creative writing. He wrote a great deal of lyric
poetry but is best remembered for his “Wen Fu”, an essay on literature.
The revolt against imitative writing was also expressed in a 5th-century
style called "pure conversation," an intellectual discussion
on lofty matters. Some of these were recorded in a collection of
anecdotes entitled `Sayings of the World'. In the 6th century the
first book of literary criticism, `Carving Dragon of the Literary
', was published by Liu Xie (465-522AD). It was written in the pian
wen, or parallel prose, style. Li Daoyuan, author of `Commentary
on the Water Classic' was also famous.
Literature of the Tang Dynasty
The period from 618 to 960, the time of the Tang Dynasty and the
Five Dynasties, is considered China's golden age of poetry. The
works of more than 2,000 poets, totaling more than 48,900 pieces,
have been preserved. The writing adapted traditional verse forms
and created new ones. Among the new and popular forms were lü shi,
meaning "regulated verse"; Jue Ju, "truncated verse";
and a song form called Ci. Regulated verse consisted of eight lines
of five or seven syllables set in accordance with strict tonal patterns.
Truncated verse was an outgrowth of regulated verse: It omitted
four of the lines but maintained the tonal qualities of regulated
verse. The Ci consisted of lines of irregular length written as
lyrics for music. Because the lines varied from 1 to 11 syllables,
they were comparable to the natural rhythms of speech and were easily
understood when sung. The Ci served as a major style for poetry
during the succeeding Sung Dynasty.
The Tang Poetry
In the early Tang Dynasty, most of the poets followed the style
of their forebears and created a blend of the characteristics of
the north and south. Eventually the field of literature was refreshed
and became more vigorous as a result of those who are known as The
Four Talents - Wang Bo, Yang Jiong, Luo Binwang, and Lu Zhaolin,.
In spite of their lower social status, each of them was gifted and
has left us with their cheerful spirit.
Poems of the period known as the flourishing Tang Dynasty enjoyed
a golden environment owing to the wise reign, prosperous economy,
and the prevailing strength of diplomacy. The era endowed poets
with broad horizons, positive and unrestrained emotion, and innovative
inspiration. There are many representatives we can enumerate:
Li Bai enjoys the title of the 'Supernatural Being of Poem'. He
was a genius whose works were full of passion, imagination and also
elegance. Even now his 'Jing Ye Si' (Thoughts on the Silent Night)
is quite popular and nearly everyone knows it even children as young
as two years of age. His other verses, exceeding nine hundred in
all, are also notable.
Du Fu, known as the 'Saint of Poem', was strict in his use of metrical
verses. His Deng Gao (Climbing Up) achieved the perfection of sheer
Wang Wei, the poet of landscape, has written lots of elegant and
exquisite verses, such as 'bright moon lighting on the pine forests,
clear water found running on the stones'. The tranquil feeling he
gave through his poetry is utterly wonderful.
Cui Hao created the best of the seven-worded regulated poems - The
Yellow Crane Tower with the verse 'yellow crane flies and never
back, white cloud floats away for thousand years'.
Cen Shen was skillful in his descriptions of colorful scenes in
the then northwest China and his famous sentence conveying the delight
with snow 'just like the sudden spring wind overnight blows, thousands
of pear trees come to bloom'.
In the Mid-Tang Dynasty, numerous poets came to prominence. In this
period, the politics suffered many rebellions and became recessionary.
The poets also subsequently diverted the attention from state affairs
to the trivialities of daily life, and from the glorification of
landscapes to the anchorage of spirits and hopes. Poets like Liu
Zongyuan and Wei Yiwu expressed themselves through the plain depiction
of sights around them - a lonely old man fishing on the river that
was covered with snow is the typical scene of their poems. Another
renowned literary figure is Bai Juyi. His “the Old Charcoal Seller”
fully satirized the dark social reality. And the Chang Hen Ge (Song
of Eternal Lament) praised the eternal love between Emperor Xuanzong
in flourishing Tang and his beloved concubine Yang Guifei.
In late Tang Dynasty, with the deterioration of government, the
poems reflected more and more the hopeless and helpless feelings
of the people in a heavy way. Poets turned to song with nostalgia
for the old times and former splendor. The most talented of these
were Li Shang Yin and Du Mu. Some of their works are about beauty,
some about disconsolation as rulers were fatuous and failed to value
Chinese prose also underwent a stylistic reform during the Tang
period. The major change was brought about by Han Yu (768-824).
He promoted classic Confucian doctrines at a time when they had
begun to fall into neglect because of the rising popularity of Buddhism
and Taoism. In his writing he advocated a return to the free, simple
prose of the ancient philosophers. His own essays are among the
most beautiful ever written in Chinese and became models for the
style of writing he prized.
The prose reform continued under followers of Han Yu, and poetry
of the conventional type continued to be written by members of rival
literary schools. The only real innovation came with the use of
everyday speech in local dialects in storytelling. This literature
had its origin in unrecorded oral tales recounted by individuals
to audiences gathered in marketplaces or temple yards. By the 12th
century these tales became fairly lengthy narratives, many dealing
with fictionalized history. This style opened new vistas in prose
fiction in later periods, though its use was at first despised by
Song Ci of Song Dynasty (960-1279AD)
During the Sung Dynasty, especially in the 11th century, the Ci
form of poetry and song was brought to its greatest heights. Ci
in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) indicates another type of poetry
at that time. It came into being in the Tang Dynasty and reached
its summit in the Song literature. This type of poem is akin to
lyrics created for musical accompaniment as the meter varies in
the way that the words had to match the rhythm of the music. This
was the emanation of Ci in the Song Dynasty.
Ci, depending upon its length, can be divided into Xiao Ling (small-sized,
less than 58 characters), Zhong Diao (middle-sized, 59 - 90 characters),
and Chang Diao (long-sized, more than 91 characters). Some of them
have only one verse, some have two, and some have three or four,
each of which has its own appellation.
Each Ci has a title as well as a Cipai which is the name of the
tonal pattern and decides the rhythm and form of a verse. The names
of Cipai, such as 'The Beautiful Lady Yu', 'Buddha Dance', and 'Wine
Spring', are derived from historical figures or events, discourse,
and former musical names, although later Ci evolved separately from
Poets in the Song Dynasty developed Ci that was deeper in content
and broader in form. Those who made a great contribution were Liu
Yong, Su Shi, Yan Shu, Li Qingzhao, Xin Qiji, etc. If you seek out
their fine Ci and study it further, you may find it a source of
Generally speaking, Ci has two main genres - Wanyue (graceful and
mild) and Haofang (bold and unconstrained). Ci of Wanyue genre endows
delicate things with exquisite feeling and elegance. The most famous
verses are 'How helpless I see the flowers falling, the swallows
seem to know winter is coming again' by Yan Shu. Ci of Haofang genre
began to be popular since the creation by Su Shi who changed Ci
into a lyrical art. He took pastoral scenes, splendid landscapes
and a dedication to his motherland into his works, which was greatly
Yuan Qu of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368AD)
The best-known ruler of the Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty was Kublai
Yuna Qu became popular. Yuna Qu has two forms. One is San Qu, and
the other is drama called Yuan Za Ju. San Qu is similar to the Xiao
Ling of Song Ci. It can be sung along with a melody and the types
of the performance can be various. Compared with Ci, San Qu approaches
more of a colloquial style and more is lively. In Yuna Dynasty Chinese
drama came to the fore for the first time and fiction was firmly
established. Puppet shows, skits, vaudeville acts, and shadow plays
of previous ages had laid the foundation for a full-fledged drama.
Plays in four or five acts, including songs and dialect in language
quite close to that of the common people, became popular. More than
1,700 musical plays were written, and more than 105 dramatists were
recorded. The first, and probably the greatest, playwright of classical
theater was Guan Hanqing (1241?-1320?), author of about 60 plays.
He wrote in a simple and straight forward manner, often about commonly
everyday occurrences. Among his best works were “Injustice Suffered
by Dou E”, “Meeting Enemies with One Sword Alone”, and “Saving
Wang Shipu (1250-1337?) wrote one of the best dramas of the period,
`Romance of the Western Chamber', the story is about love and it
is still popular.
In fiction one of the greatest novelists was Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400),
known for his masterpiece, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.
Shi Naian compiled the novel “The Outlaws of the Marsh”.
The novels of the Ming (1368-1644AD) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911AD)
Most Ming literature in both prose and poetry was traditional, imitative,
and old-fashioned. Two schools of writing challenged this trend,
claiming that literature should change with the age instead of slavishly
imitating the past. The influence of these schools did not last
It was in the literature of the period that writers made significant
contributions. The dramatic form chuan Qi (tales of marvels) became
popular. Some examples were full-length dramas with many changes
of scene and many subplots, while others were one-act play lets.
This drama form won gradual support from literary figures, and in
the 16th century the influential Kun school, which was to dominate
the theater until the end of the 18th century, was formed.
In fiction there were some novels that are still considered outstanding.
Wu Chengen (1500?-1582?) wrote “Story of Journey to the West”,
the adventures of a cunningly resourceful animal that accompanied
the Buddhist monk Sanzang on a pilgrimage to India. “Gold Vase
Plum” with the author known was also famous. It was the first realistic
social novel to appear in China. In a very naturalistic, somewhat
coarse way it describes the life of a well-to-do businessman who
has acquired his wealth largely through dishonest means; his goals
in life are sexual pleasures and heavy drinking. Although the novel
was banned in China more than once, it is still one of the most
popular Chinese novels. Besides, “San Yan” compiled by Feng Menglong
and “Er Pai” compiled by Ling Mengchu were also popular works.
Qing was the last imperial ruling house of China. During its reign
most Chinese literature tended to be old-fashioned and imitative;
genuine creativity was rare. Toward the end of the period, however,
China had its first extensive contacts with European powers, and
ideas from the West began to filter into the literature through
translations of novels and other books.
In native prose fiction two works stand out. Pu Songling (1640-1715)
wrote a collection of supernatural tales entitled “Strange Tales
of liaozhai Studio”. The other is one of the great novels in world
literature—“Dream of the Red Chamber”, by Cao Xueqin (1715?-63).
Partly autobiographical and written in the vernacular, it describes
in sometimes lengthy detail the decline of a powerful family and
the ill-fated love between two young people.
A much later novel, “The Travels of Lao Can”, by Liu E (1857-1909),
was significant because it pointed up the problems inherent in the
weakening dynasty, which was soon to be overthrown by revolution.
The book was published in 1904-1907.
Political and Literary Revolution:
The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the Chinese Revolution of 1911-12,
and from that time China was in almost continual turmoil until the
success of the Communist revolution in 1949.
The Great Leap Forward, the government program of the 1950s, brought
economic disaster to China, and the Cultural Revolution of the late
1960s poisoned the whole cultural and social environment.
Political revolution was followed by literary revolution. In 1915
Youth Magazine (later, New Youth) was founded by Chen Duxiu (1879-1942),
who soon became a founder of the Chinese Communist party. A leader
in developing the intellectual basis of the revolution, Chen published
an article about the rebellion against traditional and classical
literary forms and ideas. Hu Shi (1891-1962) was an upholder of
a new national literature.
Another significant writer of this period was Lu Xun, the pen name
of Zhou Zuoren(1881-1936). In 1918 he published a short story, "A
Madman's Diary," the first Western-style short story written
in Chinese. He followed it in 1921 with "The True Story of
Ah Q." Both stories criticized and rejected the old order.
He is considered a revolutionary hero.
Political writings and speeches came much into prominence at this
time, especially in the works of Sun Yat-sen, known as the father
of modern China; Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China;
and Mao Zedong, the leader of Communist China. Under Mao's leadership
countless literary works were produced, all of which reflected Communist
The one 20th-century giant of Chinese literature whose fame spread
far beyond his native land was Lin Yutang (1895-1976). The peak
of his career in China came with the establishment in 1932 of the
satirical magazine Analects Fortnightly. His work reached English-speaking
readers with “My Country and My People”, published in 1935. From
1936 he lived mostly in the United States, writing books on Chinese
history and philosophy, but he returned to Asia ten years before
his death in Hong Kong. He has been acclaimed as one of the most
versatile Chinese writers of all time, producing novels, plays,
short stories, and essays in addition to historical and philosophical
One of the prominent writers of the early Communist era was Ding
Ling, (1904-86). He wrote “The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River”,
a novel about land reform. Zhou Libo (born 1910), author of the
novel “The Hurricane”, about rebellious peasants seizing power
from armed landlords, was also a major writer.
Contemporary Chinese literature
In 20th Century, Chinese literature was fruitful. So many writers
with famous works appeared. Such as Maodun, Guo Moruo, Ba Jin, Bing
Xin, lao She and so on.
After 1978, Chinese literature has achieved comprehensive developments
with the economy reviving. Poems, essays, fiction and drama in different
themes and forms are quite popular. Newspapers, magazines, radio,
and the Internet, all give writers of literature much scope for
their exertions. Consequently, there are literary prizes such as
the Lu Xun Prize, Mao Dun Prize, Spring Prize, Lao She Prize to
encourage the development of literature.
At present there are many writers in china who are very popular
such as Sun Li, Jia Ping Wua, Chen Zhongshi, Liu Xinwu, shi Tiesheng,
Zhang Chengzhi, Yu Hua, Wang Zengqi, Mo Yan, Wang Xiaobo , Er Yuehe,
and so on. On 11 October 2012, the Swedish Academy announced that
Mo Yan had received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work that
"with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and
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