Chinese Literature


Chinese 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 literature.
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 time.
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 professionalism.
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 them.
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 professional writers.
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.
(Song Ci)
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 music.
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 infinite interest.
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 accepted.
Yuan Qu of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368AD)
The best-known ruler of the Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty was Kublai Khan.
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 a Prostitute”.
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 long, however.
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 policies.
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 works.
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 the contemporary".

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