Chinese literature

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Chinese literature,

the literature of ancient and modern China.

Early Writing and Literature

It is not known when the current system of writing Chinese first developed. The oldest written records date from about 1400 B.C. in the period of the ShangShang
or Yin,
dynasty of China, which ruled, according to traditional dates, from c.1766 B.C. to c.1122 B.C. or, according to some modern scholars, from c.1523 B.C. to c.1027 B.C.
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 dynasty, but the elaborate system of notation used even then argues in favor of an earlier origin. From short inscriptions on bone and tortoiseshell (used for divination), characters standing for individual words have been deciphered and are traceable through many notations to modern forms.

Most of the oldest surviving works of literature were not written until the later centuries of the ChouChou
, dynasty of China, which ruled from c.1027 B.C. to 256 B.C. The pastoral Chou people migrated from the Wei valley NW of the Huang He c.1027 B.C. and overthrew the Shang dynasty. The Chou built their capital near modern Xi'an in 1027 B.C. and moved it to Luoyang in 770 B.C.
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 dynasty (c.1027–256 B.C.). At this time was written most of what scholars of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220) made into the canonical literature of ConfucianismConfucianism
, moral and religious system of China. Its origins go back to the Analects (see Chinese literature), the sayings attributed to Confucius, and to ancient commentaries, including that of Mencius.
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 (which also included their own commentaries), although the current versions of these works, traditionally classified as the Wu Ching [five classics], contain interpolations. The Wu Ching, traditionally attributed to ConfuciusConfucius
, Chinese K'ung Ch'iu or K'ung Fu-tzu, Pinyin Kong Fuzi, c.551–479? B.C., Chinese sage. Positive evidence concerning the life of Confucius is scanty; modern scholars base their accounts largely on the Analects,
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 either as author or compiler, consist of diverse books. The Ch'un Ch'iu [spring and autumn annals] is an unadorned chronology of Lu, Confucius's native state.

The I Ching [book of changes] explains, often in allusive and ambiguous language, a system of divination, based upon the study of 64 hexagrams of whole and broken lines. The Li Chi [book of rites] describes ceremonials and an ideal Confucian state. The Shu Ching [classic of documents or book of history] contains historical records, many of them known to be later forgeries. While some of these works contain verse, the main collection of poetry in the Wu Ching is the Shih Ching [classic of songs or book of odes], made up of 305 poems. Written in simple rhyming stanzas, they tell of the peasant's life, of love, and of the wars of the feudal states.

During the SungSung
, dynasty of China that ruled 960–1279. It was divided into two periods: Northern Sung (907–1126) with its capital at Kaifeng and Southern Sung (1127–1279) with its capital at Hangzhou.
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 dynasty (960–1279) selections from the Li Chi and two other works were formed into the Ssu Shu [four books]; they were thought to embody the quintessence of Confucian teachings. They are the Ta Hsüeh [great learning] and the Chung Yung [doctrine of the mean] from the Li Chi, the Lun Yü [analects of Confucius], and the Book of Mencius (see MenciusMencius
, Mandarin Meng-tzu, 371?–288? B.C., Chinese Confucian philosopher. The principal source for Mencius' life is his own writings. He was born in the ancient state of Ch'ao, in modern Shandong prov.
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). Other important early books include the Tao Te Ching [classic of the way and its power], traditionally ascribed to Lao TzuLao Tzu
, fl. 6th cent. B.C., Chinese philosopher, reputedly the founder of Taoism. It is uncertain that Lao Tzu [Ch.,=old person or old philosopher] is historical. His biography in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Records of the Historian (1st cent. B.C.
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, and the work of Chuang-tzuChuang-tzu
or Chuang-tze
, c.369–c.286 B.C., Chinese Taoist writer. Little is known about his life. He was a native of the state of Meng, on the border of present-day Shandong and Henan provinces, and is said to have lived as a hermit.
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. These two books, which form the chief literature of TaoismTaoism
, refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China (with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion). Philosophical Taoism

The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching,
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, probably circulated in their present form from the 2d cent. B.C.

The early Chinese books originally appeared in the cumbersome form of strips of bamboo. Silk was substituted as a writing material in the 2d cent. B.C., and the invention of paper in the 2d cent. A.D. was responsible for a great increase in the number of books. The method of printing whole pages from wooden blocks was discovered under the T'ang dynasty (618–906) and was perfected and in widespread use by the 10th cent. This technology permitted an enormous increase in the number of copies available of any book.

Styles of Literature

Over time, the nature of the language in which the literature of China was written diverged sharply, producing two main styles of writing, one composed in a specifically literary language and the other in the vernacular. Both strands produced their own very different styles of literature, and both styles reflected their own characteristic language.

Literary Style

The literary style was exceedingly concise and was unmatched for its vigor, richness, and symmetry. Historical and literary allusions abounded, and finally special dictionaries were required for their elucidation. In poetry the relatively simple prosody of the Chou period was followed by systems of more minutely prescribed forms. The lines, which rhymed, had to be matched syllable by syllable in both part of speech and intonation. By the T'ang period the prosodic rules no longer suited the spoken structure of the everyday language; they continued to be observed in spite of changes in pronunciation. It is generally agreed that China's greatest poetry was written in the T'ang dynasty. Wang WeiWang Wei
, 699–759, Chinese poet. He was an extremely versatile man, being a musician and painter as well as a poet. He wrote quatrains almost exclusively; these verses portray quiet scenes like those depicted in the few surviving paintings attributed to him.
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, Li PoLi Po
, Li Pai
, or Li T'ai-po
, c.700–762, Chinese poet of the T'ang dynasty. He was born in what is now Sichuan prov. Most authorities believe that he was a Taoist; Li Po's unconcern for worldly preferment and his love for retirement was expressive of
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, Tu FuTu Fu
, 712–70, Chinese poet. In Pinyin, his name is romanized as Du Fu. Tu Fu is often considered the greatest of Chinese poets. He did not pass the imperial civil service examinations and, although he held a few official positions for brief periods, he spent many
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, and Po Chü-iPo Chü-i
, 772–846, Chinese poet. He occupied several important government posts, rising to the presidency of the imperial board of war in 841. He wrote over 3,000 poems, brief, topical verses expressed in very simple, clear language.
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 are masters of this period. In the succeeding Sung dynasty Su Tung-p'oSu Tung-p'o
, 1036–1101, Chinese poet. He was also called Su Shih. Born in present-day Sichuan prov., he was one of a literary family. Su occupied many official posts, rising to president of the board of rites (which regulated imperial ceremonies and worship).
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 was perhaps the foremost poet.

Translations of T'ang and Sung poetry strongly influenced the modern imagist school in English (see imagistsimagists,
group of English and American poets writing from 1909 to about 1917, who were united by their revolt against the exuberant imagery and diffuse sentimentality of 19th-century poetry.
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). Chinese lyrics are generally very short, unemphatic and quiet in manner, and limited to suggesting a mood or a scene by a few touches rather than painting a detailed picture. Intellectual themes and narratives are comparatively rare. Many varieties of learned prose have also been written in China. Notable for accuracy and objectivity are the series of dynastic histories produced since Han times; the famous Shih chi [records of the historian] (c.100 B.C.) by Ssu-ma Ch'ienSsu-ma Ch'ien
, 145?–90? B.C., Chinese historian; sometimes called the Father of Chinese History. He succeeded his father, Ssu-ma T'an, as grand historian (an office then dealing with astronomy and the calendar) at the court of the Early Han emperor Wu.
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 served as their model.

Chinese lexicography developed in response to multiplication of characters. The last of a great series of dictionaries (still in standard use) was produced in the reign of K'ang Hsi (1662–1722). So-called encyclopedias, actually extracts from existing works, have been occasionally compiled; one such work of the MingMing
, dynasty of China that ruled from 1368 to 1644. The first Ming emperor, Chu Yüan-chang (ruled 1368–98), a former Buddhist monk, joined a rebellion in progress, gained control of it, overthrew the Mongol Yüan dynasty, and unified all of China proper.
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 dynasty (1368–1644) ran to over 11,000 short volumes and appeared in three manuscript copies.

Vernacular Style

While the literati were cultivating polite literature during the T'ang and Sung periods, prose and verse of a popular nature began to appear. It was written in the spoken vernacular rather than in the classical literary language, and scholars regarded it with scorn. Springing from story cycles made familiar by professional storytellers, this vernacular literature first emerged as a full-fledged art in the drama of the Yüan dynasty (1260–1368).

The vernacular style later developed into the great novels of the Ming period that followed. Both the drama and the novel proved immensely popular. Thus the 13th cent. witnessed the emergence of the resources of the living language of the people. The vernacular novels, although they had their roots in the Yüan epoch, took shape gradually during the Ming era until they were finally given their finished form, perhaps anonymously by some talented traditional scholar.

An early and outstanding example of the novel is the San Kuo Chih Yen I (tr. San Kuo or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925); it is set in the Three KingdomsThree Kingdoms,
period of Chinese history from 220 to 265, after the collapse of the Han dynasty. The period takes its name from the three states into which China was divided. Wei occupied the north. South of Wei were Shu in the west and Wu in the east.
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 period (220–265) and recounts heroic deeds and chivalrous exploits. Another historical romance is the Shui Hu Chuan (tr. All Men Are Brothers, 1937), a picaresque tale of men forced by the venality of officials to become bandits. The Hsi Yu Chi (tr. Monkey, 1943) is an allegorical tale, full of the supernatural, concerning the adventures of a Buddhist pilgrim on a journey to India.

The Chin P'ing Mei (tr. The Golden Lotus, 1939) by contrast portrays domestic life and amorous intrigue; it is marked by realistic incident and the interplay of human relationships. The greatest Chinese novel is considered to be Hung Lou Meng (tr. Dream of the Red Chamber, 1958), an 18th-century work chiefly from the hand of Ts'ao Hsüeh-ch'inTs'ao Hsüeh-ch'in
, 1715–63, Chinese novelist. He is the author of Story of the Stone (or A Dream of Red Mansions), which is considered China's greatest novel.
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. With an unrivaled gift for subtle characterization and plot construction, the author recounts the declining fortunes of an aristocratic family.

The Early Twentieth Century

After the republican revolution (1911) authors turned away from the classical modes of composition, and many writers (notably Hu ShihHu Shih
, 1891–1962, Chinese philosopher and essayist, leading liberal intellectual in the May Fourth Movement (1917–23). He studied under John Dewey at Columbia Univ., becoming a lifelong advocate of pragmatic evolutionary change.
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 and Lu XunLu Xun
or Lu Hsün
, 1881–1936, Chinese writer, pen name of Chou Shu-jen. In 1902, he traveled to Japan on a government scholarship, eventually enrolling at Sendai Medical School.
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) advocated writing in the baihua vernacular. The change in Chinese education from preoccupation with the classic literature to scientific and technological subjects reduced mastery of the traditional literary skills as did the abolition of the civil service examinations for official posts, which had been based on a knowledge of the Four Books of the Confucian canon. The use of characters instead of an alphabet persisted, however; this made older writings accessible and permitted the Chinese, who speak widely different dialects, amounting to different languages, to communicate with one another. The use of baihua has proved especially effective in prose.

Translations of Western books frequently appeared in China, and the novelists of the republican period were greatly influenced by European writers. Among the most distinguished writers of 20th-century China are Lu Xun, Guo MoruoGuo Moruo
or Kuo Mo-jo
, 1892–1978, Chinese writer and scholar. He co-founded the Creation Society, which promoted a romantic style of writing. His love stories and experiments in free verse, particularly his poetry collection The Goddesses
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, and Ba JinBa Jin
or Pa Chin
, pseud. of Li Yaotang (also Li Feigan), 1904–2005, one of China's most acclaimed modern novelists, b. Chengdu. Born into a wealthy family, he received a broad education in China, graduating in 1925, and traveling to France in 1927–28.
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. During the 1930s and 40s several talented novelists came to the fore, including Mao TunMao Tun
or Mao Dun
, pseud. of She Yen-ping
, 1896–1981, Chinese novelist and Minister of Culture (1949–65). His fiction offers a sympathetic portrayal of working-class life and praise of revolution. Midnight (1933, tr.
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, Lao SheLao She
, pseud. of Shu She-yü
or Shu Ch'ing-ch'un,
, 1899–1966, Chinese writer. He wrote his first novels while teaching Chinese at the Univ. of London's School of Oriental Studies (1924–30).
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, and Shen Ts'ung–wen, while modernist poets such as Ai Ch'ingAi Ch'ing
or Ai Qing
, pseud. of Chiang Hai-ch'eng
or Jiang Haicheng,
1910–96, Chinese poet. After studying painting in France (1929–32), where he discovered realist literature and was particularly influenced by the Belgian poet
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 experimented with Western–style free verse. Women writers who grew equally prominent during these decades include Ting Ling, Hsiao Hung, and Chang Ai-ling (Eileen Chang).

Literature in the Communist Era

Fiction during the first years after the 1949 Communist revolution depicted the great social transformations taking place. Party leaders advocated socialist realismsocialist realism,
Soviet artistic and literary doctrine. The role of literature and art in Soviet society was redefined in 1932 when the newly created Union of Soviet Writers proclaimed socialist realism as compulsory literary practice.
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, which was marked by strict adherence to party doctrine and by a narrow emphasis on the credible depiction of external reality; it inhibited writers' creativity and led to stagnation.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956–57) encouraged writers and other intellectuals to voice criticisms of party policy. Those who did so were soon punished during the 1957 antirightist campaign, when they were denounced and either imprisoned or sent to labor reform camps. Many, such as Wang Meng and Zhang XianliangZhang Xianliang
, 1936–, Chinese writer. During the 1957 antirightist campaign, the Chinese Communists judged his poetry deviant and sentenced him to prison in Ningxia. He was later transferred to a labor reform camp, where he remained for most of the next two decades.
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, were to remain confined for over two decades. Even harsher was the 1966–76 Cultural RevolutionCultural Revolution,
1966–76, mass mobilization of urban Chinese youth inaugurated by Mao Zedong in an attempt to prevent the development of a bureaucratized Soviet style of Communism.
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, during which thousands of intellectuals were sent to work on distant farms. Some writers, such as Lao SheLao She
, pseud. of Shu She-yü
or Shu Ch'ing-ch'un,
, 1899–1966, Chinese writer. He wrote his first novels while teaching Chinese at the Univ. of London's School of Oriental Studies (1924–30).
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, were either murdered or committed suicide.

Following Mao ZedongMao Zedong
or Mao Tse-tung
, 1893–1976, founder of the People's Republic of China. Mao was one of the most prominent Communist theoreticians and his ideas on revolutionary struggle and guerrilla warfare have been extremely influential, especially among Third
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's death in 1976 and Deng XiaopingDeng Xiaoping
or Teng Hsiao-p'ing
, 1904–97, Chinese revolutionary and government leader, b. Sichuan prov. Deng became a member of the Chinese Communist party while studying in France (1920–25) and later (1926) attended Sun Yatsen Univ., Moscow.
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's consolidation of power in 1979, strictures on literary freedom were relaxed. The first stories from this period relate the nightmarish experiences of the Cultural Revolution—the "literature of the wounded." Despite a crackdown on "bourgeois liberalism" and "spiritual pollution," writing continued to flourish in the 1980s. Many works struggled with general social issues, such as official corruption and overcrowding; feminist issues were treated in novels by women writers such as Zhang Jie and Wang Anyi. Reportage literature, a hybrid of journalism and fiction, grew popular. Novelists experimented with stream of consciousness and other narrative techniques, while the Misty School of poets, exemplified by Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Gu Cheng, developed a fusion of various modernist styles.

Han Shaogong, Ah ChengAh Cheng
, pseud. of Zhong Acheng,
1949–, Chinese writer and painter. His father, the film critic Zhong Dianfei, was forced by the Communist government to sell his library of Chinese and Western classics, which Ah Cheng secretly read before delivering them to the
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, and others developed a "seeking roots" literature, characterized by rural settings, geographical and botanical descriptions, and the incorporation of local dialects and folklore. Zhang Xianliang, Gu Hua, and Can Xue were prominent among the regional writers who emerged, most notably from China's far west and south. After the massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen SquareTiananmen Square,
large public square in Beijing, China, on the southern edge of the Inner or Tatar City. The square, named for its Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), contains the monument to the heroes of the revolution, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of
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 (June 4, 1989), many writers fled China, fearing government reprisals for their support of the democracy movement. Most continue to write in exile, publishing their work in literary journals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas.


A pioneering translator of the classic Confucian and Taoist texts was James Legge, whose works, still standard, appear in many volumes. Translations of individual classics include A. Waley, tr., The Book of Songs (1937) and The Analects of Confucius (1938); R. Wilhelm and C. F. Baynes, tr., The I Ching or Book of Changes (1950); B. Carlgren, tr., The Book of Odes (1950); W. I. Ch'an, tr., The Way of Lao Tzu (1963); W. A. C. H. Dobson, tr., Mencius (1963); B. Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968); D. C. Lau, tr., Mencius (1970); J. C. Wu, tr., Tao Teh Ching (1989).

General anthologies of Chinese literature in translation include C. Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature (2 vol., 1961–72); H. C. Chang, Chinese Literature (1982–83); and V. H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994).

Collections of short stories, new and old, include C. Levenson, W. Bauer, and H. Franks, tr., The Golden Casket: Chinese Novellas of Two Millennia (1964); E. Snow, ed., Living China: Modern Chinese Stories (1937, repr. 1989); J. Tai, The Nine Houses: A Collection of Contemporary Chinese Short Stories (1989).

Anthologies of Chinese poetry include W. Bynner and K. H. Kiang, tr., The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being Three Hundred Poems of the T'ang Dynasty (1929); D. Hawkes, tr., Ch'u Tz'u: The Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology (1959); A. R. Davis, ed., The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse (1962); B. Watson, ed., Chinese Rhyme-Prose (1971) and The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (1986); J. Chaves, ed., The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yuan, Ming, and Ch'ing Dynasties, 1279–1911 (1988).

Bibliographical guides to translations and criticisms of modern Chinese literature include M. Davidson, comp., A List of Published Translations from Chinese into English, French, and German (2 vol., 1952–57); T. L. Yuan, comp., China in Western Literature: A Continuation of Cordier's Bibliotheca Sinica (1958); J. D. Paper, A Guide to Guides to Chinese Prose (1984).

See also C. T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1961) and The Classic Chinese Novel (1968); B. Watson, Early Chinese Literature (1962); L. Ming, A History of Chinese Literature (1964); W. C. Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Literature (1966); S. Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T'ang (1980) and Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics (1985); M. Anderson, The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period (1990); D. D. Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China (1992).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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