Chinese Literature

“Chinese Literature: The earliest examples of Chinese writing are found etched on bone of cast in Bronze and are over three thousand years old. These short inscriptions, used in divination or in commemoration of important events, demonstrate the unique qualities of the Chinese language and writing system even at this early date. The ancient symbols, which grew out of pictures and visual metaphors, are independent of the sound of the word they represent and are in most cases the same as in modern Chinese once allowances are made for certain changes in their shape. These old inscriptions, however, are of more interest as examples of paleography than as literature.

The first anthology of Chinese poetry, the Book of Songs (Shih ching, 8th to 6th centuries BC), appeared during the Chou dynasty (1027-BC-256 BC). Another anthology, the Songs of Ch’u (Ch’u’tz’u. 4th to 3rd century BC), originated on the southern edges of the Chinese cultural area; its impassioned tone contrasts sharply with the restraint of the earlier Songs and has had an abiding influence on later writing. Two features of this and all Chinese verse are the use of rhyme and a metrical system based on syllable count. The latter half of the Chou dynasty was a period of social change and military conflict, an uncertain environment that seems to have stimulated a great period of philosophical thought. Confucius and Mencius (372-289 BC) stressed a conservative political and moral theory whose ethical and didactic views dominated literary thinking until modern times. The Taoists Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, with their skepticism about government and their concept of the relativism of moral values, seem to contradict the Confucian vision. In the manner of Chinese eclecticism, though, these views came to be seen as complementary aspects of a whole philosophy of living. The Ch’in dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) unified China and attempted to suppress all philosophies except that of the Legalist School, but the brief rule of the dynast allowed many destroyed texts to be reconstructed. During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) the writing of history became one of the principal responsibilities of government. Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s (145? BC-90? BC) monumental history, the Records of the Historian (Shih chi), not only set the pattern for subsequent official histories but also established many of the conventions used by later writers of fiction. After the Han dynasty, the period of interregnum known as the Six Dynasties (222-589) was another time of constant warfare and great historical changes, of the spread and domestication of Buddhism and of literary theorizing and criticism, which began to show some independence from Confucian ideas.

By the time of the T’ang dynasty (618-907) the new surge of cultural and political accomplishments had been well prepared by the previous age. The T’ang was the golden age of poetry, with such figures as Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chu-i. It is also the era in which the writing of fiction became well established. Ch’an Buddhism, a native Chinese sect with many concepts similar to Taoism, had great influence on literature. After the persecutions of 845, however, the Buddhist faith never again played an important role in politics. Poetry reached its peak during the T’ang, and, although poets continued to write in the old forms, creative energy flowed mostly to the new musical genres of the Sung (960-1280) and Yuan dynasties (1280-1368). There are some examples of fiction and dramatic entertainment which date to the T’ang, but the real growth of these forms followed the establishment of large urban centers and the spread of literacy to the merchant classes of the Sung and Yuan periods. The purely written literary language of the scholar-official class was not suitable for these new types of writing. Instead, the spoken colloquial language of the times became the medium for stories, novels, and plays. This literature was read by all levels of society but never had the sanction of Confucian orthodoxy. Colloquial fiction was thus not a completely respectable field of activity or study until the 20th century. Still, many great novels were written, among the most famous being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, The Plum in the Golden Vase, and Dream of the Red Chamber. The Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911) also saw great activity in literary and philological scholarship and in the making of encyclopedias and compendia of all sorts. Since the literary revolution of the early 1920s, there has been considerable ferment and controversy in literature. Writers turned their back on tradition and set out to create a new literature based on Western modes and on the use of the spoken vernacular. The short story and essay are of particularly high quality. The names of Lu Hsun, Pa Chin, and Lao She, Mao Tun and Ting Ling acquired some renown in the Western world. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, literature was harnessed in the service of the Communist Party, and became heavily moralistic and didactic. Following the cataclysmic events of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese writers such as Chang Hsien-Liang turned inwards in search of a subjectivity and sense of self, exploring the often painful issues that had so long been denied.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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