Chinese Literature

small bookIt is said that if one wants to know about the country’s culture, then one should go through its literature. China is the only country in the world, where literature has been written in one language for more than 3000 years.

China has old and rich tradition in literature, dramatics and visual arts. Early writings have been derived from the works of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Lao-tzu. These writings reflect about how people should act and how the society and political system should be organized and operated. A tradition of historical writing evolved from there on.

Drama is another old and important literary form. Chinese drama usually combines vernacular language with music and song due to which it is popular with the common people.

The history of ancient Chinese begins with the Shih Ching or Book of Songs, compilation of 305 lyrics of various types. It consists of 160 folk songs and 74 festal songs. Most of the songs probably were composed and sung between 1000 and 700 BC, mostly at Chou court ceremonies. It was due to invention of woodblock and movable type printing that written knowledge could rapidly spread throughout China.

I_Ching_Song_Dynasty_printThe most important classics in Chinese literature is the Book of Changes, a manual of foretelling based on eight trigrams attributed to the emperor Fu Xi. It was during the Warring States period, the text was re-interpreted as a system of cosmology and philosophy that subsequently became essential to Chinese culture.

The Classic of History got its name in the Han dynasty. It is book of previous generations. This book is a compilation of documents and records related to events of Ancient China. This book contains the best examples of early Chinese prose.

The Classic of History is arranged in chronological order. It consists of 100 articles in four parts:

a. The Document of Yu Shun
b. The Document of Xia Dynasty
c. The Document of Shang Dynasty
d. The Document of Zhou Dynasty.

The book consists of four forms of writing.

They are as follows:

Codes – the documentation of law codes and statutes
Conversations – between emperors and ministers
Pledges – the pledges made by emperors and officials
Mandates – the imperial mandates emperors made when appointing officials

Record of Rites is a restoration of the original Classic of Rites. It describes ancient rites and court ceremonies from the Warring States Period to the Qin and Han dynasties.

The Spring and Autumn Annals is the official journal of the State of Lu covering the period 722 BC to 481 BC. It is the earliest surviving Chinese historical text. The work was supposed to have been compiled by Confucius. Confucius travelled to many states for 14 years and returned to the State of Lu in old age.

After that, he read the documents of the state and expressed his political ideas by compiling The Spring and Autumn Annals. The Spring and Autumn Annals documented the 242-year history of the State of Lu, during which 12 monarchs ruled the country.

The Huainanzi

It was also one of the earliest Chinese texts to cover topics of Chinese geography and topography. This book was written under the support of Liu An, Prince of Huainan.

The book refers to the study of methods and assumptions made in studying Chinese history. The Huainanzi is articulation of Western Han philosophy and statecraft. The text is on “all that a modern monarch needs to know,” it further emphasizes rigorous self-cultivation and mental discipline.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

This is one of the most famous novels of early China which was written about 1330 AD, during the Yuan Dynasty, by a man named Luo Guanzhong.

This novel tells story of the momentous rule of the Han dynasty, when the Chinese empire was divided into three warring kingdoms. This decisive period in Chinese history became a subject of great interest to historians, poets, and dramatists.

The Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber composed by Cao Xueqin, is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. It was written in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty.

It is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature and is considered to be the peak point of Chinese fiction.

Dream of the Red Chamber is semi-autobiographical, describing the rise and decay of author Cao Xueqin’s own family due to extension, of the Qing Dynasty.

Other literary works like Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, Analects by Confucius, Tao Te Ching by Laozi, Water Margin by Shi Naian, Journey to the West by Wu Chengen, Lessons for women by Ban Zhao and Eighteen Verses Sung to a Barbarian Whistle by poetess Cai Wenji have made notable contributions to Chinese literature.