With a history of much more than 2,000 years, Chinese literature is a big topic. The Zhou Dynasty (1045-255 BC) is known for its surviving religious and philosophical texts. In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), texts of an influential political philosophy called Legalism were written. Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) authors contributed important poetry and scientific and historical texts. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) poets were considered the best of all the eras in Chinese history, and literature was more widely published by early woodblock printing. During the Song Dynasty era (960-1279), travelers wrote travel literature, more literary poetry was written, the Neo-Confucian Classics were codified, and administration officials did advanced scientific research and published advanced scientific texts. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), great dramas and classic fictional novels in the vernacular language were written. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), some more important novels were written. In the last dynasty called the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), some more great novels were written; and at the end of that era, there was pre-modern literature. During the modern era (1912-present), the literature was Westernized and used for political purposes. The long unbroken stream of Chinese literature is hard to summarize. Major works survive of a variety of genres including poetry, classic fictional novels, scientific and historical works, Neo-Confucian Classics and other ancient classical texts; and in the modern era, writers wrote about social and political change incorporating Western ideas and utilizing Western literary forms.
Classical Language and the Neo-Confucian Classics
Chinese empires had a common written language for 2,000 years. No matter what their spoken language was, most educated people in all eras from the Han Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty could read the ancient texts from the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1045-255 BC) era and also write in a form of that written language. So Chinese literature before the 1912 revolution is kind of like an unbroken literary stream spanning 2,400 years. If Europe had a literary history like China’s, it would be as if most European writers until the 20th century tried to write in ancient Classical Greek that became a dead language more than two millennia ago. This literary language was the imperial written language of the administrations from the Song Dynasty onwards for about 1,000 years. Almost all the bureaucratic rulers needed to know the Neo-Confucian Classics that were written in this Classical Language by heart.
The Neo-Confucian Classics were Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) that contained the political philosophy of Confucius and others. These nine books were compiled and codified in the Song era. The Five Classics were thought to have been penned by Confucius, and the Four Books were thought to contain Confucian School-related material but were compiled during the Song era. These nine works were basically memorized by those seeking administrative posts in the imperial governments. Those who did the best on an examination for entry into the administration basically memorized them all. The bureaucrats all studied the same works on social behavior and philosophy, and this promoted unity and the normalization of behavior throughout each empire and during the times of dynastic change. The scholar-bureaucrats had a common base of understanding, and they passed on these ideas to the people under them. Those who passed the difficult exams were highly respected even if they didn’t receive a ruling post. High education in this system was thought to produce nobility.
The Five Classics and Four Books were written in the written Classical Language. The Five Classics include: The Book of Changes, The Classic of Poetry, The Record of Rites that was a recreation of the original Classic of Rites of Confucius that was lost in the Qin book purge, The Classic of History, and The Spring and Autumn Annals that was mainly a historical record of Confucius' native state of Lu. The Four Books include: The Analects of Confucius that is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples; Mencius that is a collection of political dialogues attributed to Mencius; The Doctrine of the Mean; and The Great Learning that is a book about education, self-cultivation and the Dao. For foreigners who want a taste of this Confucian philosophy, reading the Analects of Confucius is a good introduction since the statements are usually simple and like common sense.
Other Ancient Classical Texts
In order to stifle opposition to ensure his rule, the first emperor (Qishihuang, whose Terracotta Army in Xi’an has been recognized as one of the Eight Wonders in the world) of the first big Chinese empire called the Qin Empire (221-206 BC) ordered that all the religious and philosophical texts other than Legalism texts and all dissenting literature be destroyed and that people stop writing contradictory ideas. He only allowed the texts of a political philosophy called Legalism because they supported his rule. He also allowed certain kinds of scientific books to survive. This was called the “Book Burning and Burial of Scholars,” and it was a literary disaster since most ancient philosophical and religious writings and even some of the scientific knowledge of opposing philosophers were banned and destroyed. What survived were some Confucian and Taoist texts and some other literature, and few texts have since been recovered from tombs. The most important works other than Confucian-related material that are thought to survive from the Han era and before are the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi, Legalism texts, some scientific documents, and long ancient historical texts.
In the Han era, a philosophical and religious school called Daoism developed that used two main books as their scriptures. The Dao De Jing (道德經) is the main text of Daoist philosophy. Dao De Jing means the Way of Virtue Scripture. It is said that Laozi wrote the Dao De Jing between about 300 to 600 BC. But historians debate about whether he wrote the text, when he lived, and whether he was a real historical person. A secondary Daoist text that is said to date from the Zhou era is called the Zhuangzi (莊子).
The Qin Emperor favored a philosophical school that was called Legalism (法家). This philosophy of course justified the strong control of the emperor and maintained that everyone should obey him. A major philosopher of this school and an imperial ruler of the Qin Dynasty was Li Si who taught that human nature was naturally selfish and that a strong imperial government with strict laws was needed for social order. Li Si’s writings on politics and law and other texts of this school much influenced the political thinking in the Han Dynasty and later eras.
Because many historical texts were lost in the Qin era, there was a need for historical texts. The Han Empire immediately followed the Qin Empire. During the Han era, Sima Qian wrote Historical Records that is a major historical work concerning the overall history of China from before the Shang Dynasty until the Han Dynasty. The book’s prose was considered a model for writers in succeeding dynastic eras. His account of history was considered reliable in successive dynasties. Another important historical text concerned the Han Dynasty itself. Some scientific works of the Han era were also thought to be important.
Poetry was a favorite literary genre for thousands of years. Poetry isn’t taken very seriously in the West, but ancient poetry is still read and ancient Chinese poets are honored. The dynastic eras in which the greatest ancient poets lived were the Tang, Ming, and Han eras. If the greatest Chinese poets are named, Dufu and Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty often come up on top. Tang Dynasty poets are usually considered the best. Other famous ancient poets include Su Shi of the Song Dynasty. The best poets are thought to have lived a thousand or more years ago. Though much poetry was written in the eras following the Song Dynasty, it is thought that the poets became increasingly erudite, academic and esoteric so that modern Chinese can’t appreciate the style and meaning. Ancient poetry was simpler and about common things like love, romance and nature that people appreciate.
Four long fictional novels are usually thought to be the best novels in Chinese literature. What all four have in common is that they were written in a spoken language of their times unlike most ancient literature that was written in the Classical Language of the rulers. There is a fifth book that was once considered among the top four until The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) was published. It is called Golden Vase Plum (Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅). The Dream of the Red Chamber was very highly regarded when it was published. It was soon published in Japan where it was also considered a great book.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), two of the great novels were written that influenced the development of the genre. The two novels are still widely read now. These are Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written by Luo Guan Zhong. It is historical fiction about the lives and struggles of rulers and the wars at the end of the Han Dynasty and in the Three Kingdoms Period. The Three Kingdoms Period was between the Han and Tang eras. Special emphasis is laid on the two famous historical rulers Liu Bei and Cao Cao who were antagonists. It is a long novel with 800,000 words.
Water Margin is about the lives and ideals of a group of characters who fought against the corrupt Northern Song Dynasty that the Mongols conquered. It is said it was written in vernacular language by Shi Nai An, but scholars debate about the authorship. Many scholars think that the first 70 chapters were written by Shi Nai An and that the last 30 chapters were written by Luo Guan Zhong who was also the author of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a novel about a fantastic journey to the west of a group that went to India was written at a time that the Silk Road land routes were blocked by Mongol and Muslim countries. It was expanded from legends and tales about a historical monk’s journey to India on the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty when the route was heavily traveled. Cartoons and movies about this group of characters are popular with children. Journey to the West is thought to have been published anonymously by Wu Cheng'en in the 16th century though scholars have doubt about the authorship. The trend during his era was for people to write in Classical Chinese and imitate the literature of the Tang Dynasty and Han Dynasty, but this book was written in a vernacular language of his time.
The Dream of the Red Chamber was first printed in the late 1700s during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It also has an uncertain authorship. Like the other three great classic novels, it was written in a vernacular language – the Mandarin language that was the language of the Qing capital. It is probably mostly composed by Cao Xueqin (1715-1763) in the middle 1700s. It is thought that another person or other people contributed the ending of the story since the original ending of the story was lost. The book has a lot of textual problems, and there are different versions.
Until recently, most Western historians of science had little knowledge about Chinese science. This is partly because little was published in English. Also, there wasn’t much detailed scholastic research on this topic in China. However, since the 1980s, researchers in China sifting through old documents are gaining a greater understanding of the engineering and scientific accomplishments of ancient times. It seems that some of this ancient knowledge wasn’t known or wasn’t utilized in the Qing era such as complex mechanical clocks or gadgets like the mechanical odometer machine. Perhaps when dynasties changed and new empires began, the scientists who were generally servants of the imperial courts left or fled and their scientific texts in the imperial courts were lost or left used. Chinese technicians invented gunpowder, printing, paper and the compass, and scientists made advances in many scientific fields. Some of this knowledge was published in scientific texts.
The Han (206 BC – 220 AD) and Song (960-1279) dynasties are described as the hotspot eras of scientific progress. The Western Han revived Confucianism after the destruction of the Qin Dynasty, but during the Eastern Han Dynasty at the end of the Han era, the influence of the philosophy of the Confucian Classics that hindered scientific progress waned. So people were freer to pursue invention. Finery forges and another kind of forge were invented for making steel. It is thought that lodestone may have been first used as a compass in Eurasia during this era. Cai Lun (50–121) of the imperial court is said to be the first person in the world to create writing paper, and this was important for written communication at the end of the empire. Two or three mathematical texts of advanced mathematics for the times were writtten.
Another period of scientific progress and technical invention was the Song era. Song technicians seemed to have made a lot of advancements in mechanical engineering. They made advanced contraptions out of gears, pulleys and wheels. These were used to make big clocks, a mechanical odometer on an animal drawn cart that marked land distance by making noise after traveling a certain distance, and other advanced instruments. The Song technicians also invented many uses gunpowder including rockets, early cannons, explosives and guns.
Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Su Song (1020–1101) both wrote scientific treatises about their research and about various fields. They were rivals in the Song government. Shen Kuo’s Dream Pool Essays of 1088 was a voluminous scientific composition that can be said to contain the forefront of knowledge of his era. He is said to have discovered the concepts of true north and magnetic declination towards the North Pole. He also described the magnetic needle compass. If Chinese sailors understood this work, they could sail long distances more accurately. This knowledge would predate European discovery. He did advanced astronomical research for his time.
Su Song was one of Shen Kuo's court rivals. He wrote a treatise called the Bencao Tujing (Illustrated Herbalist) in 1070 with information on medicine, botany and zoology. He also was the author of a large celestial atlas of five different star maps. He also made land atlases. Su Song was famous for his hydraulic-powered astronomical clock tower. Su's clock tower is said to have had an endless power-transmitting chain drive that he described in a text on time keeping, clock design and astronomy that was published in 1092. If this is so, it may be the first time such a device was used in the world. The Song were conquered by the Mongols, and these inventions and the astronomical knowledge seem to have been forgotten or thought unimportant.
Sun Yat-sen led a revolution that marked the end of Chinese dynasties in which a clan rules an empire. The Qing Dynasty era ended in 1912. The big change of Chinese society led to a change in literature. It became Westernized, and the Classical Language wasn’t used. The national government wanted women to have more of an equal status in society, and women writers and scholars were taken more seriously. Under the national government, there was some freedom of expression, and lots of views and styles of literature were popular. China came under attack from Japan. After the Communist victory, only literature approved by the government was allowed.
I updated this article on May 14, 2012
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- Chinese Literature
- History of Chinese Literature
- China's Classic Novels
- Chinese Poetry
- Chinese Classical Prose
- Chinese Scientific Texts