Chinese Literature

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 21, 2021

The history of ancient Chinese literature can be broken down into 8 major periods, each of which has its own predominant literature types. They are:

  • Ancient times: fables and legends
  • Early Qin Dynasty: prose on history or masters
  • Eastern and Western Dynasties: verses, ditties, odes, Yuefu songs, and historical prose
  • Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties: poetry and others
  • Tang Dynasty: poetry
  • Song Dynasty: lyrics
  • Yuan Dynasty: poetic drama
  • Ming and Qing Dynasties: fiction

Early Qin Dynasty

The Early Qin Dynasty was the birth era of Chinese culture and the dawning of Chinese literary development. The literature developed through this period was in fact very primitive, built on ancient fables and legends that had been passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth since ancient times. However, its cultural spirit exerted a strong influence on Chinese literature for many generations to come.

As history progressed, variations on literature with features originating from the early Qin Dynasty appeared during the Xia and Shang Dynasties, West Zhou Dynasty, the Spring and Autumn period, and the stage of the Warring States. The development of literature in the Xia and Shang Dynasties was mostly influenced by wizard culture and primeval religion.

The fiefdom system practiced in the early Zhou Dynasty ushered in a new stage of Chinese history. Liyue culture was the mainstream of literature at that time and reflected the political ideals of this period. During the Spring and Autumn period, each country had its own books of historical records but the most representative one was the Spring and Autumn Annals compiled by Confucius of Lu State. These works emphasized the importance of social ethics and order and of taking history into account when planning the future of society. Confucius was a great believer in the importance of society and this was highlighted by the effort he put into compiling these annals.

In late Spring and Autumn, another 2 other great works were created; Zuo Zhuan and Guo Yu. These works inherited the practical style of the Spring and Autumn Annals and advocated the beliefs of the Confucius School such as adhering to rituals, being loyal to the empire, consolidation of the state, and protection of the people.

Besides historical works, there were many outstanding literary figures that turned their attention to personal and social life and put forward various views on the society of that period, producing great works that include the Analects of Confucius, Mo Zi, and Lao Zi, which is in fact a combination of prose and rhyme.

The Warring States period was an important time in Chinese history where great changes occurred as the Zhou Dynasty, the Liyue System in West Zhou, and the period of Spring and Autumn declined and broke down. At this time, representatives from various schools of thought began to write books that criticized contemporary times and expressed their opinions on politics, as well as arguing amongst one and other, particularly in a famous period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought Contended."

In the early period of the Western Han Dynasty, Sima Tan summarized the philosophers and the Hundred Schools of Thought into the following 6 major schools:

  • The School of Yin-yang
  • The Confucian School
  • Mohism
  • The School of Ming
  • The School of Law
  • The School of Morality

Liu Xin added another 4 schools during the Later Han Dynasty. These were the School of Nong, the School of Zongheng, the School of Za, and the School of Xiaoshuo (a novelist). These schools discussed various issues regarding nature, society, life, politics, and philosophy from various points of view. The most influential philosophers among this prestigious group were Zhuang Zhou of Taoism, Meng Ke of the Confucian School, Han Fei of the School of Law, and the School of Zong and Heng. Although they held different opinions, each of these philosophers shared a common perspective influenced by the unique culture of the Warring States period.

Besides the philosophers mentioned by Sima Tan, another great figure, Qu Yuan from the Chu Date in the Warring States, made a huge contribution to the development of ancient Chinese literature and was therefore reputed to be one of the greatest literary figures in history. Before the decline of Chu, Qu Yuan was discredited by a smear campaign put forth by the establishment. He was naturally angered and disappointed by this and, lacking any other means of reprisal, poured all of his emotions into poetry and descriptive prose interspersed with verse. Through irregular sentence patterns, colorful and evocative words, as well as rich and unstrained imagination, Qu Yuan portrayed his political ideals and sentiments of patriotism and in doing so created another high point in the development of poetry in Chinese history.

To summarize, the cultural debate, thoughts, and ideas that predominated during the Warring States period gave rise to the "Hundred Schools of Thought Contended" and were in large part responsible for propelling the development and popularity of future generations of Chinese literature, not to mention for precipitating the birth of styles of prose, poetry, and odes in a manner that had never previously been seen.

Han, Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties

Fu is a type of descriptive prose interspersed with verse and is a unique form of Chinese literature. It originated during the Han Dynasty, which was the first unified and prosperous country in Chinese history. Fu is an artistic literature form that facilitated outstanding development in this period. In combining poetry with prose, this literary style is very forceful and expressive. The most influential representative of this literary style is Sima Xiangru, and his greatest works are Zeus fu and Shanglin fu.

Sui and Tang Dynasties

China is a country of poetry and Tang poetry represents the pinnacle of excellence in the entire history of Chinese classic poetry. In the early Tang Dynasty, poets like Shangguan Yi, Shen Quanqi, and Song Wenzhi established the form of lüshi, which has a strict structure comprising of 8 lines containing 5 to 7 characters adhering to a strict tone and rhyme scheme.

Four outstanding poets, Wang Bo, Yang Jiong, Lu Zhaolin, and Luo Binwang, made efforts to abolish these stylistic restrictions on the poems popular in the Qi and Liang States, widening the boundaries for poetry writing. This reform of theory and practical application created a new style of poetry in the Tang Dynasty, leading to the period being characterized by the appearance of a variety of poetic styles and genres.

Idyll, represented by Wang Wei and Meng Haoran, focused on the depiction of natural landscapes. Its style portrays freshness and smoothness, presenting the world in a quiet and serene manner. In stark contrast, Frontier Fortress poetry, of which Cen Shen and Gao Shi were the early pioneers, expressed the life of the writer on the frontier, capturing the writers' aspirations to help rule the state and bring peace to the world, as well as their spirit of perseverance and enterprise.

Poetry in the booming Tang Dynasty portrayed the prosperous culture of the time and the romantic Li Bai and realist Du Fu were 2 eminent poets with vastly contrasting styles in this period. The poetry of Li Bai focused on the contradictions between ideals and real-life and challenged and attacked the dark forces in society while expressing the author's pursuit of freedom and personality. It is full of distinctive characters, rich images, brave exaggeration, fantastic imagination, fresh language, and bold forms that deliberately broke the rules of classic poetry.
However, the poems of Du Fu emphasized the fact and real-life and sarcastically exposed the reality of the bad character of the contemporary rulers.

Through his poems, Du Fu demonstrated a resonance with the working class, and enthusiasm for life, and heady expectations for a bright future. The genius of his poetry lay in his outstanding ability to, on one hand, artistically present sweeping and cutting analysis of real-life from the perspective of common people while simultaneously creating a unique style of broad and subtle expression, expressing strong feelings and emotions through clear, bold, and neat language.

Of all of the stylistic breakthroughs in Chinese poetry that occurred during the Tang Dynasty, one of the most notable was the creation of the New Yuefu School represented by the realist poet Bai Juyi. Another was the advent of the New Yuefu style of poetry. Bai Juyi proposed that "Prose should be written for the reflection of times and poetry for interpretation of life."

During the middle of the Tang Dynasty, another genre of poetry appeared called Hanmeng Poetry School which was represented by poets such as Li He, who was crowned "Eidolon of Poetry" or "Monster of Poetry." The Tang Dynasty witnessed the rise of Li Shangyin and Du Mu, who were collectively called "Little Lidu."

In addition to poetry, the development of Chinese prose also reached a historical peak during the Tang Dynasty. During the mid-Tang Dynasty, the "Old Style Movement" initiated by Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan strongly advocated the replacement of parallel style with prose popular in the early Qin and Han Dynasties. Prose created by Han Yu was famous for its rich content and variety of forms while that of Liu Zongyuan took the form of satirical essays and travel writing and was widely favored throughout society. Other notable prose in the late Tang Dynasty includes essays by Pi Rixiu, Lu Guimeng, and Luo Yin.

The Tang Dynasty also witnessed the development of the novel. Zaotang Biography epitomized the maturation of classic novel writing and excellent works of this type include Profile of Liwa by Bai Xingjian and Huo Xiaoyu Biography by Jiang Fang.

In addition, another new and very artistic form of poetry that came into being during this period was Ci or lyrics. Poets of this style were represented by Wen Tingjun and Wei Zhuang in the late Tang Dynasty. When the period of the Five Dynasties began, lyrics reached new development by Feng Tingyi, Li Jing, and Li Yu, laying a solid foundation for the future prosperity of the style of lyrics during the Song Dynasty.

Jin and Yuan Dynasties

During the Yuan Dynasty, drama and novels became the mainstream of artistic creation and poetic drama set to music emerged as the most popular literary form. Local classical opera in South China also reached further development at the same time. On the other hand, poetry and prose, which were previously recognized as the orthodox form of literature, gradually declined, although San Qu, a kind of poetic drama, was a new form established in this period. While San Qu took the form of poetry, it was more forceful in expression.

Poetry, lyrics, and prose in the history of literature not only drew on previous artistic forms but also created many new ones. In the early Tang Dynasty, poetry in the north mainly drew up the traditional forms of poetry in Jin Dynasty, while literature in the south was heavily influenced by styles popular during the Southern Song Dynasty. It was not until Emperor Ren Zong that poetry in Tang Dynasty developed its own characteristics.

Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the development of the novel in China went through 3 important stages. These were Xiantang Note Novel, Legend Novel in the Tang Dynasty, and Huaben Novel in the Song and Yuan Dynasties. These 3 stages culminated in a booming period for the novel as an artistic form of literature during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The 6 most famous novels in this period were Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai'an, Pilgrims to the West by Wu Cheng'en, Plum in the Golden Vase by Lanling Xiao, Scholars by Wu Jingzi, and A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin. The first 4 of these listed books were honored as the "Four Wonders of Books" in the Ming Dynasty and the "Four Classic Novels of China", and the last 2 were the most representative creations of the saga novel during the Qing Dynasty.

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