Chinese Literature

After thousands of years of unity the Chinese population is surprisingly not a homogeneous entity. Many dialects exists within the Chinese language and these are grouped into the following divisions - Mandarin, Wu, Min, Hakka and Cantonese. As with any linguistic dialects these exist within associated geographical regions. Mandarin is designated as standard Chinese and it is spoken by approximately 3/4 of the population of China. All dialects use the same written characters.

The oldest written inscriptions appear on shells and bones dating from about the 14th century B.C. Some of these brief inscriptions record important events, while others were divinations performed for the Shang rulers. With this development of script the vehicle for literature was in place.

The classical period of Chinese Literature begins in the 6th century B.C., during the Chou dynasty. At this time the "Book of Odes", an anthology of poetry, appeared. The latter half of this dynasty was a period of upheaval as sub-states within the realm fought for autonomy. The philosophical response to this social and political turmoil can be seen in the work of Confucius, Mencius, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. The period culminated with the compilation of the Confucian classics. Confucian treatises became the standard literature upon which education was based until the early 20th century. Confucian scholars shaped the succeding developments in poetry, prose and music.

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) the Romantic and realistic schools of poetry were established. The writing of history became a responsibility of the government. The "Historical Memoirs of Ssu-ma Ch'ien" was written in about the 1st century B.C. and provided the pattern for all dynastic histories compiled in the 2000 years following it. At this time mastery of the Confucian classics became the requirement for an appointment to official posts.

From the 3rd to the 7th century China was divided into warring states, a period known as the Six Dynasties, yet culture continued to flourish. During this time Buddhism spread from India, poetry and prose thrived and printing was invented.

The greatest Chinese poetry was written during the T'ang dynasty (618-907), which was a general a period of peace. The most famous poets during this period were Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu. Prose also prospered at this time with a trend toward simple, straightforward writing as opposed to the artificial prose which had developed. Popular fiction became well established at this time and storytelling experienced a revival.

During the Yuan or Mongol dynasty fiction and drama experienced a period of growth. Drama did not develop as a proper art form in China until this time, however, the rudiments of drama had existed since ancient times. It has been suggested that the growth of these forms during this period was due to the establishment of large urban centers and the spread of literacy to the merchant classes of the Sung and Yuan periods.

The modern period in literature spans the 13th to the 20th centuries. Popular fiction reached new heights as works were compiled from folk stories. Important collections of short stories appeared in the 17th century. Conventional literature experienced a decline as its forms stagnated. At the end of the 19th century a literary revolution known as the Chinese Renaissance resulted in a new vitality in contemporary literature.



  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials