Chinese Poetry

Chinese literature

Chinese literature, the literature of ancient and modern China.

Early Writing and Literature

It is not known when the current system of writing Chinese first developed. The oldest written records date from about 1400 BC in the period of the Shang dynasty, but the elaborate system of notation used even then argues in favor of an earlier origin. From short inscriptions on bone and tortoiseshell (used for divination), characters standing for individual words have been deciphered and are traceable through many notations to modern forms.

Most of the oldest surviving works of literature were not written until the later centuries of the Chou dynasty (c.1027–256 BC). At this time was written most of what scholars of the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) made into the canonical literature of Confucianism (which also included their own commentaries), although the current versions of these works, traditionally classified as the Wu Ching [five classics], contain interpolations. The Wu Ching, traditionally attributed to Confucius either as author or compiler, consist of diverse books. The Ch'un Ch'iu [spring and autumn annals] is an unadorned chronology of Lu, Confucius's native state.

The I Ching [book of changes] explains, often in allusive and ambiguous language, a system of divination, based upon the study of 64 hexagrams of whole and broken lines. The Li Chi [book of rites] describes ceremonials and an ideal Confucian state. The Shu Ching [classic of documents or book of history] contains historical records, many of them known to be later forgeries. While some of these works contain verse, the main collection of poetry in the Wu Ching is the Shih Ching [classic of songs or book of odes], made up of 305 poems. Written in simple rhyming stanzas, they tell of the peasant's life, of love, and of the wars of the feudal states.

During the Sung dynasty (960–1279) selections from the Li Chi and two other works were formed into the Ssu Shu [four books]; they were thought to embody the quintessence of Confucian teachings. They are the Ta Hsüeh [great learning] and the Chung Yung [doctrine of the mean] from the Li Chi, the Lun Yü [analects of Confucius], and the Book of Mencius (see Mencius). Other important early books include the Tao Te Ching [classic of the way and its power], traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu, and the work of Chuang-tzu. These two books, which form the chief literature of Taoism, probably circulated in their present form from the 2d cent. BC

The early Chinese books originally appeared in the cumbersome form of strips of bamboo. Silk was substituted as a writing material in the 2d cent. BC, and the invention of paper in the 2d cent. AD was responsible for a great increase in the number of books. The method of printing whole pages from wooden blocks was discovered under the T'ang dynasty (618–906) and was perfected and in widespread use by the 10th cent. This technology permitted an enormous increase in the number of copies available of any book.

Styles of Literature

Over time, the nature of the language in which the literature of China was written diverged sharply, producing two main styles of writing, one composed in a specifically literary language and the other in the vernacular. Both strands produced their own very different styles of literature, and both styles reflected their own characteristic language.

Literary Style

The literary style was exceedingly concise and was unmatched for its vigor, richness, and symmetry. Historical and literary allusions abounded, and finally special dictionaries were required for their elucidation. In poetry the relatively simple prosody of the Chou period was followed by systems of more minutely prescribed forms. The lines, which rhymed, had to be matched syllable by syllable in both part of speech and intonation. By the T'ang period the prosodic rules no longer suited the spoken structure of the everyday language; they continued to be observed in spite of changes in pronunciation. It is generally agreed that China's greatest poetry was written in the T'ang dynasty. Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chü-i are masters of this period. In the succeeding Sung dynasty Su Tung-p'o was perhaps the foremost poet.

Translations of T'ang and Sung poetry strongly influenced the modern imagist school in English (see imagists). Chinese lyrics are generally very short, unemphatic and quiet in manner, and limited to suggesting a mood or a scene by a few touches rather than painting a detailed picture. Intellectual themes and narratives are comparatively rare. Many varieties of learned prose have also been written in China. Notable for accuracy and objectivity are the series of dynastic histories produced since Han times; the famous Shih chi [records of the historian] (c.100 BC) by Ssu-ma Ch'ien served as their model.

Chinese lexicography developed in response to multiplication of characters. The last of a great series of dictionaries (still in standard use) was produced in the reign of K'ang Hsi (1662–1722). So-called encyclopedias, actually extracts from existing works, have been occasionally compiled; one such work of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) ran to over 11,000 short volumes and appeared in three manuscript copies.

Vernacular Style

While the literati were cultivating polite literature during the T'ang and Sung periods, prose and verse of a popular nature began to appear. It was written in the spoken vernacular rather than in the classical literary language, and scholars regarded it with scorn. Springing from story cycles made familiar by professional storytellers, this vernacular literature first emerged as a full-fledged art in the drama of the Yüan dynasty (1260–1368).

The vernacular style later developed into the great novels of the Ming period that followed. Both the drama and the novel proved immensely popular. Thus the 13th cent. witnessed the emergence of the resources of the living language of the people. The vernacular novels, although they had their roots in the Yüan epoch, took shape gradually during the Ming era until they were finally given their finished form, perhaps anonymously by some talented traditional scholar.

An early and outstanding example of the novel is the San Kuo Chih Yen I (tr. San Kuo or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925); it is set in the Three Kingdoms period (220–265) and recounts heroic deeds and chivalrous exploits. Another historical romance is the Shui Hu Chuan (tr. All Men Are Brothers, 1937), a picaresque tale of men forced by the venality of officials to become bandits. The Hsi Yu Chi (tr. Monkey, 1943) is an allegorical tale, full of the supernatural, concerning the adventures of a Buddhist pilgrim on a journey to India.

The Chin P'ing Mei (tr. The Golden Lotus, 1939) by contrast portrays domestic life and amorous intrigue; it is marked by realistic incident and the interplay of human relationships. The greatest Chinese novel is considered to be Hung Lou Meng (tr. Dream of the Red Chamber, 1958), an 18th-century work chiefly from the hand of Ts'ao Hsüeh-ch'in. With an unrivaled gift for subtle characterization and plot construction, the author recounts the declining fortunes of an aristocratic family.

The Early Twentieth Century

After the republican revolution (1911) authors turned away from the classical modes of composition, and many writers (notably Hu Shih and Lu Xun) advocated writing in the baihua vernacular. The change in Chinese education from preoccupation with the classic literature to scientific and technological subjects reduced mastery of the traditional literary skills as did the abolition of the civil service examinations for official posts, which had been based on a knowledge of the Four Books of the Confucian canon. The use of characters instead of an alphabet persisted, however; this made older writings accessible and permitted the Chinese, who speak widely different dialects, amounting to different languages, to communicate with one another. The use of baihua has proved especially effective in prose.

Translations of Western books frequently appeared in China, and the novelists of the republican period were greatly influenced by European writers. Among the most distinguished writers of 20th-century China are Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, and Ba Jin. During the 1930s and 40s several talented novelists came to the fore, including Mao Tun, Lao She, and Shen Ts'ung–wen, while modernist poets such as Ai Ch'ing experimented with Western–style free verse. Women writers who grew equally prominent during these decades include Ting Ling, Hsiao Hung, and Chang Ai-ling (Eileen Chang).

Literature in the Communist Era

Fiction during the first years after the 1949 Communist revolution depicted the great social transformations taking place. Party leaders advocated socialist realism, which was marked by strict adherence to party doctrine and by a narrow emphasis on the credible depiction of external reality; it inhibited writers' creativity and led to stagnation.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956–57) encouraged writers and other intellectuals to voice criticisms of party policy. Those who did so were soon punished during the 1957 antirightist campaign, when they were denounced and either imprisoned or sent to labor reform camps. Many, such as Wang Meng and Zhang Xianliang, were to remain confined for over two decades. Even harsher was the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, during which thousands of intellectuals were sent to work on distant farms. Some writers, such as Lao She, were either murdered or committed suicide.

Following Mao Zedong's death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping's consolidation of power in 1979, strictures on literary freedom were relaxed. The first stories from this period relate the nightmarish experiences of the Cultural Revolution—the "literature of the wounded." Despite a crackdown on "bourgeois liberalism" and "spiritual pollution," writing continued to flourish in the 1980s. Many works struggled with general social issues, such as official corruption and overcrowding; feminist issues were treated in novels by women writers such as Zhang Jie and Wang Anyi. Reportage literature, a hybrid of journalism and fiction, grew popular. Novelists experimented with stream of consciousness and other narrative techniques, while the Misty School of poets, exemplified by Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Gu Cheng, developed a fusion of various modernist styles.

Han Shaogong, Ah Cheng, and others developed a "seeking roots" literature, characterized by rural settings, geographical and botanical descriptions, and the incorporation of local dialects and folklore. Zhang Xianliang, Gu Hua, and Can Xue were prominent among the regional writers who emerged, most notably from China's far west and south. After the massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square (June 4, 1989), many writers fled China, fearing government reprisals for their support of the democracy movement. Most continue to write in exile, publishing their work in literary journals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas.


A pioneering translator of the classic Confucian and Taoist texts was James Legge, whose works, still standard, appear in many volumes. Translations of individual classics include A. Waley, tr., The Book of Songs (1937) and The Analects of Confucius (1938); R. Wilhelm and C. F. Baynes, tr., The I Ching or Book of Changes (1950); B. Carlgren, tr., The Book of Odes (1950); W. I. Ch'an, tr., The Way of Lao Tzu (1963); W. A. C. H. Dobson, tr., Mencius (1963); B. Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968); D. C. Lau, tr., Mencius (1970); J. C. Wu, tr., Tao Teh Ching (1989).

General anthologies of Chinese literature in translation include C. Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature (2 vol., 1961–72); H. C. Chang, Chinese Literature (1982–83); and V. H. Mair, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994).

Collections of short stories, new and old, include C. Levenson, W. Bauer, and H. Franks, tr., The Golden Casket: Chinese Novellas of Two Millennia (1964); E. Snow, ed., Living China: Modern Chinese Stories (1937, repr. 1989); J. Tai, The Nine Houses: A Collection of Contemporary Chinese Short Stories (1989).

Anthologies of Chinese poetry include W. Bynner and K. H. Kiang, tr., The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being Three Hundred Poems of the T'ang Dynasty (1929); D. Hawkes, tr., Ch'u Tz'u: The Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology (1959); A. R. Davis, ed., The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse (1962); B. Watson, ed., Chinese Rhyme-Prose (1971) and The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (1986); J. Chaves, ed., The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yuan, Ming, and Ch'ing Dynasties, 1279–1911 (1988).

Bibliographical guides to translations and criticisms of modern Chinese literature include M. Davidson, comp., A List of Published Translations from Chinese into English, French, and German (2 vol., 1952–57); T. L. Yuan, comp., China in Western Literature: A Continuation of Cordier's Bibliotheca Sinica (1958); J. D. Paper, A Guide to Guides to Chinese Prose (1984).

See also C. T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1961) and The Classic Chinese Novel (1968); B. Watson, Early Chinese Literature (1962); L. Ming, A History of Chinese Literature (1964); W. C. Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Literature (1966); S. Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T'ang (1980) and Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics (1985); M. Anderson, The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period (1990); D. D. Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China (1992).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! A Lute of Jade: Being Selections from the Classical Poets of China
L. Cranmer-Byng.
E. P. Dutton and Company, 1918
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese
Kenneth Rexroth.
New Directions, 1971
Women Poets of China
Kenneth Rexroth; Ling Chung; Kenneth Rexroth; Ling Chung.
New Directions, 1982
Five Tang Poets: Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-Yin
David Young.
Oberlin College Press, 1990
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature
Victor H. Mair.
Columbia University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Part II "Poetry"
Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature
Robert E. Hegel; Richard C. Hessney.
Columbia University Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Self in Poetry and Criticism"
The Poetry of Han-Shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain
Robert G. Henricks.
State University of New York Press, 1990
The Selected Poems of Du Fu
Burton Watson; Du Fu.
Columbia University Press, 2002
Seven Rhapsodies of Ts'ao Chih
Kroll, Paul W.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 1, January-March 2000
Contour Plowing on East Slope: A New Reading of Su Shi
Pease, Jonathan.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 112, No. 3, July-September 1992
Tonal Prosody in Chinese Parallel Prose
Branner, David Prager.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123, No. 1, January-March 2003
Wu Li (1632-1718) and the First Chinese Christian Poetry
Chaves, Jonathan.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 3, July-September 2002
Defining Experience: The "Poems of Seductive Allure" (Yanshi) of the Mid-Tang Poet Yuan Zhen (779-831)
Shields, Anna M.
The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 1, January-March 2002
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