Literature of China

Literature of China

China’s literary history can roughly be divided into the following ten eras:

1) From the Shang Dynasty (1600s to about 1025 BCE), we have primarily simple inscriptions in bones and turtle shells used in divination ceremonies (see jiaguwen ).

2) During the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn period (c. 1025–481 BCE), important classical writings are produced: the Yijing divination book, the Shijing poetry collection, and the Anniversary Shujing collection.

3) During the time of the warring states (481–221 BCE), the foundations of the most important philosophical schools are laid : Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Moism and many others. Chinese history writing takes shape.

4) During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD), the historical work of Shiji is created, and the tradition of dynastic stories is established. Confucianism mixed with various cosmological theories predominates. The interpretation and editing of older writings is central.

5) From 220 to 586, China is characterized by civil war and divisiveness. Buddhism and Taoism have great influence, the role of Confucianism is weakened. Poetry, literary criticism and short prose narratives (zhiguai) are important genres.

6) The Tang Dynasty (618–907) is the great golden age of poetry. It is also the golden age of Buddhism, and the zen school is being developed. The classic short story chuanqi is central.

7) During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), neo-Confucianism developed. Ci poetry reaches its peak.

8) The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) is the heyday of traditional drama, often written in spoken language rather than classical Chinese.

9) The Ming (1368–1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644–1912) are first and foremost the period of the great speech-language novels.

10) In modern times (after about 1915) Western influence leads to major changes. From the revolution of 1949 to the 1980s, political conditions give literature poor conditions. In the year 2000, for the first time, a Chinese author received the Nobel Prize in Literature with Gao Xingjian.

Below, the development of the various literary genres ( philosophy, history, short stories and novels, poetry ) are described separately.

Philosophical Literature

The most central works of philosophical literature are all written during the time of the warring states. The basic books of Confucianism ( Lunyu, Mencius, Xunzi ) emphasize human social relations and moral virtues. Taoism’s most important works ( Daodejing and Zhuangzi ) mock social norms and conformity and emphasize man’s spontaneity and place in nature. Mozi’s founding book Mozi advocates universal love and develops logical reasoning. The most important work of legalism, Hanfeizi, denies the importance of Confucian virtues and argues for the development of a strong centralized state with a clear law based on rewards and punishments.

During the Han Dynasty, Confucianism merges with Taoism, yin-yang thinking and other cosmological theories, for example in the Huainanzi work. Around the beginning of our era, Buddhism reaches China with its thoughts on karma, reincarnation and monastic life. Eventually, Indian sutras are translated into Chinese.

During the Tang Dynasty, the zen school is being developed. It is influenced by Taoism’s emphasis on spontaneity and makes a point of its image-storming attitude. During the Song dynasty, Zhu Xi (1130–1200) and other neo-Confucianism developed in response to, but also strongly influenced by, Buddhism. Zhu Xi’s comments on Confucian writings have had a great influence right into our time.

Christianity and other Western thinking had relatively little influence until the second half of the 19th century. From about 1915, various Western thought domains have dominated the philosophical discourse in China, gradually focusing on Marxism, although Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought is still largely alive. At the beginning of the 2000s, Marxism is on the decline. In addition to Western thought, so-called neo-Confucianism has played a certain role, and a renewed religious interest has also given more room to Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism, and Christianity.

Historical literature

Historical literature has its origins in annals collected from the various Chinese states during the Zhou Dynasty, especially Chunqiu. The most famous work of history from the time of the warring states is Zuozhuan, with scarce but intense depictions of wars and other pivotal events during the Spring and Autumn period. The work was later interpreted as a commentary on Chunqiu.

During the Han Dynasty, Sima Tan (165–110 BCE) and above all his son Sima Qian (c. 145–85 BCE) seek to gather contemporary historical knowledge in the history of Shiji, which is a highlight from an early literary and historical point of view. Chinese historiography. Parts of the work have strong epic qualities that have had a great influence on later historiography and prose poetry. In the first century after our era, Ban Gu completes the history of the early Han Dynasty ( Hanshu ) and lays the foundation for the tradition of official dynastic stories. Unofficial historical works and fantastic stories disguised as history are also written, but not without the risk of political persecution.

Novel and short story

It took a long time for real fiction literature to emerge in China. Although Zhuangzi and other early philosophical works contain many anecdotes and wonderful stories, these are primarily used to illustrate philosophical points. After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the zhiguai genre (” notes of the remarkable”) emerged, consisting of short prose pieces with more or less fantastic content, such as peoples with heads flying around as they sleep. These pieces, however, were not presented as fiction, but as historical accounts that had not been included in the official history books. Even chuanqi The genre (“tales of the wonderful”), which consists of longer and obvious fictional tales of everything from love to the supernatural, written during the Tang Dynasty, pretends to be documentary.

However, the growing demand for entertainment in the growing urban centers of the Tang period laid the groundwork for a comprehensive oral narrative art that was less closely related to the requirement for intelligence. Oral narrative art formed the basis for speech-language novels and speech-language novels. The romance genre in particular reached its peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties, although it is only in modern times that it has truly won recognition.

The historical novel San guo yanyi (The Three Kingdoms), the hero novel Shuihuzhuan (Tales from the marshland) and the imaginative pilgrimage novel Xiyouji (The Road to the West) have all taken their present form in the 1300s and 1400s. They are complex works with many authors and a long development behind them. The first major realistic novel is Jinpingmei (Golden Lotus), written by one unknown author around the year 1600. It is known for its near sexual descriptions, but is probably intended as a hidden criticism of the moral dissolution of the time.

Chinese novel art reaches its peak with Hongloumeng (The Dream of the Red Palaces), written by Cao Xueqin (c. 1715–1763). It provides a partially autobiographical, albeit idealized, description of life in a rich and powerful family, where the feelings of the young male protagonist and his sisters and cousins ​​in particular are at the center. A Buddhist-Taoist superstructure gives the action a deeper philosophical perspective. Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, novels are often printed as serials in newspapers and magazines.

Although novels and novels have long since become a written genre, words and phrases still derived from oral narrative art still exist. This does not change until Western influence seriously begins around 1915 and characterizes language, style and composition. Among the early masterpieces in a “modern” form are Lu Xun’s Kuangren riji (A Mad Man’s Diary) and AQ zhengzhuan (The Story of Ah Q), both of which contain indirect and satirical social criticism, as well as Lao Shes (1899-1966) Luotuo xiangzi, which is a laconic social depiction of a rickshaw driver’s tragic life.

From the late 1920s comes the author Ding Ling’s “liberated” women’s depictions. Other key writers of this period are Ba Jin, Mao Dun and Shen Congwen.

Mao Zedong’s political demands on literature (formulated in a well-known speech in Yan’an in 1942) made little of lasting value from the revolution in 1949 until the thaw in the 1980s. In the 1980s and 1990s, this changed, for example, with Ah Cheng’s long story short story from the Qiwang (Revolutionary) cultural revolution, Mo Yan’s stories, Wang Shuo’s satirical writings, and Gao Xingjian’s plays and novels.

Political suppression of literature still exists. When Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize in 2000, few Chinese knew who he was. His works were forbidden in his home country, and he himself lived in exile in France. The authorities have also cracked down on some political and sexually overt literature of varying quality, partly published over the Internet.


Lyric played a far greater role in Chinese society early than in the West. Already during the Zhou dynasty, important political and diplomatic statements often took the form of selected poems from well-known poems, which increased their legitimacy. The poetry collection Shijing‘s status as a Confucian classic, the dominant role of poetry in the examination system and the high number of poets employed by the imperial court, especially during the Tang Dynasty, tell how highly lyric was valued.

Another distinctive feature of traditional Chinese poetry is its close connection with folk songs. A large part of the poems in Shijing are originally folk songs. During the Han Dynasty, a music agency was set up to collect folk songs. These had a great influence on later poetry. The form of poetry that earned serious respect during the Song Dynasty, ci poetry, was based on popular tunes, many of them of non-Chinese origin. The same was true of Qu poetry (often used as arias in plays) during the Yuan dynasty.

A third distinctive feature is the tendency to perceive poetry as a description of reality rather than a fantasy product. Traditional Chinese poems often pretend to reproduce the poet’s feelings and reactions in the face of a specific situation in his own life or in history. In the short stories of the Ming and Qing dynasties, poems are often cited to give the reader a sense of intelligence; poetry is considered proof.

The Chinese word for poem, Shi, is also the original title of the first Chinese poetry collection we know of, now called Shijing. It contains poems from the 11th century to the 600s BCE. originating in the area around the Yellow River – both folk songs about love and war as well as hymns of a formal and ritual nature. Each line usually contains four syllables, and many lines have end strips.

A later collection, Chuci, originates from the Chu kingdom in the south. The oldest of the poems in the collection are written in the 200 century BCE. and describes a sumptuous mythological universe with origins outside the Chinese cultural sphere. A central theme is the honest but misunderstood official. During the Han Dynasty, prose poems ( fu ) are central, often long compositions with complex themes and a mix of poetry and prose, with Sima Xiangrus (179–117 BCE) opulent description of Shanglin Park as a typical example.

In the chaos following the disintegration of the Han Dynasty in 220, hermit poetry is central, with Taoist and eventually Buddhist-inspired worship of nature, spontaneity, simple way of life and wine-drinking, especially with Ruan Ji (210-263) and Tao Yuanming (365-427). In the most common poem form from this period, each line contains five syllables, and lines 2, 4, 6 and so on have end strips.

The Tang Dynasty is known as the golden age of poetry in China. The many great poets of the time, the status of poetry among the rulers, as well as the varied content of the poems and their sophisticated form are all signs of a time of flourishing. The two biggest names are Du Fu (712–770) and Li Bai (701–762). The first is known as a social consciousness and, first and foremost, a deep human poet with an endowment that took several hundred years to discover in earnest. The other is known as a self-conscious and sometimes ingenious eccentric who flirted with esoteric Taoism and cultivated spontaneity and unconventional behavior. This period was dominated by a form of poetry with strict requirements, not only for rhymes and the number of syllables per line (five or seven), but also for tone patterns.

During the Song dynasty, ci poetry emerged, built on popular tunes that allowed far greater variation in form than previous poetry. The greatest ci poet is Su Shi (Su Dongpo, 1037–1101) whose poems contain close and personal reflections on philosophical and historical themes. China’s greatest female poet of all time, Li Qingzhao (1084–1151), is also known for her deeply personal ci poetry.

During the Yuan Dynasty grows qu -poesien forward, primarily as arias in theater pieces. Like ci, they are based on popular tunes, and they are written in the spoken language of the time, not classical Chinese. Poetry continued to play a central role throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, but without new forms of poetry emerging. With Western influence from about 1915, a new Chinese poetry emerges, inspired by Western poetry, but also shaped by the peculiarities of the Chinese language. Xu Zhimo (1896–1931) and Wen Yiduo (1899–1946) are among those who combine poetic sensitivity, western inspiration, and Chinese tradition.

During the political turmoil of the 1980s, Bei Dao’s modernist “fog poetry” (menglongshi) was very popular with young Chinese. In modern China, however, the lyric has lost its central role in the empire’s time.

Diamond Sutra

According to the British Library, the Diamond Sutra of the year 868 is the oldest preserved printed book that is dated.


For the development of dramatic literature, see the article on theater in China.

Translations of Chinese literature can be found in the collections:

  • Bøckman (ed.): China Tells(1984)
  • Mjelve (ed.): Earth, Heaven(1982)
  • Malmqvist (ed.): Today(1986)
  • Owen (ed.): An Anthology of Chinese Literature(1996)