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Chinese Literature: History & Facts

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

The history of Chinese literature reaches back over 3000 years, prior to the development of paper. Chinese writing has great works in the forms of poetry, philosophy, and prose. Read on to explore the history and facts of this country's literature.

Chinese Literature

Chinese literature has a rich history which stretches back thousands of years. Chinese poetry and prose build on a tradition of having precise language. This culture prized literature and writers so highly there is a god in charge of it named Wen Chang (or Wendi). Let's explore how literature developed in China and then learn about some Chinese writers and their works.

The Beginning of Chinese Writing and First Stories

Chinese writing began with the act of divination during the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE. The readers of oracle bones wrote pictographs (similar to hieroglyphs) on the bones which became the writing known as jiaguwen. This was the foundation which would eventually develop into script still used today.

Paper, which was invented in China around the year 105 BCE during the Han Dynasty, helped maintain Chinese writing and literature. Creating books was still labor intensive because each book needed to be handwritten. Later, the invention of woodblock printing, which came out during the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 BCE, helped spread writing in China. This shifted reading away from being accessible only by the elites to everyday people. Woodblock printing was similar to the printing press in Europe and similarly led to increased literacy and writing in China.

Some of the first writings and the first stories in China were ghost stories and myths. Chinese people and authors told each other and wrote about spirits to emphasize the importance of proper burial and other cultural values. One popular myth was about the Queen Mother of the West. This myth became so widespread that a cult developed, people began wearing talismans, and the government had to erect shrines for the supposed spirit.

These myths and folktales led to more formal writing. Let's begin our study of formal Chinese literacy with the poets.

Poets

Chinese poetry extends thousands of years into the past and the authors and works are just as numerous. Early forms of Chinese poetry from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) took root and became the style which lasted over 1,200 years. The form began with simple writings about longing and dissatisfaction and gradually became more complex.

Next, let's focus on the important poets from the Tang Dynasty. The poet Li Po is considered the greatest poet. His work includes over 1,000 poems which survive until today. His friend Du Fu was also an important poet of the time. After them came Bai Juyi who wrote ''Song of Everlasting Sorrow'', which quickly entered public school curriculum.

Philosophers

Poetry gave rise to philosophical thinking and writing in China. The acclaimed Hundred Schools of Thought produced some of the most important classical Chinese philosophy. The authors of this body of work include Confucius, Mo Ti, Mencius, Lao-Tzu, Teng Shih and others. These writers composed The Five Classics and The Four Books, more specifically The Analects of Confucius, The Classics of Rites, The Classics of History, The Works of Mencius, The Spring and Autumn Annals, The I-Ching, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Classics of Poetry, and The Great Book of Learning. Although these are works of philosophy and not literature, they were all highly influential to Chinese society.

Prose Writers

Moving from philosophical teachings, Chinese writers also expressed their ideas magnificently through prose. Han Yu, who lived from 768 - 824 CE, was a Tang master of prose. His importance cannot be overstated. He was thought of as the Chinese Shakespeare and influenced all subsequent writers.

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