Traditional Literature

Traditional Literature

China has a wealth of classical literature, both poetry and prose, dating from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.) and including the Classics attributed to Confucius. Among the most important classics in Chinese literature is the Yijing (Book of Changes), a manual of divination based on eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The Yijing is still used by adherents of folk religion. The Shijing (Classic of Poetry) is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. The Shujing (Classic of Documents) is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains the best examples of early Chinese prose. The Liji (Record of Rites), a restoration of the original Lijing (Classic of Rites), lost in the third century B.C., describes ancient rites and court ceremonies. The Chun Qiu (Spring and Autumn) is a historical record of the principality of Lu, Confucius' native state, from 722 to 479 B.C. It is a log of concise entries probably compiled by Confucius himself. The Lunyu (Analects) is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples.

Early Prose

The proponents of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the Warring States and Spring and Autumn periods made important contributions to Chinese prose style. The writings of Mo Zi (Mo Di, 470-391 B.C.?), Mencius (Meng Zi; 372-289 B.C.), and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.) contain well-reasoned, carefully developed discourses and show a marked improvement in organization and style over what went before. Mo Zi is known for extensively and effectively using methodological reasoning in his polemic prose. Mencius contributed elegant diction and, along with Zhuang Zi, is known for his extensive use of comparisons, anecdotes, and allegories. By the third century B.C., these writers had developed a simple, concise prose noted for its economy of words, which served as a model of literary form for over 2,000 years.

Early Poetry

Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism.

Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society.

Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi (772-846), whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time.

Subsequent writers of classical poetry lived under the shadow of their great Tang predecessors, and although there were many fine poets in subsequent dynasties, none reached the level of this period. As the classical style of poetry became more stultified, a more flexible poetic medium, the ci, arrived on the scene. The ci, a poetic form based on the tunes of popular songs, some of Central Asian origin, was developed to its fullest by the poets of the Song dynasty (960-1279).

As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Later Prose

The Tang period also saw a rejection of the ornate, artificial style of prose developed in the previous period and the emergence of a simple, direct, and forceful prose based on Han and pre-Han writing. The primary proponent of this neoclassical style of prose, which heavily influenced prose writing for the next 800 years, was Han Yu (768-824), a master essayist and strong advocate of a return to Confucian orthodoxy.

Vernacular fiction became popular after the fourteenth century, although it was never esteemed in court circles. Covering a broader range of subject matter and longer and less highly structured than literary fiction, vernacular fiction includes a number of masterpieces. The greatest is the eighteenth-century domestic novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). A semiautobiographical work by a scion of a declining gentry family, Hong Lou Meng has been acknowledged by students of Chinese fiction to be the masterwork of its type.

Modern Prose

In the New Culture Movement (1917-23), literary writing style was largely replaced by the vernacular in all areas of literature. This was brought about mainly by Lu Xun (1881-1936), China's first major stylist in vernacular prose (other than the novel), and the literary reformers Hu Shi (1891-1962) and Chen Duxiu (1880-1942).

The late 1920s and 1930s were years of creativity in Chinese fiction, and literary journals and societies espousing various artistic theories proliferated. Among the major writers of the period were Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a poet, historian, essayist, and critic; Mao Dun (1896-1981), the first of the novelists to emerge from the League of Left-Wing Writers and one whose work reflected the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920s; and Ba Jin (b. 1904), a novelist whose work was influenced by Ivan Turgenev and other Russian writers. In the 1930s Ba Jin produced a trilogy that depicted the struggle of modern youth against the ageold dominance of the Confucian family system. Comparison often is made between Jia (Family), one of the novels in the trilogy, and Hong Lou Meng. Another writer of the period was the gifted satirist and novelist Lao She (1899-1966). Many of these writers became important as administrators of artistic and literary policy after 1949. Most of those still alive during the Cultural Revolution were either purged or forced to submit to public humiliation.

The League of Left-Wing Writers was founded in 1930 and included Lu Xun in its leadership. By 1932 it had adopted the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, that is, the insistence that art must concentrate on contemporary events in a realistic way, exposing the ills of nonsocialist society and promoting the glorious future under communism. After 1949 socialist realism, based on Mao's famous 1942 "Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art," became the uniform style of Chinese authors whose works were published. Conflict, however, soon developed between the government and the writers. The ability to satirize and expose the evils in contemporary society that had made writers useful to the Chinese Communist Party before its accession to power was no longer welcomed. Even more unwelcome to the party was the persistence among writers of what was deplored as "petty bourgeois idealism," "humanitarianism," and an insistence on freedom to choose subject matter.

At the time of the Great Leap Forward, the government increased its insistence on the use of socialist realism and combined with it so-called revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism. Authors were permitted to write about contemporary China, as well as other times during China's modern period--as long as it was accomplished with the desired socialist revolutionary realism. Nonetheless, the political restrictions discouraged many writers. Although authors were encouraged to write, production of literature fell off to the point that in 1962 only forty-two novels were published.

During the Cultural Revolution, the repression and intimidation led by Mao's fourth wife, Jiang Qing, succeeded in drying up all cultural activity except a few "model" operas and heroic stories. Although it has since been learned that some writers continued to produce in secret, during that period no significant literary work was published.

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