No other country can claim a history of literature in the same language stretching back as far as China can. Over a period of more than 3,000 years the written Chinese language has morphed, shifted and developed as society has changed, yet ultimately remains the same language. As the country which gave the world papermaking and printing, it is no surprise that there is such depth to China’s literary history. Due to scale of the subject we’ve selected just a few of the more famous titles from the annals of Chinese literature to help provide an illustration of developments as a whole.
Classical Chinese Texts
The early literature was of a more practical focus. Yes there was poetry, but there was also a great focus on philosophy, history, military strategy, and agriculture. The origins of this literature tradition can be traced to the Hundred Schools of Thought period. This is a grouping of the different philosophies and schools of thought which peppered China during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (769-269 BCE). Confucianism and Taoism are perhaps the two most famous. A selection of key works from this period include:
- The Analects (Lùn Yǔ; 论语). Confucius was hugely influential on Chinese thought. His work focused on morality (both personal and governmental), social relationships, justice and sincerity. Analects is a collection of his sayings and aphorisms compiled after his death in 479BC.
- The I Ching (or Book of Changes) (Yì Jīng; 易经). A divination text which assumed cosmological importance. It’s considered one of the first efforts of humanity to attempt to locate itself within the universe.
- The Tao Te Ching (Dào Dé Jīng; 道德经). The Dao, or ‘the way’. The classic Taoist text by Laozi. Still inspiring people today, it is a goldmine of philosophical reflections and aphorisms, including such nuggets as ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (qiān lǐ zhī xíng, shǐ yú zú xià; 千里之行，始于足下).’
Chinese calligraphy of a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (千里之行，始于足下)”
- The Art of War (Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ; 孙子兵法). Attributed to the general Sun Tzu, it is considered the definitive work on military strategy and tactics of its time. Sun believed war was to be avoided but if there was no choice it should be fought swiftly to minimize economic loss. There was an emphasis on positioning, deception, and responding quickly to changes in circumstance which was highly insightful at the time.
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐ Jì; 史记). Sima Qian’s monumental history of ancient China stretching back to 2,500 years BC. Finished in 109 BC, it was fundamental in furnishing China with its sense of pride, national identity and historical importance that it still has to this day.
The tradition of Chinese poetry begins with the Classic of Poetry (Shī Jīng; 诗经). Supposedly edited by Confucius, the bulk of the anthology's compilation dates to about 7th century BC, with the poems collected over the previous four or five centuries. There are over 300 poems in a variety of styles many with a suggestion of ceremonial folk music.
Perhaps the greatest development in Chinese poetry came during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). The period boasts perhaps China’s most famous poet, Li Bai (李白, 701 –762). Sometimes known as Li Po, his life has retrospectively taken on some of the fantastic imagery of his work, culminating in the fable that he drowned when reaching from his boat to grasp the moon’s reflection in the river. Classical poets were often associated with drinking wine and Li Bai embraced the tradition, writing countless odes on the subject (and drinking lots of wine as he did so). One of his reflections on homesickness, A Quiet Night Thought (Jìng Yè Sī; 静夜思) is learned by primary school children in China today:
Moonlight before my bed (床前明月光)
Perhaps frost on the ground. (疑是地上霜)
Lift my head and see the moon (举头望明月)
Lower my head and pine for home. (低头思故乡)
In a similar vein to the Tang dynasty, the Song dynasty (960-1279) was another period of reunification for the country which led to cultural advancement. This time it ushered in a freer and more expressive style of verse. Scholars today still argue over which period produced the superior poetry.
Classic Chinese Fiction
Most classical novels evolved from the folklore of the peasantry, taking mythologies and putting them into the overly-fancy language of Classical Chinese, until a semi-vernacular language was employed during the Ming Dynasty. If you’re looking for a doorway to enter the world of Chinese fiction then one of the Four Great Classical Novels (Sìdà Míngzhù; 四大名著) might be a good place to start. Dating from between 14th-18th centuries, they are widely considered to be the greatest and most influential novels of pre-modern Chinese fiction.
Dream of the Red Chamber (Hóng Lóu Mèng; 红楼梦) by Cáo Xuěqín (曹雪芹)
Styled as a memorial to the women the author knew in his youth, the Dream of the Red Chamber is acclaimed for its detailed observations of life in the 18th century aristocracy. It follows the lives of two wealthy clans who live in adjacent compounds in Beijing.
Water Margin (or Outlaws of the Marsh) (Shuǐ Hǔ Zhuàn; 水浒传) by Shī Nài'ān (施耐庵)
Based on the exploits of the outlaw Song Jiang during the Song dynasty, the story follows a group of outlaws who form a small but effective army. After being granted amnesty by the government they are enlisted in campaigns to suppress rebellion and resist foreign invasion.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì; 三国演义), by Luó Guànzhōng (罗贯中)
A historical novel which combines history, legend and myth, it is a dramatization of the lives of the feudal lords and their retainers during the transition from the Han dynasty to the Three Kingdoms period, culminating in the Jin dynasty. The book covers the turbulent hundred or so year period from 169 to 280. It’s a hefty tome comprising of over 800,000 words and a cast of nearly a 1000 characters.
Journey to the West (or Monkey) (Xī Yóu Jì; 西游记), by Wú Chéng'ēn (吴承恩)
With its roots in Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, folk religion and mythology, Journey to the West is a comic adventure and extended allegory featuring a Buddhist monk and his companions on a spiritual voyage to India. Introducing the famous Monkey King character (Sun Wukong), their journey towards enlightenment is only achievable with the help and support of each other. This wildly popular story has been made into countless movie versions in China, as well as a hit children’s television show. It’s also depicted in endless murals and artwork around the Middle Kingdom.
The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jīn Píng Méi; 金瓶梅) by Lánlíng Xiàoxiàoshēng (兰陵笑笑生)
Although not one of the Four Great Classical Novels, this is a highly-regarded classic which has been banned for the majority of its existence due to the frank and graphic nature of its sex scenes. One critic claimed that the “with the possible exception of The Tale of Genji or Don Quixote there is no earlier work of prose fiction of equal sophistication in world literature.”
Modern Chinese Literature
The 20th century was a turbulent one for China and in a sense the works produced during the period mirrored this. A sense of national crisis at the end of the Qing Dynasty led to China looking outwards. Western writings were translated and available for the first time, opening up a new world of ideas and culture.
Lǔ Xùn (鲁迅, 1881–1936) was perhaps China’s first truly modern writer, and the publication of his short story A Madman’s Diary (Kuángrén Rìjì; 狂人日记) in 1918 heralded a new literary movement. Presented as a series of diary entries by a supposed madman, it was read as a withering attack on traditional Chinese culture and became a cornerstone of the New Culture Movement.
During the Mao years many writers and intellectuals were imprisoned or sent to labor camps. The only writing style which received government approval was socialist realism. Following Mao’s death in 1976, “scar literature” emerged as an unprecedented outpouring of rage and frustration at the waste of time and talent of the Cultural Revolution years.
Contemporary Chinese Literature
Unless you can read Mandarin, your options for reading contemporary Chinese authors are very limited. It’s too bad as well, since many of them have put together some brilliant social and political commentaries on modern China. English translations are becoming more common though, so keep your eyes peeled.
One sure-fire option is the short story writer Zhu Wen, whose 2007 collection I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China has been published into English and is a fantastically humorous criticism of the get-rich movement in China and its many absurdities. If you like Zhu’s short stories you can consider picking up a copy of Short Stories in Chinese: New Penguin Parallel Text.
Mò Yán (莫言) won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his fascinating and at times heart-wrenching novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, about a kind and wealthy land-owner who is reincarnated as various farm animals upon his death and experiences the development of China since the ‘50s through their eyes.
A precious photo demonstrating the youth friendship between Mo Yan (left) and Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) who is the director of Mo Yan’s namesake movie Red Sorghum (红高粱), and also director of 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony
Front Cover of Red Sorghum Book
Front Cover of Red Sorghum Movie Disc
With the largest online population in the world, bloggers make a staggering mark in China’s contemporary writing market as well, often under highly-censored and downright dangerous circumstances. One particular standout is Hán Hán (韩寒), who burst onto the literary scene with his novel Triple Door (Sān Chóng Mén; 三重门), which gave a scathing critique of China’s educational system.