China Literature From the Origins to the Qing Dynasty

By | January 17, 2022

According to computerminus, the first document of certain literary value is the Shijing (“Book of Odes”), whose oldest compositions seem to date back to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC. The Book of Odes includes 305 compositions and is divided into 3 parts (Feng, Ya, Song), which are in turn divided into other minor sections.

During the Zhou dynasty (1066-221 BC), prose was formed in historical and annalistic works and by thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Zhuang Zhou, who interest not only the history of philosophy but also that of literature, being excellent prose writers. Poetry rose to more artistic forms with the work of Qu Yuan who left behind a famous poem, the Li sao (“The torments of exile”), as well as other poems, such as the Tian Wen (“Heavenly Questions”), Jiu Ge (“The nine songs”) etc., denominated with the term of Chuci (“Elegies of the state of Chu”).

During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) a type of poetic prose called Ci fu developed: one of the best known poets is Sima Xiangru (d. 118 BC). In the field of historiography, the figure of Sima Qian emerged as the author of Shiji (“Historical Memories”) who served as a model for subsequent historical works such as the history of the Han dynasty (Hanshu). The period from the end of the Han dynasty to the beginning of the Tang dynasty was a transitional period in literature as well. One distinguishes a poet, Tao Qian, known for his love of nature.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907) poetry (shi) reached the highest perfection. Quan Tang shi alone (“Complete Collection of Tang-Era Poems”), published during the Qing Dynasty, includes more than 48,900 poems by over 2,200 authors. The 289 years of the dynasty are divided, as far as poetry is concerned, into 4 periods: the beginning (618-713); of flowering (714-766); medium (766-835); of the decadence (836-907). Some of the most famous Chinese poets belong to the second period, such as Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, Meng Haoran. The third period is dominated by the figure of Bai Juyi ; another great poet is Li He. The fourth period, which is accompanied by a period of political decline, has as its main poets Li Shangyin and Du Mu. In prose (wen) Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan excel. Popular poetry and short stories had a notable development in this period.

With the Song dynasty (960-1279) the poetry of the free meter (ci) already known by the last emperor of the later Tang dynasty, Li Yu, and the great poet and writer Su Shi spread. In the prose we should remember Ouyang Xiu and, in the field of history, thought and criticism, the figures of Sima Guang, Zhu Xi and Wang Anshi.

During the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan (1279-1368) dramatic art developed, both for the introduction of foreign elements and perhaps because the literate class, due to the foreign conquest, found itself excluded from offices. The theater at that time was of a melodramatic type: the texts of the dramas, however, have a fair literary value, alternating the parts in poetry (sung) with the prose parts (recited and written in a simpler style). The masterpiece of the Yuan Theater is Wang Shifu’s Xixiang ji (“The Story of the Western Pavilion”).

Another famous drama dates back to the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Gao Ming’s Pipa ji (“The Story of the Guitar”). During the Ming dynasty, various dramatic schools emerged, among which the most famous is that of Kunshan. The Ming dynasty marked a period of cultural revival in every field: Wang Shouwan is to be remembered as a scholar and philosopher. The genre of the essay spread towards the last years of the dynasty, while in the field of short stories there were masterpieces, such as the famous novels Shuihu Zhuan (“On the water’s edge”, also known in Italy as The brigands) of an adventurous nature, Jin Ping Mei (“The Plum Tree in the Golden Pot”) of an erotic character, and Xiyu ji (“The Journey to the West”) of a fantastic and adventurous character, the work of the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang.

The literature of the Qing era (1644-1912) is characterized by a great development of erudition and fiction. It is the era of the great collections of classical works and of the most famous encyclopedias. In the field of fiction, Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi (“Fantastic Tales of Liao”) are famous. The novel Rulin waishi (“Private History of the World of Literature”) by Wu Jingzi highlights, with the irony and unscrupulousness of a rebellious man of letters, the hypocrisy and ritualism of the world of official literati. But the masterpiece of the novel, and not only from this era, is Honglou meng (“Dream of the red room”), written by Cao Zhan (Cao Xueqin) during the reign of Qianlong (1735-1796), which describes the ruin of a large feudal family. Towards the end of the 19th century. translations of European works also began in the literary field, mostly from English or Japanese.

China Literature From the Origins to the Qing Dynasty