Writing in China dates back to the hieroglyphs that were used in the Shang Dynasty of 1700 – 1050 BC. Chinese literature is a vast subject that spans thousands of years. One of the interesting things about Chinese literature is that much of the serious literature was composed using a formal written language that is called Classical Chinese. The best literature of the Yuan Dynasty era and the four novels that are considered the greatest classics are important exceptions. However, even during the Qing Dynasty of two hundred years ago, most writers composed in a literary stream that extended back about 2,400 years. They studied very ancient writings in more or less the original written language. This large breadth of time with so many writers living in the various eras and countries makes Chinese literature complex. Chinese literary works include fiction, philosophical and religious works, poetry, and scientific writings. The dynastic eras frame the history of Chinese literature and are examined one by one.
The grammar of the written Classical Language is different than the spoken languages of the past two thousand years. This written language was used by people of many different ethnic groups and countries during the Zhou, Qin and Han eras spanning 1050 BC to 220 AD. After the Han Dynasty, the written language evolved as the spoken languages changed, but most writers still based their compositions on Classical Chinese. However, this written language wasn’t the vernacular language even two thousand years ago. The empires and groups of kingdoms of all these eras were composed of people speaking many different native languages. If Europe had a literary history like China’s, it would be as if most European writers until the 20th century always tried to write in ancient Classical Greek that became a dead language more than two millennia ago.
Shang Dynasty (about 1700-1050 BC) - Development of Chinese Writing
The first dynasty for which there is historical record and archaeological evidence is the Shang Dynasty. It was a small empire in northern central China. No documents from that country survive, but there are archaeological finds of hieroglyphic writing on bronze wares and oracle bones. The hieroglyphic writing system later evolved into ideographic and partly-phonetic Chinese characters.
Zhou Dynasty (1045-255 BC)
Basic Philosophical and Religious Literature
Characters in Spring and Autumn Period (770-476) and the Warring States Period (475-221)
The Zhou Dynasty was contemporaneous with the Shang Dynasty, and then they conquered the Shang Dynasty. Their dynasty lasted for about 800 years, but for most of the time, their original territory was broken up into dozens of competing kingdoms, and these finally coalesced into several big and warring kingdoms by the end of the Zhou era. The great literary works of philosophy and religion that became the basis for Chinese religious and social belief stem from what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476) and the Warring States Period (475-221). Taoism, Confucian literature, and other prominent religious and philosophical schools all emerged during these two periods.
The Chinese call this simultaneous emergence of religions and philosophies the “One Hundred Schools of Thought.” Perhaps so many philosophers could write simultaneously because they lived in small kingdoms that supported them. In Chinese history, the dominant rulers generally squelch or discourage philosophical expression that contradict their own, so when there were several small powers, different schools of thought could survive in the land at the same time.
The major literary achievements of the Confucian Classics, early Taoist writings, and other important prose works originated in the late Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty era. These literary works deeply shaped Chinese philosophy and religion. Confucius is said to have edited a history of the Spring and Autumn Period called the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋) that shapes Chinese thinking about its history.
There were hundreds of philosophers and writers who wrote conflicting documents, and there was discussion and communication. What we know of the literature of this period was mainly preserved after the Qin Dynasty’s book burning and from a few recent archeological finds of records. Probably most of the philosophical and religious works of that time were destroyed. If there were great fictional books created, they have been lost. So the main contributions of this period to Chinese literature were the prose works of the Confucian Classics and the Taoist writings, and preserved poems and songs.
Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)
Literary Disaster and Legalism
At the end of the Zhou Dynasty era that is called the Warring States Period, of the surviving few big states in the land, the Qin Dynasty became the most powerful. The Qin Dynasty had big armies and conquered the others. Once the Qin emperor had control, he wanted to keep it, and they squelched any opposition to his authority. In the conquered territories, there were teachers of many different doctrines and religions. A big philosophical and religious school then was called Mohism. They were particularly attacked by the Qin Dynasty, and little is known about it. An early form of Buddhism was also established in China at that time, but their temples and literature were destroyed and even less is known about them. The emperor wanted to reduce the One Hundred Schools of Thought to one that he approved. He ordered the destruction of most books all over the empire. He even killed many Confucian philosophers and teachers. He allowed books on scientific subjects like medicine or agriculture to survive. So the “Book Burning and Burial of Scholars” was a literary disaster.
On the other hand, the Qin Dynasty standardized the written Classical Language. It is said that a minister of the Qin emperor named Li Si introduced a writing system that later developed into modern Chinese writing. Standardization was meant to help control the society. The standardized writing system also helped people all over the country to communicate more clearly.
The Qin Emperor favored a philosophical school that was called Legalism (法家). This philosophy of course justified the strong control of the emperor and maintained that everyone should obey him. It is thought that Li Si taught that human nature was naturally selfish and that a strong emperor government with strict laws was needed for social order. Li Si’s writings on politics and law and his propagation of this school much influenced the political thinking in the Han Dynasty and later eras. Legalism texts and the standardization of writing were the Qin Dynasty era’s literary contributions.
Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)
Scientific and Historical Texts
A former peasant leader overthrew the Qin Empire. The Han Dynasty era lasted for 400 years. At the beginning of the era, Confucianism was revived. Confucian texts were rewritten and republished. Confucianism was mixed with the Legalism philosophy of Li Si. The resulting ideology was the official ideology of the Han Dynasty and influenced political thinking afterwards. The era’s major contributions were historical texts and scientific works.
Sima Qian wrote Historical Records that is a major history concerning the overall history of China from before the Shang Dynasty until the Han Dynasty. The book’s prose was considered a model for writers in succeeding dynastic eras. Another important historical text concerned the Han Dynasty itself.
Some scientific texts were also thought to be important for their times, thought it doesn’t seem that the information was widely known or well known afterwards. The Han Dynasty era was one of the two main hotspot eras for scientific and technical advance. But printing wasn’t available for wide publication of the information. During the Eastern Han Dynasty towards the end of the Han era, the influence of the philosophy of the Confucian Classics that hindered scientific progress was waning. So people were more free to pursue invention. Cai Lun (50–121) of the imperial court is said to be the first person in the world to create writing paper, and this was important for written communication at the end of the empire. Finery forges were used in steel making. Two or three mathematical texts showing advanced mathematics for the times were written.
The Han Empire disintegrated into warring kingdoms similar to what happened during the Warring States Period before the Qin Dynasty. For several hundred years, dynasties and kingdoms rose and fell in various places, and the next big and long-lasting dynastic empire is called the Tang Dynasty.
Tang Dynasty (618-907)
Early Woodblock Printing and Poetry
The Tang Dynasty had a big empire that benefited from trade with the west along the Silk Road, battled with the Tibetan Empire, and experienced the growing influence of organized Buddhist religions. This era’s main contribution to Chinese literature was in the poetry of Dufu, Li Bai and many other poets. Dufu and Li Bai are often thought of as China’s greatest poets.
Li Bai (701–762)
Li Bai (701–762) was one of the greatest romantic poets of ancient China. He wrote at least a thousand poems on a variety of subjects from political matters to natural scenery.
Du Fu (712-770 AD)
Du Fu (712-770 AD) also wrote more than a thousand poems. He is thought of as one of the greatest realist poets of China. His poems reflect the hard realities of war, dying people living next to rich rulers, and primitive rural life. He was an official in the Tang capital of Chang An, and he was captured when the capital was attacked. He took refuge in Chengdu that is a city in Sichuan Province. It is thought that he lived in a simple hut where he wrote many of his best realist poems. Perhaps more than 1,400 of his poems survive, and his poetry is still read and appreciated by modern Chinese people.
Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Early Woodblock Printing, Travel Literature, Poetry, Scientific Texts and the Neo-Confucian Classics
The next dynasty is called the Song Dynasty. It was weaker than the Tang Dynasty, but the imperial government officials made remarkable scientific and technical advances. Military technology greatly advanced. They traded little with the west due to the presence of warring Muslim states on the old trade routes. There wasn’t territorial expansion, but the empire was continuously attacked by nomadic tribes and countries around them. Their northern territory was invaded, and they were forced to move their capital to southern China. So the era is divided into two eras called the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279) eras. One of the era’s technological accomplishments was the invention of movable type about the turn of 2nd millennia during the Northern Song period. This helped to spread knowledge since printed material could be published more quickly and cheaply. Travel literature in which authors wrote about their trips and about various destinations became popular perhaps because the texts could be cheaply bought. The Confucian Classics were codified and used as test material for the entrance examination into the elite bureaucracy, advanced scientific texts and atlases were published, and important poems were written.
The Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經)
The Confucian Classics were important in China’s history because from the Song Dynasty onwards, they were the texts people needed to know in order to pass an examination for the bureaucracy of China. These Confucian Classics were the Five Classics that were thought to have been penned by Confucius and the Four Books that were thought to contain Confucius-related material but were compiled during the Southern Song era. The Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) were basically memorized by those who did the best on the exams. In this way, Confucianism, as codified during the Song era, became the dominant political philosophy of the several empires until modern times. Since the bureaucrats all studied the same works on social behavior and philosophy, this promoted unity and the normalization of behavior throughout each empire and during dynastic changes. The scholar-bureaucrats had a common base of understanding, and they passed on these ideas to the people under them. Those who passed the difficult exams were highly respected even if they didn’t receive a ruling post. High education in this system was thought to produce nobility.
The Five Classics and Four Books were written in the written Classical Language. The Five Classics include: The Book of Changes, The Classic of Poetry, The Record of Rites that was a recreation of the original Classic of Rites of Confucius that was lost in the Qin book purge, The Classic of History, and The Spring and Autumn Annals that was mainly a historical record of Confucius' native state of Lu. The Four Books include: The Analects of Confucius that is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples; Mencius that is a collection of political dialogues attributed to Mencius; The Doctrine of the Mean; and The Great Learning that is a book about education, self-cultivation and the Dao. For foreigners who want a taste of this Confucian philosophy, reading the Analects of Confucius is a good introduction since the statements are usually simple and like common sense.
Another period of scientific progress and technical invention was the Song era. Song technicians seemed to have made a lot of advancements in mechanical engineering. They made advanced contraptions out of gears, pulleys and wheels. These were used to make big clocks, a mechanical odometer on animal drawn carts that marked land distance by making noise after traveling a certain distance, and other advanced instruments. The Song technicians also invented many uses gunpowder including rockets, explosives and big guns.
The imperial court officials did remarkable scientific research in many areas of mechanics and science. Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Su Song (1020–1101) both wrote scientific treatises about their research and about different fields. Shen is said to have discovered the concepts of true north and magnetic declination towards the North Pole. He also described the magnetic needle compass. If Chinese sailors knew about this work, they could have sailed long distances more accurately. This knowledge would predate European discovery. He did advanced astronomical research for his time.
Su Song wrote a treatise called the Bencao Tujing with information on medicine, botany and zoology. He also was the author of a large celestial atlas of five different star maps, and he also made land atlases. Su Song was famous for his hydraulic-powered astronomical clock tower. Su's clock tower is said to have had an endless power-transmitting chain drive that he described in a text on clock design and astronomy that was published in 1092. If this is so, it may be the first time such a device was used in the world. When the Southern Song Empire was conquered by the Mongols, these inventions and the astronomical knowledge may have been forgotten.
Another contribution to the literature of China was the poetry of the Song era. A Southern Song poet named Lu is thought to have written almost 10,000 poems. Su Tungpo is regarded as a great poet of the Northern Song era. Here is a stanza he wrote:
The moon rounds the red mansion
Stoops to silk-pad doors
Shines upon the sleepless
Bearing no grudge
Why does the moon tend to be full when people are apart?
SOURCE : chinahighlights.com