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Chinese Literature

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  • Dating back to the sixth century BC, the earliest Chinese texts were primarily philosophic, such as the Confucian Analects and Daoist Daode Jing. History as a literary genre was not established until the Han period (206 BC–AD 220) with Sima Qian’s Historical Records: thereafter each dynasty wrote a history of the preceding one. As for the novel, a fully fledged Chinese example did not appear until the Ming period (1368–1644) and was developed during the Qing dynasty until it was eventually stifled by Communism. Since the 1980s Chinese authors have been allowed greater freedom of expression, although, in 2000, news of exiled writer Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Prize for Literature was suppressed.


    Post-Qin dynasty, once Confucianism had become the state orthodoxy, five early works were canonized as the Five Classics: the Book of Changes, Book of Documents, Book of Songs, Spring and Autumn Annals and Book of Ritual. These books were established as the basis for Chinese education.

    Tang poets

    With early beginnings in the Book of Songs and Elegies of Chu, Chinese poetry reached its height more than twelve hundred years later in the Tang period (618–907). The two greatest Tang poets are considered to be Du Fu and Li Bai. Others include the Buddhist Wang Wei, also 8th-century, and slightly later Bai Juyi (772–846).

    Journey to the West is a comic fantasy based on the pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. The late Ming novel centers on Monkey, one of the monk’s companions who represents carefree genius, bravery, and loyalty.
    Journey to the West is a comic fantasy based
    on the pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist
    monk Xuanzang. The late Ming novel centers
    on Monkey, one of the monk’s companions who
    represents carefree genius,bravery, and loyalty.

    Epic novels

    In the Ming era, the novel developed from folk tales and myths into classics such as Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin – a tale of the heroic fight against corruption. Later, the Qing novels used a more elevated language and subtle characterization, culminating in the romantic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. These novels contain many characters that reoccur in other cultural contexts from Beijing Opera to popular television serials and films.

    Lu Xun
    Lu Xun

    Dream of the Red Chamber

    Perhaps the greatest Chinese novel, this portrays the decline of an aristocratic Qing household. Infused with a Daoist sense of transcendence, it focuses on the life and loves of the idle Baoyu.

    20th century

    In the early 20th century, fiction writers and playwrights addressed social issues in a new realist style. However Communism demanded revolutionary themes. After the persecution of writers during the Cultural Revolution, experimental forms and styles gradually emerged. However, the contents of Chinese authors may still be banned if they are openly critical of the government or are “spiritual pollutants”; nevertheless pirated versions are often widely available.

    Lu Xun, early 20th-century writer of short stories and novellas, is known as the father of modern Chinese literature. His realist, satirical style is indebted to such writers as Dickens. He is renowned for his humorous depiction of Ah Q, an illiterate but enthusiastic peasant, done down by the forces of convention.


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