Edward M. GUNN

Historical illustration of Wenchang, the god of literature.

From the earliest times in China verse dominated literary composition, while forms of opera and prose fiction developed into the most ambitious genres beginning in the fourteenth century. Experiments with features of Western literature in the early twentieth century grew steadily into a highly Westernized array of literature that largely displaced pre-twentieth-century forms.

Prior to the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) musical lyrics alone were discussed as a class of composition apart from history and philosophy, and prose narratives, whether factual or fictive, appeared almost entirely embedded in the work of historians and philosophers. The most ancient poetic texts are found in the Shijing (Book or Classic of Poetry or Songs) and the Chuci (Elegies of Chu). The 305 extant lyrics in the Shijing date between 1000 and 700 BCE, when the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) court collected them from different regions of the realm. Written largely in four-word, rhymed lines, the shi (verses) vary in length and range from eulogies for royal ancestral rites to depictions by unknown authors of daily routines and intimate life. The Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) praised them for their contributions to moral philosophy, and later philosophers and poets quoted them widely, giving them a prominent place in the curriculum of Confucian education. The verses thereby greatly influenced techniques of description and imagery throughout the history of Chinese poetry. The most authoritative edition, by Mao Heng and his son, Mao Chang, in the late first or early second century CE, stresses the relationship of the poems to emotion as distinct from other forms of composition.

The Chuci comprises a second early tradition of verse known as the sao form, which is associated with the ancient state of Chu (770–721 BCE) or with the region (roughly modern Hunan Province). In sao the natural imagery alluding to moral qualities that is also often found in the Shijing is more lush and ultimately part of a visionary, shamanic world of spirits, souls, and deities through which the living and the dead journey in search of emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Such a world frames the first poem attributed to a historical figure, the “Li sao” (Encountering Sorrow) by Qu Yuan, who describes a fantastic journey: Qu, having been slandered by fellow Chu courtiers who want the king to reject Qu’s proposal for a strategic alliance, sets out upon his exile in search of a deity to validate his moral stature.

The records of the Han dynasty preserved samples of anonymous folk ballads (yuefu) of varying line length collected by the imperial Music Bureau and also shi verse composed in a new form of five-syllable lines. Eventually members of the cultural elite composed in yuefu and five-syllable-line shi style, among them Cai Yan (Cai Wenji, b. 177 CE), one of the earliest female poets credited by name, who recounted her lengthy captivity in a foreign tribe in a five-syllable-line shi poem. At the same time the sao form inspired members of the cultural elite to create a variant in rhymed prose, or prose poetry, called fu. The fu prose-poem began in homage to Qu Yuan as a way to reflect on the misfortunes of official service, but as a vehicle for elaborate vocabulary it was then appropriated to describe the pleasures and wonders of imperial life. The increasing stylization of language in the fu resulted in a form of parallel prose written in alternating phrases of four and six syllables, known as the “four-six style” (siliu wen or pianti wen), which would last as an important style until the early twentieth century.

Prose Narrative

The expansion of Daoist thought and its interaction with the arrival of Buddhism from central Asia during the Han dynasty stimulated imagination about both the geography of exotic regions and the realms of the supernatural. The court scholar Liu Xin (46 BCE–23 CE) compiled the fantastic geography of the Shanhai jing (Classic of Hills and Seas) as information on arcana (mysterious bits of knowledge) and anomalies necessary to governing the empire. After the collapse of the Han dynasty the number of published collections of short anecdotes of spirits increased, many edited by men of official standing writing unofficially, such as the 464 stories that an official historian, Gan Bao (317–420), published, not among his historical records but under the title Sou shen ji (Search for the Supernatural). Buddhist- and Daoist-inspired biographies, imitating the form but varying from the content of official historical biographies, also appeared, as did biographical anecdotes, also departing from official historical accounts, most famously in the studies of personal qualities attributed to historical figures in Shi shuo xin yu (New Anecdotes of Tales of the World) by a prince, Liu Yiqing (420–479). The single most famous story handed down from the post-Han North and South Dynasties (220–589) still inspires contemporary writing. This is the “Tao hua yuan” (Peach Blossom Spring), which the poet Tao Qian (Tao Yuanming, 365–427) included in his sequel collection to Gan Bao’s supernatural tales; it is a Daoist-inspired story of a fisherman who discovers a utopian community of refugees that has remained unknown for centuries. The growing body of prose narratives set in known historical and geographic contexts, but devoted to characters and situations not confirmed by official records, developed during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) into vividly and intimately depicted stories called chuanqi (communicating the unusual or romances), a category that included famous love stories.

Later Poetic Forms

The interaction of Chinese empires with central Asia resulted in even more innovations than the legacy of Buddhism, and these innovations included new forms of poetry. The first of these was lüshi (regulated verse), inspired by the prosody of Indian Sanskrit poetry, a genre studied by Shen Yue (441–513). This form dictated an arrangement of phonological tones within rhymed lines of five or seven syllables, organized in parallel couplets and normally limited to either eight lines or four lines (jueju). Its most celebrated practitioner, Du Fu (712–770), acquired a reputation that has lasted to the present. Like all writers before the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), Du Fu served as an official, and his devotion in his verse to the welfare of the empire made him the epitome of the poet as scholar-official. No topic represented in his poetry, whether history, landscape, or daily life, was removed from considerations of affairs of state or the needs of its subjects. Du Fu’s ability to bring what was considered a plain, often humorous, voice and a Confucian sense of mission to a form as ornate as regulated verse fulfilled fundamental criteria for evaluating poetry that had been articulated in previous centuries in major studies of the art, such as the Shi pin (Evaluation of Poetry) by Zhong Rong (469?–518) and Wenxin diaolong (Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons) by Liu Xie (b. 465).

Yet, in Du Fu’s own time the most popular poet (although not admired by the Tang court) was a follower of Daoism, Li Bai (Li Bo, 701–762). In Li Bai’s poetry landscape offers a release from historically defined duty a
nd an inspiration to envision a realm of Daoist deities and resources to unlock the alchemical secrets of immortality, invoking an intimacy between his wine-inebriated persona and the cosmos. Ultimately, the pairing of Du Fu with Li Bai as the two greatest poetic geniuses served the tradition of the cultural elite themselves as the keepers both of the Confucian society and the Daoist knowledge of cosmic existence. Nor did this tradition exclude appreciation of Buddhism as a layman, exemplified most famously in the poetry of a contemporary official, Wang Wei (701–761).

By the late ninth century central Asia again contributed to poetry through a new musical form for which the lyrics were known as ci (song lyrics). Composed for entertainment, often by professional women entertainers, each tune required a different form, and each lyric was known by the title of the tune for which it was written. Although women as professional entertainers had composed shi poetry, such as the gifted public relations courtesan of a governor of Sichuan Province, Xue Tao (770–830), the newer ci form was initially regarded as outside the range of writing by which men of the cultural elite were evaluated as scholar-officials. The ability of Li Qingzhao (1083–1149?) to evoke the pleasures of her youthful life with her husband, then the sadness of widowhood and aging, as well as to theorize about poetry, made her the most famous woman poet in Chinese history. But men writing in the ci form to express emotion—the sadness of Li Yü (937–978) over the loss of his kingdom, for example, and the exquisitely sympathetic observations of courtesans by Qin Guan (1049–1100)—were not listed among the greatest male poets, despite their talent. This divide, one of formal and gender and social conventions, was broken by Su Dongpo (Su Shi, 1037–1101) when he began writing and distributing ci poetry on occasions and on topics that called for shi verse. Moreover, his shi poems both acknowledged and broke free of the models established by the Tang poets. His innovations inspired generations of writers since, among them Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, who in the twentieth century used the ci form for some of his most famous poems on revolution and conquest.

By the thirteenth century musical inspiration for verse was shifting again, this time to a form known as qu, similar to ci but written in sets of new tunes for the growing genre of music theater. Thus, although volumes of single verses in qu form were published, the most famous authors were the playwrights of the thirteenth-century music theater.

Oral and Performing Literature

Music theater, or forms of opera, developed into the most ambitious genre of performing literature, the earliest written examples of which are the chantefable (French for “song-story”) of Buddhist proselytizers in the tenth century known in Chinese as bianwen (transformation texts). These popular tales were written down in the vernacular in which they were recited and sung, providing a major early example of spoken language at a time when writing remained dominated by classical and literary styles commonly used among the cultural elite. By the twelfth century performance had also developed into music theater in varying forms. After the consolidation of the Mongol Yuan dynasty the northern zaju (variety act) opera dominated, offering vernacular dialogue interspersed with songs in the qu verse form according to prescribed suites. The centerpiece is Xi xiang ji (Western Chamber) by Wang Shifu, a romantic comedy of illicit love between a poor, young scholar and the daughter of the widow of a powerful official. The most prolific and revered playwright, Guan Hanqing, is best known for his operas of common people struggling against injustice, epitomized by crime and court case melodramas, such as Dou E yuan (Injustice to Dou E), in which an innocent woman allows herself to be executed for a crime in order to spare her mother-in-law, also wrongly accused.

The growing interest in and patronage of opera among ruling families and officials eventually brought greater status to playwrights, especially after a southern form of opera, eventually known as chuanqi (romance), developed a new musical form in an expanded and more elaborate drama. In 1367, as the Yuan dynasty was falling to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a retired official, Gao Ming, completed a southern opera entitled Pipa ji (Lute); it remains one of China’s most enduring opera stories. The plot involves a young man, Cai Bojie, who must leave his wife Wuniang and his parents to take his civil service examination in the capital; after placing first in the exams he is implored to stay and marry the daughter of a high-ranking official. Wuniang, enduring hardship, takes care of Cai’s parents throughout a period of famine (some trickery and deception keeps Cai unaware of their plight). When the parents die Wuniang goes to the capital to be reunited with her husband, taking her lute to earn some money along the way. The Ming court viewed the dilemma of the male protagonist—whether to obey his emperor or serve his parents—with enthusiasm, thus promoting the high status of opera among the cultural elite.

As a literary form opera reached its peak after musical revisions known as kunqu (Kun songs) in mid-sixteenth century; kunqu were often so lengthy that a complete performance could often take more than a single day. Tang Xianzu (b. 1550) is the acknowledged master of this era of opera. His Mudan ting (Peony Pavilion), about the power of passionate love first to take the life of a young girl through love sickness and then to restore her through the lover of her dreams, runs to fifty-five scenes. The vitality of kunqu as a literary form lasted through the seventeenth century, when Hong Sheng completed Chang sheng dian (Palace of Eternal Youth, 1688) about the ruinous but irresistible love of the Tang dynasty emperor Ming Huang for his consort, Yang Guifei. Also Kong Shangren, a descendent of Confucius, authored Taohua shan (Peach Blossom Fan, 1699) about the fall of the Ming dynasty. During the eighteenth century patronage of the theater increasingly turned to short performances of scenes abstracted and revised from the operas of previous centuries. Toward the end of the century Qing dynasty (1644–1912) royalty showed a preference for a newer form of music theater that came to be known as Jingju (Peking [Beijing] Opera). Featuring more ambitious movement in the acrobatics of stage combatants, Jingju turned decidedly toward performance art and away from literary ambition.


The attention that oral and performing literature paid both to the drama of ordinary folk and to exciting historical figures provided a great impetus to the development of vernacular and semivernacular fiction from at least the fourteenth century, when the first novels are known to have appeared. While the short story (huaben) greatly expanded vivid accounts of ordinary people, culminating in the three collections (Sanyan) written by an official, Feng Menglong (1574–1646), the novel at first provided elaborate syntheses of sources on historically based legends already popular in theaters. The earliest of the widely read novels, Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), attributed to Luo Guanzhong but later commonly read in an edition edited by Mao Zonggang in 1622–1623, gathers a wide range of sources on the heroes of warfare after the collapse of the Han dynasty. The historical genre exemplified by Three Kingdoms was followed by the inspiration of legend, as in the masterfully written but brutal novel of bandit life, Shuihu zhuan (Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh; earliest known edition 1540), and then by
historical fantasy in Xiyou ji (Journey to the West; earliest extant edition 1592) by Wu Cheng’en, in which a monkey endowed with magical powers is made to accompany a monk, known in actual history, and his companions on a journey to central Asia in search of Buddhist texts.

In the early seventeenth century various editions of the novel Jin ping mei (Plum in the Golden Vase) were published, depicting the life of a wealthy, corrupt pharmacist and his wives and concubines. Although it is most famous for its pornographic passages (excised from all twentieth-century editions), it would inspire later novels of domestic life. Thus, the relationship of one young boy with his sisters, female cousins, and maid servants in the extended household of an aristocratic family provides the main narrative in the most famous novel, known alternately as Shitou ji (Story of the Stone) and Hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber or Dream of Red Mansions), attributed to Cao Xueqin but believed to have been revised after his death for its published editions in 1791 and 1792.

Twentieth-Century Literature

The variety of novels increased throughout the nineteenth century, and novels increased in numbers after 1900 as Confucian culture waned and the cultural elite began to shift toward responding to Western cultures. In 1917 scholars educated overseas rebelled entirely against the cultural leadership of older generations, first in an essay by Hu Shi (1891–1962) that advocated eliminating the use of classical Chinese and then in a vernacular short story by Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren, 1881–1936), “Kuangren riji” (Madman’s Diary, 1918), which condemned Confucian moral vision after the manner of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity in Europe. Although the tradition of Chinese poetry maintained some status, Chinese writers turned largely to writing fiction for newspapers and magazines following Western models. A series of partially autobiographical novels by young writers struggling with modernity in the 1920s culminated in Jia (Family, 1931–1932) by the anarchist Ba Jin (1904–2005). The first playwright to write full-length spoken dramas that were successful with audiences, Cao Yu (Wan Jiabao, 1910–1996), also focused on family conflicts. During the 1930s novels dealt increasingly with political issues. Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing, 1896–1981) promoted the growing Marxist vision of the collapse of capitalism during the Great Depression in Ziye (Midnight, 1933); the plight of the poor was explored in Luotuo Xiangzi (Camel Lucky Boy or Rickshaw, 1937) by Lao She (Shu Qingchun, 1898–1966). The period of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, known outside China primarily as the Second Sino-Japanese War) produced important propaganda, most famously the Communist innovative opera depicting a peasant girl exploited by a landlord, Bai mao nü (White-Haired Girl, 1945), but also some of the most admired fiction of life among the educated elite of the occupied city of Shanghai, including the short stories of Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang, 1920–1995) in Chuanqi (Romances) and the novel Wei cheng (Fortress Besieged, 1945) by Qian Zhongshu (1910–1998), whose wife, Yang Jiang (b. 1911), wrote popular spoken dramas.

After 1949 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, writers under both the Kuomintang (Guomindang, Chinese Nationalist Party) on Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland pursued themes of their civil war. During the 1960s university students in Taiwan began to turn to modernist fiction, best known through the short stories of Bai Xianyong (b. 1937), Taibeiren (People of Taipei, 1971), and the novels of Wang Wenxing (b. 1939), Jia bian (Family Catastrophe, 1973) and Beihai de ren (Backed against the Sea, 1981). A politically dissident literature followed in the 1970s, then a large, diverse movement in the 1980s and 1990s to restore dominance in literature to the subethnic populations historically inhabiting the island, then feminist literature before the turn of the century.

Movements such as those on Taiwan remained distinctly minor trends or were completely suppressed on the mainland. Until the late 1970s, after the end of Maoist leadership, literature largely followed concepts developed in the Soviet Union in support of agricultural collectivization, representing the history of the revolution and providing models of good workers, peasants, and soldiers. Ding Ling (Jiang Bingzhi, 1904–1986), a widowed veteran of the revolutionary movements, produced the most noted novels of this period, Taiyang zhao zai Sangganhe shang (Sun Shines on the Sanggan River, 1948), about the challenges of land reform. The shift in cultural policy from such prescriptions to a proscriptive censorship in the late 1970s led to a wide range of creativity, from the modernist verse by poets such as Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai, b. 1949) to fiction featuring satire by Wang Shuo (b. 1958), social criticism and alternative history by Mo Yan (b. 1956), a major new emphasis on female subjectivity by Wang Anyi (b. 1954) and other women writers, and views inspired by ethnic minority cultures, such as the novels of Tibetan culture by Alai (b. 1959). Visionary literature of a collective unconscious appeared in Ling shan (Soul Mountain, 1990) by a modernist writer living in France, Gao Xingjian (b. 1940), who in 2000 was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature given to a Chinese writer.

Further Reading

Chang, Sung-sheng Yvonne. (2004). Literary culture in Taiwan: Martial law to market law. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hong, Zicheng. (2007). A history of contemporary Chinese literature (M. M. Day, Trans.). Boston: Brill.

Hsia, Chih-tsing. (1971). A history of modern Chinese fiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hsia, Chih-tsing. (1996). The classic Chinese novel: A critical introduction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program. (Original work published 1968)

Lau, Joseph S. M., Hsia, Chih-tsing, & Lee, Leo Ou-fan. (1981). Modern Chinese stories and novellas, 1919–1949. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lau, Joseph. S. M., & Ma, Yau-Woon. (Eds.). (1978). Traditional Chinese stories: Themes and variations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. (Ed.). (1985). Lu Xun and his legacy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Liu, W., & Yucheng Lo, I. (1975). Sunflower splendor: Three thousand years of Chinese poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mackerras, C. (1975). The Chinese theatre in modern times: From 1840 to the present day. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mackerras, C. (Ed.). (1983). Chinese theater: From its origins to the present day. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mair, V. H. (Ed.). (2001). The Columbia history of Chinese literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

McDougall, B. S. (1997). The literature of China in the twentieth century. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nienhauser, W. (Ed.). (1986–1998). The Indiana companion to traditional Chinese literature (2 vols.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Owen, S. (Ed. & Trans.). (1996). An anthology of Chinese literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sieber, P. (2003). Theaters of desire: Authors, readers, and the reproduction of early Chinese song-drama, 1300–2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wang, David Der-wei. (1997). Fin-de-siecle splendor: Repressed modernities of late Qing fiction, 1849–1911. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Watson, B. (1962). Early Chinese literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yeh, M. (1991). Modern Chinese poetry: Theory and practice since 1917. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Yu, Pauline. (1987). The reading of imagery in the Chinese poetic tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Trees have already been made into a boat.


Mù yǐ chéng zhōu

Source: Gunn, Edward M. (2009). Literature. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1332–1337. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Literature (Wénxué 文学)|Wénxué 文学 (Literature)

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