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Ancient Chinese Literature

Ancient Chinese Literature

If you truly want to have a good understanding of a country’s culture, history, and the people that have lived there, then you need to go through its literature.

China is the only country in the world that has had its literature written in only one language for over 3,000 years.

one-language-chinese-literature

As you would expect from a country that is that old, there have been many different works that are considered classics in the literary world.

These books come from all sorts of different genres but are mostly works of fiction, philosophy, religion, and historical texts.

These texts are, much like the country they originated from, considered classics because of the new ideas and sense of ingenuity that they represent and present.

Origins of Chinese Literature

Ancient Chinese literature has its start over three thousand years ago.

In or around 1500 and 1000 BC, the original Chinese writing system – oracle bone script – first appeared.

Historians think that this system of communication was originally devised to help keep better records of harvests in early China.

This system of writing grew from a few symbols to over 40,000 different characters that are still in use today.

This makes it one of the oldest known written languages in the world.

Chinese Written Language

With the invention of a written language, the ancient Chinese were able to better communicate with each other and keep better records.

The first book from this period is called the Shi Ching or Book of Songs. It is a compilation of festival and folk songs.

book-of-songs

Most of the songs are probably from around 1000 BC and were mostly used for imperial court purposes.

Though written language was around for a good long time, it didn’t really take off until the invention of moveable type and the woodblock.

These innovations allowed written language to spread much farther and faster till it was found in every corner of China.

Examples of Ancient Chinese Literature

The history of ancient Chinese literature spans thousands of years.

As such, it includes thousands of different works of poetry, drama, religion, philosophy, and historical texts.

In this section, we will cover some of the most important texts from all of Chinese literature.

Four Books and Five Classics

These books are some of the most influential written works in all of Chinese literature. They helped to outline philosophies that were utilized throughout the history of China such as Confucianism.

If you wanted to become a government official, knowledge of these works was a key component to passing the civil service exams.

confucian-literature

Four Books

  • Great Learning (Confucius and Zeng Zi) – This book outlines the main themes of Confucianism.
  • Doctrine of Mean (Zisi) – This book describes the “Way” that people must live focusing on learning and teaching as a way of life.
  • Analects – A number of Confucius’ speeches and discussions written down by his disciples.
  • Mencius – A collection of discussions and stories from the Confucian philosopher Mencius.

Five Classics

  • Classic of Poetry – A collection of 305 poems written between the 11th and the 7th centuries BC.
  • Book of Documents – A collection of very ancient documents said to be from early dynasties including the Xia, Shang, and Zhou.
  • Book of Rites – This book contains some texts that describe things like ceremonial rituals and ways people should behave.
  • I Ching – The I Ching is also called the Book of Changes. It was a book of divination that people used to try and tell the future.
  • Spring and Autumn Annals – This is a historical book covering the history of the State of Lu. It is the state where Confucius was born.

state-of-lu-confucius

Four Great Classical Novels

These four different novels are considered to be some of the most influential works from all of ancient China. They were written many years ago, during either the Ming or Qing Dynasties.

Even though the stories are exceedingly old, they remain popular in China to this day. They have been adapted for operas, plays, movies, and changed up a bit to fit better into modern books.

  • Water Margin (Shi Nai’an) – This book is sometimes called the Outlaws of the Marsh. It tells the story of 108 different outlaws during the Song Dynasty who decide to turn from their lives of crime and band together towards a common sense of good deeds.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Luo Guanzhong) – This book is a work of realistic fiction. It utilizes real-life characters for a romantic retelling of the Three Kingdoms. Not only that, but it also includes many historical events to create a sense of realism that the story would otherwise be missing.
  • Journey to the West (Wu Cheng’en) – As you can guess from the title, this is the story where someone journeys to the west. In this case, it is a tale of a Buddhist monk who travels from his native China to India in search of sacred and ancient texts.
  • Dream of the Red Chamber (Cao Xueqin) – If you are searching for a complex book with lots of characters, then this would be a good place to start! It tells the story of the rise and fall of a Chinese family that lived during the Qing Dynasty.

qing-dynasty-map

History and Education

Even in ancient times, the Chinese had a good idea of their place in the world.

With the benefit of their already established written language, the people from this period were able to keep excellent records of everything that happened within their country.

  • Records of the Grand Historian (Sima Qian) – This history book was written during the Han Dynasty around 109 BC. It provides in-depth accounts of China’s history up to that point and is considered one of the best historical texts ever written.
  • Bamboo Annals – This book provides a detailed account of China before 296 BC.
  • Kangxi Dictionary – This dictionary is a compilation of 47,000 Chinese characters that were compiled under the orders of Emperor Kangxi. It was first published in 1716.

Poetry

While there were many master poets throughout Chinese history, this art form was not exclusive to the affluent. Every educated member of society was expected to write poetry.

As such, there are literally millions of different works of poetry from ancient China.

While this practice was important for much of China’s history, it was made even more so during the Tang Dynasty.

During this period, poetry became not only a good past time but also an important skill for finding a job.

An applicant’s mastery of poetry would be examined thoroughly before they could become a civil servant and work for the government.

  • Classic of Poetry (Shijing) – This collection of poetry is known as the Book of Songs. It is also part of the Five Classics of Confucianism.
  • Songs of the South (Chu ci) – This famous collection of early Chinese poetry was written by two southern poets from the state of Chu
  • Nineteen Old Poems – This is a collection of, you guessed it, nineteen poems from the Han Dynasty. These poems proved to be highly influential to poets from later dynasties.

Read more ancient China facts.