Chinese Ancient Literature Part I

By | October 23, 2021

Chinese literature [ç-], China has the longest living history of literature. The only question is when to start this story – one is dealing with the problem of defining literature. Fine literature, early historiography, and ancient philosophy are not neatly separated in China. As a result, a history of Chinese literature also includes works of classical philosophy or historiography be included. This is true even outside of China. In this case, literature does not mean literature in the narrow sense, but means a literature to which almost everything written belongs, whether on bone, bronze, bamboo, stone, silk or paper. Such a literature begins around 1600 BC. BC with the oracle bone inscriptions, i.e. with the first recognized evidence of a written culture in China. Even if not fully researched to this day, these meanwhile give clear information about the attempt of the ruling house with the help of oracles to ask ancestors about important things like war or harvest. The characters applied to the turtle shells heated under fire have slowly developed into today’s Chinese characters over the centuries, accompanied by corresponding reforms.

Contrary to popular belief, the script, which consists of around 50,000 characters, is organized not only ideographically (a character represents a unit of meaning [for example a word]), but also phonologically (writing sounds). Since most of the words in early Chinese are monosyllabic, there is usually one character for a word. So the Chinese script can be read by all dialect groups. The continuity of the script, however, does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the immediate legibility of texts of any age, as the language (to be written) has changed over time.

Even if the great philosophical works of antiquity and the historiography of the transition period from antiquity to the Middle Ages (206 BC – 220 AD) can take on a literary character through their parables or through their narrative tendencies, they will not be dealt with here because they were not conceived as a literary genre. Therefore, in the following we will only speak of poetry, storytelling, essay and theater. As in other cultures, poetry is at the beginning of literary history in China, a country located in Asia according to Then comes the story, the essay, the drama and finally the novel. This sequence is not accidental, but compelling, since it is linked to the social development from the aristocracy to the civil service and from the civil service to the merchant class. The respective genres are often an expression of a specific emerging class.

For the sake of convenience, the history of Chinese literature can broadly be divided into four sections: Ancient (until 206 BC), the Middle Ages (220–907), the Modern Age (960–1911) and in the modern (1912–49) or the present (from 1949). The four hundred years of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) are considered to be a complex transition from ancient times to the Middle Ages. The representatives and genres, the target groups and content of the respective periods usually differ from one another.

Antiquity (around 1600 BC – 206 BC)

If we are allowed to understand ancestor worship and the oracle as a religion, then Chinese culture owes itself to cult that no epic or myth seems to accompany. This is particularly true of writing, early poetry, and late drama. The written word gains maturity for the first time with the “Book of Songs” (Shijing). His 305 chants are considered to be the place of the ancestors in the temple, the court as the place of rule and the family as the place of man and woman. In all three cases it is about the order and continuity of the known world. The genesis of the anonymous songs is generally believed to be between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. And the textus receptus, the traditional text, is used in the so-called Mao version between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. BC. The often erotic songs, which had nothing more than fertility in mind, have been reinterpreted politically since the Han period as a representation of a relationship between ruler and subject and no longer seen as an expression of a mutual search between man and woman. This is the beginning of something that largely equates the literary with the political well into the 20th century. And so the originally religious character disappeared from consideration and even today hardly any attempt is made to restore it.

Chinese Ancient Literature 1