Chinese Ancient Literature Part II

By | October 24, 2021

The same applies to the next epoch-making work, the “Songs of the South” (Chuci). These are traditionally set for the period before the end of antiquity and are partly ascribed to the first Chinese poet Qu Yuan (* around 340, † 278) who can be identified by name. In one case or another, however, they are likely to have arisen much later. The most important songs such as “The Wise Of Sorrow” (Lisao) or “The Nine Chants” (Jiu ge) are based on a shamanistic ritual back through which the priest tries to summon a goddess. This may appear, but ultimately it prefers its absence. Behind such a poetic view is the view that the separation of heaven and earth can no longer be stopped. This is exemplified in the “manner of suffering”, which makes the search for the beautiful (meiren) and the subsequent ascension end as a futile undertaking. Your possible writer, Qu Yuan, has become so much a model for the Chinese intelligentsia over the centuries because the object of the search for the search for the ruler was reinterpreted and “The Wise” was read politically. In this way, the poet or the man of letters was stylized into the great abandoned, a basic pattern that has continued through Chinese intellectual history to the present day. Of course, this view is a misinterpretation, which in the 20th century gave rise to a questionable patriotic exaggeration, even against all historical truth: Qu Yuan as the representative of the kind of patriotism that has only been possible since the French Revolution of 1789.

Transitional period from antiquity to the Middle Ages

The unity of politics and literature at the end of antiquity and in the transition to the Middle Ages at court through the “Poetic Descriptions” (Hanfu) is particularly evident and final. While the Chinese side regards this genre as prose, the concept of poetry in China, a country located in Asia according to, has prevailed in Western Sinology. Both ways of seeing are possible. Modern one would speak of a prose poem. The content is the courtly, that is, the singing of the imperial splendor, as it is shown in the palace, in the gardens or in the capital. At the same time, the poetic description can also serve as a hidden criticism of the emperor. But even there the affirmation can be felt more clearly than the disappointment over a lack of art of successful rule.

Until the end of antiquity, literature was tied to the religious cult, insofar as it was literature for all people. It had to do with, or was interpreted as, the right kind of government. The emperor and poet Cao Pi (* 187, † 226) summed up this idea by saying that all literature serves to guide a state. In fact, however, he was more likely to have meant literature in the sense of literature. Nevertheless, under his brother Cao Zhi (* 192, † 232) a literary circle developed at court, which no longer primarily pursued religious or political purposes, but rather literary ones. Cao Zhi is the best-known representative and the most important writer of the transition period. Even if his lyrical and prosaic work shows traces of the religious and the political, he is first and foremost a singer of the earthly. What he has to say about the volatility of all existence no longer applies to all people, but to a group, the group of the literarily trained and the literary aristocracy. This will break new ground for the coming Middle Ages. Literature creates the transition from the representative collective to the only partially or no longer representative group. The singer doesn’t sing for himself alone, but neither for everyone anymore.

The feudal nobility was the bearer of ancient literature. This went under with the political reforms during the Qin dynasty. The official was supposed to replace the nobility. However, this model only began to prevail at the end of the Tang Dynasty and at the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) led to a purely official state. In short, the literature of the Middle Ages is predominantly aristocratic, which was only gradually penetrated by the lower classes of literati around 700.

The ancient world was spiritually shaped by what was later called Confucianism and Taoism. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, had Buddhist traits. Confucianism did not return until the 9th century through the genre of the essay. Until then, high lyric poetry and the rather simple archaic song (yuefu) prevailed. In addition, there were the first forms of storytelling, namely “the recording of supernatural things” (zhiguai), but this did not develop until the 8th century with the so-called novellas of the Tang period (chuanqi).

Chinese Ancient Literature 2