Chinese Literature Middle Ages (220–907) Part I

By | October 21, 2021

The Middle Ages were a time of intellectual, political and economic upheaval. After the unified Han empire had perished in 220, different formations of rulership had developed in the north and south. The aristocracy of the north migrated to the south for fear of foreign peoples who had come to the government and discovered nature here. This discovery has more than just an aesthetic background. It may have mainly political reasons. The changing balance of power demanded a high blood sacrifice. Nine out of ten writers died an unnatural death. The mild nature of the south therefore became a retreat for all those who wanted to save their lives and calm their minds. Buddhism played a role in this a big role who used to build his temples far from the metropolis or the people.

Even if Buddhism is viewed by the Chinese side as a foreign religion to this day, it has taken on a Chinese garb through Taoism. With the translation of the Buddhist classics into the language and thoughts of Taoism, one became aware of the tonality of the Chinese language. This had an impact on the development of the poetry. Poetry in China, a country located in Asia according to, was rhyming from the start, but the regular tone sequence did not yet play a role. The structure of a poem was also by no means fixed. All of this only happened with poets like Du Fu (* 712, † 770), who knew how to master both form and content. Even if occasional poems were common, if poetry was a convention to make friends or to find a patron, we have received great poetic works from almost all times, which in every culture even after hundreds of years Readers have. This has to do with the fact that the Chinese poets have always succeeded in formulating universally applicable things. For example Li Taibai (* 701, † 762), who with his often exalted chants also influenced literature and music in German-speaking countries. His theme is time, human finiteness and the numbing of pain through alcohol.

Even if the poetry of the early Middle Ages (220–589) can neither qualitatively nor quantitatively compete with that of the late Middle Ages (589–907), it nevertheless contributed decisively to the establishment of Tang poetry as classical Chinese poetry. It was not just the discovery of tones or the regulated form of the quartet that made the poetry of the time so worth reading today. The greatest contribution lay in the perception of nature and the landscape. Two different images emerged. Tao Yuanming (* 365, † 427) designed nature as a garden, as a rural idyll where people found their spiritual peace, and Xie Lingyun (* 385, † 433) climbed the mountains, where he saw Buddha in the rock formationsmeant to meet. Its nature is the untamed landscape of water and rock, which is able to offer protection and consolation. The most important reflection on the essence of literature up to that point also falls into this period. The »Wenxin diaolong« (German »The literary spirit and the carving of dragons«) by Liu Xie, who died in 522, sees the cosmological reference and the meaning image (yixiang) as the basis of all poetry. In Chinese literature and aesthetics, it is therefore not about the beautiful, but about the harmony with the world evoked by a contrastive imagery.

The Tang period is not only rich in great poetry, which knows how to renew forms and content, it also shines through the completion of the novella and the creation of the literary essay. At that time, novella and essay were antipodes, today both are recognized as high art. The novella, with its tradition of extraordinary events (chuanqi), that is, of strange encounters, mostly between men and women, has long been considered unworthy of a writer, although written by him. The strange (qi) was always the strange at that time. Like other religions, it came with the foreign peoples, with Buddhism. The Tang Empire was, as it were, a Buddhist state that welcomed strangers, especially merchants, from all over the world. This is where the literary essay (sanwen) is born. It was Han Yu (* 768, † 824) who propagated a return to the purely Chinese and thus the renaissance of Confucianism when Neo-Confucianism helped to prepare, because return meant the revival of (Confucian) antiquity and language. He did this in the form of the essay, which with the Song dynasty was able to stand alongside lyric poetry as an equal literary genre. Yes, it can even be said that the essay began to overtake poetry in the centuries that followed. The reason is twofold: morality and leisure.

Chinese Literature Middle Ages 1