Ancient literature is a precious cultural heritage of China’s several thousand years of civilization. The Book of Songs, a collection of 305 folk ballads of the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period, compiled in the sixth century B.C., is China’s earliest anthology of poetry. Qu Yuan of the Warring States Period, China’s first great poet, wrote Li Sao (The Lament), an extended lyric poem. The Book of Songs and Li Sao are regarded as classics in Chinese literary history. Later, different literary styles developed in subsequent dynasties. There were pre-Qin prose, magnificent Han fu (rhymed prose), and the yuefu folk songs of the end of the Han Dynasty. Records of the Historian, written by Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty, is respected as a model of biographical literature, and “The Peacock Flies to the Southeast” represents the magnificent yuefu folk songs. These are all well known among the Chinese people. The Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420) were a great period for the production of poetry. The poems written by Cao Cao, a statesman and man of letters of that time, and by his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, are fervent and vigorous. They are outstanding forerunners of the progressive literature of later generations. The Tang Dynasty gave birth to a great number of men of letters. The Complete Tang Poems is an anthology of more than 50,000 poems. Representative poets include Li Bai, Du Fu and Bai Juyi, who are the pride of the Chinese people. The Song Dynasty is well known for its ci (lyric). Song lyricists may be divided into two groups. The first, best represented by Liu Yong and Li Qingzhao, is known as the “gentle school”; the second, the “bold and unconstrained school,” is best represented by Su Shi and Xin Qiji. The most notable achievement of Yuan Dynasty literature was the zaju, poetic drama set to music. Snow in Midsummer by celebrated playwright Guan Hanqing and The Western Chamber written by another zaju master, Wang Shipu, are masterpieces of the ancient drama. The Ming and Qing dynasties saw the development of the novel. The Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’an, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, and A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin are the four masterpieces produced in this form during this period. They have been celebrated for centuries for their rich historical and cultural connotations, and unique style.

The new cultural movement that emerged in the 1920s was an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal movement. Progressive writers, represented by Lu Xun, gave birth to modern Chinese literature. The most outstanding representative works of this era are the novels The Diary of a Madman and The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun, the poetry anthology The Goddesses by Guo Moruo, the novel Midnight by Mao Dun, the trilogy novels Family, Spring and Autumn by Ba Jin, the novel Camel Xiangzi by Lao She, and the plays Thunderstorm and Sunrise by Cao Yu.

The founding of New China in 1949 serves as a signpost for the beginning of contemporary Chinese literature. Works of this period reflect the hard struggle and tremendous sacrifices during the long War of Liberation, and eulogize the selflessness displayed in the building of socialist New China. The representative works are the novels Red Crag by Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan, Song of Youth by Yang Mo, The Hurricane by Zhou Libo and Builders of a New Life by Liu Qing. During the 10-year “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), literature was deliberately hamstrung, leaving a desolate literary wasteland. But since the reform and opening to the outside world started in 1978, literary creation has entered a new period. Some works of the early period of the new era mainly described the emotional wounds the people suffered during the “cultural revolution.” The main works include The Wound by Lu Xinhua, The Blood-stained Magnolia by Cong Weixi, Mimosa by Zhang Xianliang, A Small Town Called Hibiscus by Gu Hua and The Snowstorm Tonight by Liang Xiaosheng. Some works are called works “seeking the roots,” for example, Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, Black Steed by Zhang Chengzhi, Snuff-Bottle by Deng Youmei and Besieged by Liu Heng. Realistic literature of this period includes The Scenery by Fang Fang, Pagoda Depot by Liu Zhengyun and Troubled Life by Chi Li. In recent years, a diversifying tendency has appeared in literary works. Those with historical themes include The Young Son of Heaven by Lin Li, Zeng Guofan by Tang Haoming, Emperor Yongzheng by Eryue He and Mending the Crack in the Sky by Huo Da. Making a Decision by Zhang Ping and Farewell to the Bitter Winter by Zou Yuezhao reflect current real life.


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Last updated: 2000-07-13.