Besides the myths and fairytales scattered in various ancient books and records, The Book of Songs, China’s first anthology of poetry, is China’s earliest literary achievement. It is a collection of 305 folk ballads of the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period, compiled in the sixth century B.C. Qu Yuan of the Warring States Period, China’s first great poet, wrote Chu Ci (The Poetry of Chu), an anthology of the poetry of the State of Chu. The Book of Songs and Chu Ci are regarded as classics in Chinese literary history. Later, different literary styles developed in subsequent dynasties. These include pre-Qin prose in a simple style, magnificent Han fu (rhymed prose), and the yuefu folk songs of the end of the Han Dynasty. 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 were outstanding forerunners of the progressive literature of later generations. The Tang Dynasty gave birth to thousands of poets, including Li Bai and Du Fu, with more than 50,000 poems handed down to posterity. The Song Dynasty is well known for its ci (lyrics). The most notable achievement of the Yuan Dynasty literature was the zaju, a type of poetic drama set to music. The Ming and Qing dynasties saw the development of the novel. Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West and A Dream of Red Mansions are the four masterpieces of the novel produced in this period. They have been celebrated for centuries for their rich historical and cultural connotations, and unique styles.
The development of Chinese literature saw two golden ages from the 1920s to the 1930s and from the 1980s to the 1990s. The former period, which coincided with the New Culture Movement that emerged in the 1920s, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal movement, produced progressive writers, represented by Lu Xun, Shen Congwen and Zhang Ailing.
During the last two decades of the 20th century, writers became more maturer in expressing the life and aesthetic experiences of the modern Chinese people. Generally speaking, contemporary novelists have surpassed their predecessors in the art of thinking and expressing with language. The number of Chinese literary works, especially novels, produced after the 1990s is far more than that of the 1970s and 1980s. According to statistics, at present 800 to 1,000 novels are published each year throughout China. The emergence of a number of new writers and works with world influence has demonstrated the achievements and prosperity of Chinese literature at the end of the 20th century.