Chinese Literature

Publishdate date: 2013-07-01
Price: 36RMB


About The Book

The functions of many things in the world can be easily identified. People use a knife to peel an apple, money to buy necessities, and a car to travel. The function of literature, however, is harder to identify. Literature can neither bring a starving person food nor make people warm in cold days. Is literature useless then? If so, there wouldn’t have been so many people devoting their lives to reading or writing. Are those people just insane? Ancient Chinese scholars believed literature was useful in many aspects. Confucius said reading poems could help understand society, people and social ethics. The annotators of The Book of Songs believed poems could harmonize family relations and improve social ethics. In later times from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, people believed literature enlightened society. All these are social functions of literature. Literature also helps people understand the writers’ temperament. For example, without reading their poems, people couldn’t have known Tao Qian’s indifference towards materiality or Du Fu’s concerns for the country. Isn’t literature useful? Insightful readers may have found that such an exposition is illogical. The above-mentioned social functions of literature must be based on one condition that it is true and credible. In fact, literature itself is 1121.indd 6 2016-05-13 13:18:28 7  Chinese Literature the subjective creation of the writer, so it is essentially not completely true. And therefore it’s impossible for literature to reflect a person’s temperament or an era faithfully. It is, therefore, necessary to get a better understanding of the “truth” of literature. It’s easy for us to know what truth is in real life. For example, we feel pain when pricked by a needle and get cold in snowy weather.

We know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; torrential rain comes after dark clouds. All those are real events that can be experienced. There is another kind of “reality” that can’t be objective or logical. Such a “reality” is created by imagination and feelings. Take Li Bai’s poem, Through the Yangzi Gorges, for example: “From the walls of Baidi high in the colored dawn to Jiangling by night-fall is a thousand miles” reflects the poet’s joyful mood instead of the actual distance between Baidi and Jiangling. Such a “reality” is based on the poet’s subjective imagination and feelings, which may be illogical but, at the same time, can’t be denied. For the poet, the feelings are more important than experiences. That’s the “reality” of literature. Such a literary “reality” can be found in the works of many ancient Chinese artists, including the poet Meng Jiao and the painter Zhang Zao in the Tang Dynasty. They both emphasized the importance of subjective conception in their creations.

The literary “reality” is a harmonious combination of outer environment and the creator’s inner feelings. Such a lyric “reality” depends largely on the writer’s feelings. That’s why a joyful writer sees a lively and colorful picture where others see only bleakness. Therefore, the “reality” of literature is a result of the writer’s subjective imagination. It’s meaningless to require literature to be completely logical and real; that only takes away from its attraction. Such lyrical “reality” can be found not only in poems, but also in calligraphy and painting, architecture, gardening and drama. In reading or writing literary works, we 1121.indd 7 2016-05-13 13:18:28 8 need to be fully aware of the concept of “literary reality”. Only by doing so can we truly appreciate the attraction of Chinese literature. As for the function of literature, we don’t have to completely agree with the ancient scholars. No matter how much time has changed, however, the role of Chinese literature is essentially to convey feelings. In reading Chinese literature, beautiful words and skillful rhetoric are not the most important. Instead, what attract readers most are the writer’s thoughts and feelings. In that sense, readers can communicate with the writers beyond time and space. In the Spring and Autumn Period, there were two famous people called Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi. Yu was a proficient guqin (a sevenstringed musical instrument in ancient China) player and Zhong was a good listener, who totally understood what his good friend was trying to express in the music. After Zhong died, Yu broke his guqin into pieces and never played again.

Writers put their emotions into their creations. Can we read literary works with our feelings and understand what they try to express? This book is not to explain literary expertise, list the different writers and their works or analyze different Chinese literary schools. It’s only a guide to Chinese literature and the feelings the writers tried to express in their works.


Chapter 1

The Concept of Chinese Literature…1
Genres of Chinese Literature…9
The Aesthetic of Chinese Literature…15
Chapter 2

Patriotism: Loyalty to the Nation Shines in History…23
Righteousness: Loyalty to a Friend…31
Career: A Scholar Studies for an Official Career…40
Seclusion: A Peaceful Pastoral Life…46
Chapter 3
Natural Scenery

Seasons: Spring and Fall Are Poets’ Favorites…57
Moon: An Eternal Topic for Poets…68
Water: A Sword Can’t Break a Flowing River…76
Chapter 4

Folk Love: A Gentleman Yearns for a Fair Lady…83
Yearning: The Tears Witness How Much I Miss You…90
Lamentation: You’re Still the One…97
Deep Love: The Power of Love Revives the Dead…104
Chapter 5

Nostalgia: The Traveler Far Away from Home…111
War: The Soldiers on the Battlefields…118
History: A Literary Re-creation with Imagination…126
Delight: Literature as a Daily Pastime…135
Wine: The Best Comfort for a Troubled Heart…148

About The Author

Ye Zhuowei, born in 1979.Lecturer, Department of literature and culture, Hongkong Institute of education.In "the Qing Dynasty literature research of" Donghua "Journal of Humanities" (Taiwan) Chinese published academic papers and other academic journals, and written language learning in a newspaper column. The research scope includes Chinese classical literature, literary criticism and Hongkong literature.


The Concept of Chinese Literature Fig. 1-1 Portrait of Confucius, by Ma Yuan (c.1160 – 1225), Song Dynasty, pale color on silk scroll, Palace Museum collection Confucius acts as a symbol with many meanings in Chinese culture. Many of his words are now taken to be givens and golden rules. He seldom talked about literature and art; he mainly focused on the relationships of literature and art with personal emotions or politics. However, these two focuses became fundamental parts of literary theory later. Modern literature generally refers to the art forms of poems, essays and novels, which convey the writers’ ideas and reflect society of a specific time. The word “literature” itself has a long history in China, but its meaning has changed a lot since its emergence.

Originally it referred to the writings of practical use. Confucius (551 – 479 BC) (Fig.1-1) had more than 3,000 disciples, and among the 70 outstanding ones, Zi You (506 – ? BC) and Zi Xia (507 – ? BC) did best in “literature” (wenxue). To mean an art form, shi (poetry), wen (prose) and fu (poetic prose) are actually more accurate expressions. Was there the concept of “literature” as an art form in ancient China? To answer that question, we need to know more about the word wen.

The period of oracles saw the emergence of the word wen. It originally meant pattern or ornamentation and was later used to refer to rhetorical devices. Confucius once said that words without certain elegant rhetorical devices couldn’t get popular and that a 1121.indd 1 2016-05-13 13:18:31 2 gentleman must have solid qualities and refined manners. Thus it’s safe to say, in the Warring States Period, wen was a rhetorical device as well as a functional thing. As for “poetry”, The Book of Songs is the earliest Chinese poetry collection. According to contemporary standards, The Book of Songs is definitely a literary work. In the time of Confucius, however, its literary characteristics were rarely mentioned and its practical use was more Fig. 1-2 Ten Pictures of Luming (Part), by Ma Hezhi, Song Dynasty, color on silk scroll, Palace Museum collection The poem, Luming, says: Across the bank a deer bleats, In the wild where it eats. Honored guests I salute, Strike the harp! Play the flute! The poem joyfully describes the host and guests. The Mao's in the Han Dynasty made many political interpretations about The Book of Songs. For example, to them, this poem means if loyal officers and guests get generous hospitality, they will repay their master with every effort. 1121.indd 2 2016-05-13 13:18:33 3  Chinese Literature emphasized. (Fig.1-2) (Fig.1-3) Confucius claimed that poetry could be used to express feelings, reflect society, communicate with others and make complaints. Confucius put more emphasis on the functions of poetry just as all the other people did at that time. The poems were frequently quoted in daily conversations or political negotiations to achieve desired results. This can be found in a story recorded in Zuo’s Commentary on Spring




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