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.