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Arts and Culture, Literature

Jinpingmei, Shuihuzhuan, Xiyouji, Hong lou meng, Tu Fu

China is the home of the world’s longest continuous tradition of writing, dating from the first use of Chinese characters for purposes of ritual divination during the Shang dynasty (1570?-1045? bc). The earliest Chinese literary works date from the Western Zhou dynasty (1045?-771 bc). These include the anonymous Shujing (Book of History or Book of Documents), a collection of ancient state documents, and the Shijing (Book of Poetry or Book of Songs), an anthology of 305 poems that, according to legend, was compiled and edited by Chinese philosopher Confucius. These books are part of the group of texts known collectively as the Five Classics, or Confucian Classics, which have been revered as guides to moral action and the correct ordering of human society.

From very early times the ability to write poetry was seen as one of the marks of an educated man. Chinese poetry, often personal and lyrical in tone, reached a high point during the Tang dynasty (ad 618-907). Major poets of the period include Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Po), and Du Fu (Tu Fu). The typical poem of the Tang period was written in the shi form, characterized by five- or seven-word lines, with the rhyme usually falling on the even lines. New forms of verse based on the structures of well-known songs were popular during the Song dynasty.

Drama first flourished during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), when plays were often enjoyed as written literature as well as performed on the stage. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the short story and the novel developed. Major works from this period include Sanguozhi yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a historical novel about wars and warriors; Shuihuzhuan (The Water Margin), a novel of the adventures of bandit-heroes; Xiyouji (The Journey to the West), a Buddhist fable; and Jinpingmei (The Gold Vase Plum or The Golden Lotus), a work dealing with daily life in a rich family. The playwright Tang Xianzu and others wrote lengthy dramas, often with romantic themes. Also during the Ming period, and for the first time in Chinese history, a great deal of poetry was written by women. Many novels continued to be written during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the most famous being Hong lou meng (1792, Dream of the Red Chamber, 1929) by Cao Zhan (also known as Cao Xueqin).

In the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the literature of the past was expressed in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when writers explored new literary forms that reflected more closely the spoken forms of the Chinese language. Short-story writer and essayist Lu Xun was a leading figure of this movement. After the founding of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government ordered that all literature serve the needs of the socialist state. Only after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 were Chinese writers allowed more freedom to address topics of personal interest to them and their readers.

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