Wednesday, November 16, 2011



In China the book is a symbol of the scholar. Until recently, parents would place three things in front of their son when he was one year old: money, a banana, and a book. If he stretched out his hand to take the book, it was an omen that he would be a scholar. 

As opposed to the West, where literature and philosophy are considered two different domains, in ancient China these domains were interwoven. Philosophers and poets influenced each other and were inspired by the same source –The Five Classics ()(jīng)[1] which, according to tradition, had been compiled or edited by Confucius. Writers who wrote prose often considered themselves as philosophers, and philosophers, developing a literary style, turned their thoughts into works of literature. Such an example can be found in the Analects  (lùn)()   , in which the language is concise and rhythmic. Ways of expression that are marked by literary beauty can also be found in the poetic Dao De Jing (dào)()(jīng), attributed to the philosopher Lao Zi (lǎo)() (sixth century BCE) and in the writings of philosophers like Mencius (mèng)() (371-289 BCE) and Zhuang Zi (zhuāng)(zi)  (369?-286 BCE).

In ancient China the written language, books, documents and writing generally, originated in the government and administration. The history department in the administration had been a part of the state bureaucracy from very ancient times. The task of the historian was to record everything that the ruler had done and said. The diary describing the emperor's activities was the main source of the Imperial Annals. Here the social nature of the historian's work found its expression, and moral standards were presented. This genre of literature was considered the most respectable.

The tradition of history books appears to have derived from ancestor worship. It strengthened the connection with the past, or at least with everything that had to do with the documentation of the family tree. The list of the Shang   (shāng) dynasty kings (c. 1600-1046 BCE)  that appears in the Historical Records  (shǐ)  ()   of Si Maqian  () ()(qiān)   145-87)  BCE) , is incredibly exact in regard to the archaeological evidence. Si Maqian spiced up his book with dubious plots, but presented the events in chronological order and sometimes according to subject. His book became a model for writing history for the dynasties to come.

A genre that developed alongside the historical was that of fiction - in Chinese, xiao shuo (xiǎo)(shuō)(literally: small talking). There are five kinds of xiao shuo:

1.      Historical anecdotes.

2.      Novels that describe everyday life and reflect the existing social conditions.

3.  Adventure stories.

4.  Supernatural stories including plots related to magic and immortality.

5.  Satirical stories.

Whereas Western fiction writing is based on the writer's imagination, the Chinese xiao shuo includes anecdotes, baseless inventions, rumors and gossip. This genre continued the writing tradition of the government officials of the Zhou  (zhōu)  dynasty (1046-221 BCE), whose duty it was to report to the ruler about the feelings and opinions of people, gossip in the streets, sayings and local customs. Thus, xiao shuo is based on the talk in the streets. The writers of xiao shuo were junior public officials whose duty was to report and document. The department of these writers in the administration retained its legitimacy as long as it contributed social reports. As opposed to the historical genre, xiao sho was not considered respectable. The prevalent approach in traditional China was that a man of virtue does not occupy himself with fiction.

During the 3rd century CE there was a change in the attitude toward writing, which now became accepted as a private activity and as literature and art, and a significant development took place in the Chinese literature. A genre arose called "zhi gui" (zhì)(guài)(literally: records of strange events), characterized by tales of the supernatural. People assumed, however, that what they were reading was fact, because historians wrote them. The latter were usually also astrologists, who were considered as knowing how to distinguish between natural and unnatural phenomena. From the Ming (míng) dynasty (1368-1644) on, the term zhi gui has denoted a genre that includes plots focusing on imaginary events, occurring to imaginary people, in imaginary places (as opposed to “realistic” fiction).

The Tang (táng) dynasty (618-907 CE) was one of the most productive periods in the history of Chinese literature. The poets of this period are counted among the greatest in Chinese history. They introduced innovations in form and content in both poetry and prose. Likewise, they merged traditional ways of expression with influences from cultures of the neighboring countries. Their poems have an emotional quality that is still moving today. The greatest achievement of the Tang dynasty literature was that of the poems of Li Bai  ()(bái)(701-762 CE), who is considered the greatest Chinese poet of all times. His talent lay in creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

During the Tang dynasty people from all classes showed an appreciation for poetry, among them scholars, monks and concubines. Stylized prose was considered essential in this period for both interpersonal and public communication. Every educated person was expected to write poetry, and poems from this period that have survived were written by emperors, monks, scholars and even courtesans.

Beside poetry, another genre flowered during the Tang dynasty - fictional biographies, but laced with historical facts. There were also stories of adventurous dreams. Passage from dream to reality and vice versa, and the blurring of borders between dream and reality, characterize many stories from this period.

 Emperors, princes and high government officials of the Tang dynasty surrounded themselves with respected writers and poets. Even army commanders employed scholars to write for them their declarations, reports to the emperors and other documents.

During the Song (sòng)  dynasty (960-1270 CE) in the 11th and 12th centuries, the xiao shuo genre gained high recognition and popularity, and during the 13th century, books reviewing this genre were written. 

Under the Mongolian occupation, during the Yuan (yuán) dynasty (1280-1368 CE), Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson and founder of the dynasty, greatly encouraged art and science. Scholars, artists and poets were respectfully received in his court. He ordered textbooks in domains such as agriculture, algebra, geography, geometry, history and trigonometry. Scholars were fired from public service and, following the interruption of the public examinations, they became less occupied with Confucian texts and found themselves free to express themselves in domains such as history, philosophy and poetry. They also found new ways of expression, developing two literary genres – the play and the novel. 

The establishment of urban centers also contributed to developing the novel and drama. In these centers there were diverse storytellers who differed from each other in the sources of their material and story-telling techniques. The religious among them narrated miracles and marvels, using prose and poetry alternately, while the "historians" introduced historical chronicles, spiced up with legends. There were also storytellers who told stories from everyday life.

 With storytellers in the background, the Chinese drama flowered, incorporating elements of poetry, dance and acrobatics. As a production rich in poetry and music, Chinese drama can be regarded as a kind of opera.

While in northern China such dramas were short, in the south they were extremely long, switching between plot and subplot. Most of the Chinese plays can be classified as "serious comedy" - a kind of plot that includes comic elements, while raising questions, creating tensions, and solving them at the end. In contrast to this kind of comedy, tragedy had only a small place in the Chinese theatre. The variety of experiences presented in Chinese drama was broader than that of the stories. There were plays with supernatural plots based on Chinese mythology and saints' lives, historical plays typically presenting heroic subjects, and a variety of plays dealing with everyday life issues, mostly with love, often between a scholar and a courtesan. Paradoxically, courtesans were conceived of as having free will, something of which the rest of the Chinese women were deprived.      

      Another type of play dealt with morals, preaching Confucian values. In these plays, good women behave like saints, usually adhering to the traditional ethical codes. One example of such a play is the story of a woman who, in order to save her mother- in-law (who had done everything she could to denigrate her daughter-in-law), admits to a murder she did not commit despite being condemned to harsh interrogations and torture. Plays were not conceived of as literature but as entertainment. Unlike Greek drama, the origin of Chinese drama is non-religious and has always been intended to entertain.

During the Ming dynasty (míng)(1368-1644 CE) the attitude toward xiao shuo changed and this genre was no longer seen as historical fact but as fictional plot. Literary critics from this period found internal psychological truth in the xiao shuo, and introduced new terms to describe the artistic quality of fictional writing, such as 'realism', 'descriptive', 'picturesque', etc.

Another innovation from the Ming dynasty was that of writing novels in the vernacular (bái)(huà), as opposed to the literary style (wén) (huà), which became a dead language during this dynasty. Children were not allowed to read these vernacular novels, and scholars, treating them as worthless entertainment, did not admit to reading or writing them. Within the fossilized tradition of classical studies it was hard to resist the charm and vitality of the new lively writing. Citations of phrases from such novels, or using them as a reference for serious literary works, was considered bad taste. They were considered external to the domain of literature. Reviews were not written about them and research was not dedicated to them. This attitude toward the novel caused their writers to hide their identities behind a pen name or publish their works anonymously. One such book was Journey to the West (or Monkey), written by Wu Cheng'en ()(chéng)(ēn)  (1505-1580). The book includes plots borrowed from stories and plays collected during the pilgrimage of Tripitaka (a character in the book) to India. In 645 CE the emperor received the historical Tripitaka when the latter returned to the city of Chang'an (cháng)(ān) with Buddha's scriptures. The book describes his magical adventures.   

The novel Plum in the Golden Vase (jīn)(píng)(méi)from the 16th century introduced a novelty – characters depicted in depth. For its writer, a mere plot was no longer enough. Some scholars have classified this as the first real Chinese novel.

The Qing (qīng)dynasty (1644-1911 CE) was marked by a return to preserving the literature of the past. Its emperors saw themselves as patrons of artists and writers. Especially prominent among them was Emperor Kang Xi (kāng)() (ruled 1661-1722), who initiated the collection and archiving of Chinese knowledge and literature. During his rule there were published, among others, the History Book of the Ming Dynasty (míng)(shǐ), The Complete Anthology of Tang Poetry (quán)(táng)(shī), The Complete Anthology of Tang Literature (quán)(táng)(wén)and The Characters Dictionary of Kang Xi (kāng)()()(diǎn).


(sān)()()()(shū) 便(biàn)(jué)(yán)()(wèi)

[After] three days without reading, talk becomes tasteless



There is no faithful friend like a good book

A book holds a house of gold [and beautiful women whose] complexion is like jade
     Before the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was customary to quote the above to the young, in order to encourage them to become scholars who would gain public positions. Gaining such positions would bring them a life of wealth and beautiful women. 
A similar saying:
A book holds a thousand pieces of gold
Literally: Opening a book has benefits.
In every book there is something to be learned.
(kǒng)()()(fàng)()   (wén)()(chōng)(tiān)
A fart of Confucius – literary fragrance in the air.
Said of a scholar.
One character [is worth] a thousand pieces of gold
Said of a literary pearl.
This is based on the following story:
During the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) the State of Qin (qín)had a Prime Minister named Lu Buwei ()()(wéi), who wanted to be remembered for generations to come. He assembled around him 3,000 scholars, asked them to write down all their knowledge, and collected their works in a book titled The Spring and Autumn of Lu ()(shì)(chūn)(qiū).  After the book was completed it was hung on the market gate of Xianyang (xián)(yáng), the then capital of the Qin (qín) dynasty. A thousand pieces of gold were hung beside the book with an announcement declaring that he who would be able to justify the addition or removal of a single word from the book, would receive the thousand pieces of gold as a reward. Being frightened of Lu Buwei, who was both a powerful and a terrifying man, people were of course afraid to claim the gold.    
` (shū)(náng)()()
The book sack has no bottom
It is impossible to read all the books in the world.

[1] See also the chapter on literary sources.




Literally: One word - one tear.

Said of a sentimental piece of writing.



[Change in] one word [makes all] the difference.



Literally: A poem composed while walking seven steps.

Said of those having a talent to improvise and literary genius.



Literally: Three [times] seven [are] twenty one.

The real story of the event.

Swallowing without digesting
Reading without understanding.
A similar idiom:
Swallowing ancient learning without digesting it
Reading ancient texts without understanding them.
Literally: Reading a hundred times without being bored.
Said of a literary masterpiece that is worth reading repeatedly.
Literally: Paper becomes expensive in Luoyang.
This is used to praise a new book that is of both high quality and sensational popularity.
Its coinage was inspired by the following story from the book that tells the history of the Jin (jìn) dynasty (265-420 CE):
During his childhood, a famous writer named Zuo Si (zuǒ)() did not like to study and so made his father angry. One day, when the father was talking with his friends, they told him that they envied him for having such a clever and likeable son, but the father was disappointed with his son for not persevering in his studies. The son then began to study diligently and became a remarkable scholar. His book on the three capital cities of the three kingdoms (sān)(dōu)() - Wei (wèi), Shu (shǔ)and Wu(), was a literary masterpiece that won a vast number of readers. Printing had not yet been invented, and people copied manuscripts by hand. As a result, a great deal of paper for writing was needed, and following the great demand, its price rose significantly.
If [you] believe entirely in books, better have no books
Literally: One sings, three sigh
This idiom is used to describe a moving literary work.

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