Literature in Ancient China

Chinese literature goes back a very long way, right back to ancient times. We know a lot about Ancient China because the writing system is so old and because there are Chinese books that have been studied and preserved for thousands of years.

The Hundred Schools of Thought

The Hundred Schools of Thought was a great period in Chinese literature where lots of classic texts were produced. It occurred during the time of the Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC). The main areas of classic texts were based upon:

  • Confucianism
  • Daoism
  • Mohism
  • Legalism

There were also very important books about Chinese history. These texts were mostly philosophies that advised people about life. Not many works of fiction (make believe) were written at this time.

Confucius

One of the most important figures in Chinese literature was Confucius. He was a philosopher whose work developed into the Four Books and the Five Classics. These were the basis for the civil service examination that the smartest people in China had to pass to work for the civil service.

Confucius

The earliest history of China

We are very lucky as historians that people from Ancient China kept such excellent records. The earliest history books come from 841 BC. The earliest known complete history was called Zuo Zhuan which was written in 389 BC or perhaps even earlier. The historian that wrote it, Zuo Quiming, was blind.

The best history book written in Ancient China (that went into lots more detail) was the Shiji (or the Records of the Grand Historian) that was written by Sima Qian who lived between 145 BC and 90 BC.

Poetry

There were two very important collections of poems from Ancient China. These were the Shijing (Classic of Poetry) written in 10th-7th BC. It has over 300 poems in it.

Classic of Poetry

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) there were some famous poets called Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), Shu Shi (1031-1101) and Wang Anshi (1021-1086). There were female poets occasionally too, like Dong Xiaowan and Lii Rushi.

Poems throughout China’s history were treasured, and the styles changed over time. There are over one million poems that were preserved. Some poets also did paintings and calligraphy.

Fiction and the Tales of the Marvellous

Chinese literature in Ancient China was often based on official histories. However, in the Tang Dynasty, there were some famous short stories, written in a style called Chuanqi. One example of this style is called The Tales of the Marvellous.  Even works of fiction were mixed with reports on traditional medicines, travel and historical tales.

Chinese fiction developed in the Qing and Ming dynasties. One famous one was Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. This story is about two branches of the wealthy, aristocratic (royal) family, the Jia clan. There are over 30 characters in this book and 400 hundred minor ones!

Dream of the Red Chamber

Quiz

What do you know about Ancient Chinese literature? Test your knowledge with these quick questions…

  • Who was Confucius?
  • When was the earliest history of China?
  • How many poems were preserved in China?
  • Was fiction always popular in Ancient China?
  • How many characters were in Dream of the Red Chamber?

Answers

  • Confucius was a very important philosopher
  • 389 BC
  • Over one million
  • No, history and philosophy were preferred in early Ancient China
  • There were over 30 main characters and over 400 minor characters in Dream of the Red Chamber

Ancient China