Guide to Chinese literature

In China, literature (wén) lies at the root of culture (wénhuà or 'change brought about through writing') and in ancient times it was the fundamental difference that separated the Middle Kingdom from the surrounding 'barbarian' nations. This excerpt from Lonely Planet's China guide takes you through the highlights.
Image of a scene from The Story of a Stone taken by Ivan Walsh



In the early 20th century, writers finally broke with the ancient classical language, which had become stultified and uninspired. Lu Xun and Hu Shi led the charge, creating a new form of written Chinese known as báihuà, which more closely resembled spoken Chinese. However, like all other art forms, literary development ran aground after the communists came to power, and it wasn't until the 1990s that creative writing began again in earnest. In China today there remains an unspoken agreement between authors and the state: write what you want, just leave out the politically subversive subject matter. Uncensored editions of notable books are usually published in Taiwan.

Early-20th-century writers include Lu Xun (Call To Arms 1922), Ba Jin (The Family 1931), Mao Dun (Midnight 1933), Lao She (Rickshaw Boy 1936) and Eileen Chang/Zhang Ailing (Lust, Caution 1979). Lu Xun and Ba Jin also translated a great deal of foreign literature into Chinese. Although not many contemporary voices have been translated into English yet, there's still enough out there to keep any serious reader busy. The provocative Mo Yan (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, 2008), Yu Hua (To Live,1992) and Su Tong (Rice,1995) have each written momentous historical novels set in the 20th century; all are excellent, though none are for the faint of heart. 'Hooligan author' Wang Shuo (Please Don't Call Me Human, 2000) remains China's bestselling author, with his broadly appealing political satires and realistic portrayals of urban slackers. dontcallmehuman-1Chun Sue (Beijing Doll, 2004) and Mian Mian (Candy, 2003) explore the dark urban underbellies of Běijīng and Shànghǎi respectively. Alai (Red Poppies, 2002), an ethnic Tibetan, made waves by writing in Chinese about early-20th-century Tibetan Sìchuān – whatever your politics, it's both insightful and a page-turner. Émigré Ma Jian (Red Dust, 2004) writes more politically critical work; his debut was a Kerouac-ian tale of wandering China as a 'spiritual pollutant' in the 1980s. Gao Xingjian is China's most famous dissident writer. Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 for his novel Soul Mountain, which is an account of his travels along the Yangzi after being misdiagnosed with lung cancer. All of his work has been banned in the PRC since 1989.


China's classical tradition covers an enormous breadth of styles and subjects. Peruse The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1996) for a representative sampling. columbiaanthology-1The classical canon – core texts written in literary Chinese (wényán wén) that served as the backbone of the education system – was important, but it only scratched the surface of China's literary output. The most famous works in the canon were known as the Five Classics (The I Ching or Book of Changes, The Classic of Poetry, The Classic of History, The Classic of Rites and The Spring and Autumn Annals) and the Four Books (The Analects, The Book of Mencius, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean.


From the Han dynasty through the Song dynasty, Chinese poetry was the primary means of literary expression for the educated and is still considered to be China's most sophisticated literary genre. Some of the distinguishing elements of Chinese poetry are a greatly reduced syntax (articles, prepositions, plurals and sometimes even the subject are implicit) and rich imagery that conjures up a 'painting' through which the writer evoked his or her emotion. It goes without saying that word play, rhyme, parallel couplets and literary allusion were of enormous importance as well. The earliest poetic work was The Classic of Poetry (aka The Book of Songs), which included over 300 poems/folksongs dating back to the 6th century BC. Another early anthology was the Songs of Chu, which featured Qu Yuan (c 340–278 BC), China's greatest early poet. theheartofchinesepoetry-1Most foreigners, however, will be most interested in the poetry of the Tang, which is considered to be China's literary golden age. Some of the greatest poets of this time include Li Bai (Li Po; the Taoist), Du Fu (Tu Fu; the Confucian), Wang Wei (the Buddhist) and Bai Juyi (the Populist – he purportedly rewrote all the poems his servants were unable to understand). During the Song dynasty a more romantic lyric poetry called ci emerged, originally lyrics that were set to music. Su Shi (Su Dongpo) and Li Qingzhao are two of the most famous poets from this era. Greg Whincup's The Heart of Chinese Poetry(1987) provides an excellent introduction to a handful of traditional poems.


China's classical novels developed out of the popular folktales and dramas that served as entertainment for the lower classes. In the Ming dynasty they were written down in a semivernacular (or 'vulgar') language, and are often irreverently funny and full of action-packed fights – just the thing to distract an examination candidate from yet another boring Confucian text. They were, in fact, so distracting that many students were punished and beaten if they were caught reading them. Authorship is not always clear, as the writers went out of their way to disguise their true identities in order to avoid public shame. The most famous novel outside China is Journey to the West (Xīyóu Jì) – more commonly known as Monkey – which was written in the 16th century. Journey to the West follows the misadventures of a cowardly Buddhist monk (Tripitaka; a stand-in for the real-life pilgrim Xuan Zang) and his companions – a rebellious monkey, lecherous pig-man and exiled monster-immortal – on a pilgrimage to India.journeytothewest The Water Margin (Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn) is, on the surface, an excellent tale of honourable bandits and corrupt officials along the lines of Robin Hood. On a deeper level, though, it is a reminder to Confucian officials of their right to rebel when faced with a morally suspect government. (At least one emperor officially banned it.) The most popular classical novel (and possibly video game) in China is The Romance of Three Kingdoms (Sān Guó Yǎnyì), a swashbuckling historical novel about the legendary power struggles that took place following the collapse of the Han dynasty. It can actually be quite a tough read for those uninterested in military strategy, but familiarity with the main characters is a must for any serious student of Chinese. The Story of the Stone (Hónglóu Mèng) is a more refined novel following the decline of a genteel family in 18th-century China.

More cultural highlights can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to China