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Traditional Chinese Literature

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Chinese literature – the mirror of a nation’s consciousness

Traditional Chinese literature reflects Chinese beliefs about the high artistic nature, even spiritual power of the written word. So strong was this conviction that people believed that reading passages from the classics, or sleeping with them under their pillows, could ward off evil spirits. Confucius taught that only history, calligraphy, philosophy and poetry were sufficiently serious to be worthy of the written word.

Consequently, traditional Chinese literature split into two streams. One stream was the Confucius-approved ‘serious writing’ written in classical Chinese. This stream of literature was the subject matter of the Imperial Examinations (for entry into the civil service), but was inaccessible to the average Chinese. Later, particularly during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the second stream arose consisting mainly of epic novels written in the everyday language of the people.

Traditional Chinese Literature – Vernacular

The novels written in the vernacular are much more accessible and interesting to the modern reader. “The Journey To The West” (西游记 – Xīyóujì, also known as “Monkey King”) is among the most colourful and has been the subject of countless TV serialisations. It is the story of the Monkey King who is expelled from heaven for being a troublemaker and made to protect the Buddhist monk Xuán Zàng (玄奘) on his journey to India. On their way they’re joined by Sandy, a River God, and Pigsy, who is half man and half pig.

The semi-historical “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms” (Sānguóyănyì – 三国演义) has been so influential that two of its characters have been elevated to god-like status in Taoism. It tells the story of the decades of battle, intrigue, heroism and betrayal that followed the end of the Han dynasty when the country split into three rival kingdoms.

The author of “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms”, Luo Guanzhong, is also part-credited with the authorship of “The Water Margin” (Shuĭhǔzhuàn – 水浒传), which is also known as “Outlaws Of The Marsh” or “All Men Are Brothers”. It is a fairly readable tale of the daring, good-hearted outlaws rebelling against the state.

The last of the four books usually cited as the best of the vernacular traditional Chinese literature is “The Dream Of The Red Chamber” (Hónglóumèng – 红楼梦), also known as “The Dream Of The Red Mansions” or “The Story Of The Stone”. It is a story of ill-fated love set against the backdrop of the slow decline of an aristocratic family.

“The Golden Lotus” (Jīnpíngméi – 金瓶梅) was written during the Ming dynasty and considered extremely risqué until recently, which is perhaps the reason it’s not often cited as a classic. It tells the story of a local tyrant who loves gambling and women. He regularly bribes officials, persecutes the locals, and employs underhand tactics to bed the women of his choice. He eventually dies of having too much sex.

Traditional Chinese Literature – Classical

The Classical Chinese stream of traditional Chinese literature concerns itself with the serious questions of poetry, philosophy and history. The “I Ching” (Yìjīng – 易经) is possibly the most influential book of Chinese philosophy, predating even Confucius himself.

The “I Ching” is essentially a book of divination. The elaborate ritual casting of divination sticks enables the reader to pick out a ‘judgement’, via a series of hexagrams. The judgement is generally rather vague and subjective. Nevertheless, the “I Ching” has been studied by every influential Chinese thinker, including Lao Tzu, who based some of his Taoist theory on it, and Confucius who spent many years annotating it and other Chinese classics.

The “Analects” (Lúnyǔ – 论语) is a collection of Confucius’s sayings compiled by his disciples after his death and forms the basis of Confucian thought.

Other classics not written by Confucius but still referred to as ‘Confucian classics’ include the “The Book of Rites”, the “Spring and Autumn Annals” and the “Book of History”.

Other classics of Chinese literature are the “Tao Te Ching”, the charming, mystical writings of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, and “Chuang Tzu”, a collection of entertaining, parables by Chuang Tzu, the second great sage of Taoism.

Sun Zi’s “The Art of War” has been translated into many languages and ‘applied’ to everything from management to relationships. It offers insightful, but common sense advice on military tactics. To stretch its scope to other subjects is probably an admirable, but essentially imaginative achievement..

The “Book Of Songs” is an early anthology of classical Chinese poetry. Chinese poetry reached its zenith during the Tang Dynasty, when an ability to read poetry could secure a poet a good government job. While some Chinese poetry translates readily into English, the terse nature of classical Chinese and the poets’ love of metaphor renders some untranslatable. Two of the most renowned Chinese poets are Lĭ Bái (李白) and Dù Fǔ (杜甫).

The following is a poem by Li Bai. It’s about missing home, and can’t fail to chime with anyone that’s ever been alone and far from home:

Thoughts On a Still Night

At the foot of my bed, the moon is bright,
I think there must be a frost,
I raise my head to look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home.

静夜思 Jìng Yè Sī

窗前明月光 Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
疑是地上霜 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng
举头望明月 Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè
低头思故乡 Dī tóu sī gù xiāng

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