It is not known when the current system of writing Chinese first developed. The oldest written records date from about 1400 B.C. in the period of the Shang dynasty, but the elaborate system of notation used even then argues in favor of an earlier origin. From short inscriptions on bone and tortoiseshell (used for divination), characters standing for individual words have been deciphered and are traceable through many notations to modern forms.
Most of the oldest surviving works of literature were not written until the later centuries of the Chou dynasty (c.1027–256 B.C.). At this time was written most of what scholars of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220) made into the canonical literature of Confucianism (which also included their own commentaries), although the current versions of these works, traditionally classified as the Wu Ching [five classics], contain interpolations. The Wu Ching, traditionally attributed to Confucius either as author or compiler, consist of diverse books. The Ch'un Ch'iu [spring and autumn annals] is an unadorned chronology of Lu, Confucius's native state.
The I Ching [book of changes] explains, often in allusive and ambiguous language, a system of divination, based upon the study of 64 hexagrams of whole and broken lines. The Li Chi [book of rites] describes ceremonials and an ideal Confucian state. The Shu Ching [classic of documents or book of history] contains historical records, many of them known to be later forgeries. While some of these works contain verse, the main collection of poetry in the Wu Ching is the Shih Ching [classic of songs or book of odes], made up of 305 poems. Written in simple rhyming stanzas, they tell of the peasant's life, of love, and of the wars of the feudal states.
During the Sung dynasty (960–1279) selections from the Li Chi and two other works were formed into the Ssu Shu [four books]; they were thought to embody the quintessence of Confucian teachings. They are the Ta Hsüeh [great learning] and the Chung Yung [doctrine of the mean] from the Li Chi, the Lun Yü [analects of Confucius], and the Book of Mencius (see Mencius). Other important early books include the Tao Te Ching [classic of the way and its power], traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu, and the work of Chuang-tzu. These two books, which form the chief literature of Taoism, probably circulated in their present form from the 2d cent. B.C.
The early Chinese books originally appeared in the cumbersome form of strips of bamboo. Silk was substituted as a writing material in the 2d cent. B.C., and the invention of paper in the 2d cent. A.D. was responsible for a great increase in the number of books. The method of printing whole pages from wooden blocks was discovered under the T'ang dynasty (618–906) and was perfected and in widespread use by the 10th cent. This technology permitted an enormous increase in the number of copies available of any book.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.