Over time, the nature of the language in which the literature of China was written diverged sharply, producing two main styles of writing, one composed in a specifically literary language and the other in the vernacular. Both strands produced their own very different styles of literature, and both styles reflected their own characteristic language.Literary Style
The literary style was exceedingly concise and was unmatched for its vigor, richness, and symmetry. Historical and literary allusions abounded, and finally special dictionaries were required for their elucidation. In poetry the relatively simple prosody of the Chou period was followed by systems of more minutely prescribed forms. The lines, which rhymed, had to be matched syllable by syllable in both part of speech and intonation. By the T'ang period the prosodic rules no longer suited the spoken structure of the everyday language; they continued to be observed in spite of changes in pronunciation. It is generally agreed that China's greatest poetry was written in the T'ang dynasty. Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Po Chü-i are masters of this period. In the succeeding Sung dynasty Su Tung-p'o was perhaps the foremost poet.
Translations of T'ang and Sung poetry strongly influenced the modern imagist school in English (see imagists). Chinese lyrics are generally very short, unemphatic and quiet in manner, and limited to suggesting a mood or a scene by a few touches rather than painting a detailed picture. Intellectual themes and narratives are comparatively rare. Many varieties of learned prose have also been written in China. Notable for accuracy and objectivity are the series of dynastic histories produced since Han times; the famous Shih chi [records of the historian] (c.100 B.C.) by Ssu-ma Ch'ien served as their model.
Chinese lexicography developed in response to multiplication of characters. The last of a great series of dictionaries (still in standard use) was produced in the reign of K'ang Hsi (1662–1722). So-called encyclopedias, actually extracts from existing works, have been occasionally compiled; one such work of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) ran to over 11,000 short volumes and appeared in three manuscript copies.
While the literati were cultivating polite literature during the T'ang and Sung periods, prose and verse of a popular nature began to appear. It was written in the spoken vernacular rather than in the classical literary language, and scholars regarded it with scorn. Springing from story cycles made familiar by professional storytellers, this vernacular literature first emerged as a full-fledged art in the drama of the Yüan dynasty (1260–1368).
The vernacular style later developed into the great novels of the Ming period that followed. Both the drama and the novel proved immensely popular. Thus the 13th cent. witnessed the emergence of the resources of the living language of the people. The vernacular novels, although they had their roots in the Yüan epoch, took shape gradually during the Ming era until they were finally given their finished form, perhaps anonymously by some talented traditional scholar.
An early and outstanding example of the novel is the San Kuo Chih Yen I (tr. San Kuo or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925); it is set in the Three Kingdoms period (220–265) and recounts heroic deeds and chivalrous exploits. Another historical romance is the Shui Hu Chuan (tr. All Men Are Brothers, 1937), a picaresque tale of men forced by the venality of officials to become bandits. The Hsi Yu Chi (tr. Monkey, 1943) is an allegorical tale, full of the supernatural, concerning the adventures of a Buddhist pilgrim on a journey to India.
The Chin P'ing Mei (tr. The Golden Lotus, 1939) by contrast portrays domestic life and amorous intrigue; it is marked by realistic incident and the interplay of human relationships. The greatest Chinese novel is considered to be Hung Lou Meng (tr. Dream of the Red Chamber, 1958), an 18th-century work chiefly from the hand of Ts'ao Hsüeh-ch'in. With an unrivaled gift for subtle characterization and plot construction, the author recounts the declining fortunes of an aristocratic family.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.