The beginnings of Chinese literature go back thousands of years. The earliest pieces in the Book of Songs which is required reading for any educated person in the Republic of China today, date back to the 12th century B.C. It is this rich literary heritage that stretches unbroken from the Book of Songs to the literary, historical, and philosophical works of the present day--and not religion--that has provided the main source of spiritual comfort and intellectual sustenance to the majority of educated Chinese through the ages. This tradition has also shaped the relationship that the Chinese people share with both traditional and contemporary literature.
Literature in China has never been simply a source of aesthetic pleasure, a way to express pent-up emotions, or a channel to indulge in flights of fancy. It has, rather, from its inception served as a guide to everyday living and been a voice of social conscience, filling man's existence with meaning and leading him along life's path. Literature has also questioned the state of society, reflected on the trends of history, and attempted to right social wrongs. As a result, literature has always held a leading position in the cultural and intellectual life of the Chinese people, and its value and character cannot be defined or evaluated by its aesthetic characteristics alone.
In China, the main distinction has not been between which writing is literature and which is not, but rather within literature itself, between poetry, which is allied with music and stresses melody and form, and prose, which stresses the recording of language and events. The former has its source in the Book of Songs, and the latter, in the Book of History (or), another of the earliest literary texts, presumably dating back as far as the Book of Songs or farther.
The prevalence of this way of thinking has led some scholars to insist that China has no epic tradition, no fiction until the seventh century a.d., and no drama until the 13th century. They ignore the fact that public and private writings "recording words and events" have been produced in China without interruption since the Book of History, and that they have always enjoyed the status of fine literature. They often disregard the narrative tradition comprised by the numerous fables that appeared in histories after the Book of History and in philosophical works such as the Chuang Tzu, the Mencius, the Han Fei Tzu, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lu, and the Lieh Tzu, all written after the fourth century B.C., along with the myths from earlier ages that were preserved in these and similar works.
The earliest fiction in China--be it in the form of a continuation of mythical narrative or an imitation of official history called yeh-shih ("unofficial history")--was created in the spirit of the fable. The narrative tradition--comprising history, myth, fable, and fiction--balanced and supplemented the lyrical tradition of poetry produced subsequent to the Book of Songs.
"Recording words," the other expressed feature of the Book of History, in turn influenced philosophical works and essay-type prose. Philosophical works produced since the sixth century B.C., like the Analects of Confucius, are basically collections of quotations or records of a master's sayings, inseparable in content and style from the personalities, speech habits, and biographical experiences of the masters themselves. This style of writing, which fuses reason and emotion served as a model for the essay in later ages. The essay thus became the most important genre in Chinese literature, and san-wen (prose) even became a synonym for literature itself, while poetry was considered merely a specialized branch of literature.
In contrast to the personalism of the essay, Chinese poetry gradually
departed from the spoken language and came to stress formalistic rules.
Poetry thus became relatively objective and impersonal and, while still
lyrical in nature, it was often more symbolic and constructive in nature
One example of this effect can be seen in the Book of Songs tradition, which during the several centuries of its evolution gradually broke away from music in pursuit of its own metrical form. The combination of an independent writing system with the Chinese spoken language--which in early times was mainly monosyllabic--produced neat lines of four, five, or seven characters, and sometimes three or six. Tonal theory evolved in the fifth and sixth centuries, based on a new apprehension that Middle Chinese syllables had tonal or pitch distinctions that affected meaning. Thus "even" and "deflected" tones were matched and contrasted, and words of parallel or antithetical meaning were aligned. Literary forms almost completely divorced from the spoken language developed, such as parallel prose and regulated verse. This formalistic beauty, which derived from a neat matching of written characters, became an important aesthetic characteristic of traditional Chinese poetry.
Poetry often broke away from the speaking subject, and became a structural object in itself, objectivizing and collectivizing the lyrical self. This paved the way for the subsequent fusion of emotion and scene that resulted in a progression from an aesthetic "expression of self" to a "spiritual resonance" over the first to eighth centuries.
Following territorial expansion and the establishment of a unified empire encompassing a large number of local dialects, the maintenance of the Book of History tradition depended increasingly on scholars and officials learning a form of written communication called ku-wen (classical prose). In early antiquity, the classical prose style may have reflected the contemporary spoken language, but it eventually evolved into a purely literary style that allowed the literary language to experience no major syntactic changes for 2,000 years.
Around the fifth century a.d., the spoken language began to gradually evolve from being mainly monosyllabic in nature toward bisyllabicity or polysyllabicity, as the Old Chinese consonant clusters were gradually lost and originally distinct vowels merged. The unchanging stability of the literary language, or wen-yen, thus led to a gradual split with the vernacular language, or pai-hua.
The simultaneous development toward balance and parallelism in belletristic writing further widened the gulf between the written language of the literati and the oral literature of the common people. Oral literature is by its very nature not easily preserved. But the tradition in China of recording folk songs, combined with the growth of cities after the 10th century and a flourishing entertainment industry, led to the spread--and recording and printing of the tz'u (lyric), music drama, and fiction. These were all popular oral literary genres that originated with storytellers and performing artists.
The vernacular literature of the common people, consisting for the most part of fiction and drama, developed parallel to the literature of the scholars, which was composed mainly of poetry and essays written in classical Chinese. Literature written in the classical language received official sanction by becoming the testing material for the examination system, while vernacular literature owed its increasing popularity mainly to growth in the popular entertainment industry.
The early myths are scattered among a number of works, chiefly the Chuang Tzu, the Mountain and Sea Classic, and the poem "Heavenly Questions" in the Songs of the South. The concept behind creation myths such as those of Pan Ku and the goddess Nu Wa that "the myriad things arise from the same source" had a profound influence on the intimate identification of the Chinese people with nature and on their pursuit of harmony, both of mankind and the universe as a whole. More importantly, this concept established in Chinese poetry the method of indirect metaphor and the fusion of emotion and scene.
The myths of Kun and Yu controlling floodwaters and Hou I shooting the ten suns illustrate the awakening of human consciousness and mankind's awareness of the need to control nature for his own purposes. Invention myths, such as Fu Hsi drawing the eight trigrams, reflect an awareness of the origins of civilization. Although the narratives are incomplete, the early myths had a fundamental influence on the way the Chinese people view the universe, mankind, nature, and civilization.
A total of 305 poems are preserved in the Book of Songs. They describe all aspects of social life, and include hymns from ancestral temples, sagas of nation-building, political satires and encomia, and simple love songs. The book is divided into three groups of sung (hymns), two of ya (odes), and 15 of kuo-feng (songs). The hymns were apparently composed to accompany ceremonial dances at ancestral temples in praise of Heaven and the virtuous achievements of former rulers, and in hope of continued blessings. The ta-ya (greater odes) are generally classified as odes of the royal court, many of which laud the founding of the Chou dynasty. The hsiao-ya (lesser odes) are thought to have been performed at feasts and banquets, and many contain political messages criticizing society and the life of the nobility. The songs are folk songs from various nation-states around the empire, expressing love between man and woman and the life experiences of the common people. The Book of Songs can thus be viewed as a composite portrait of the life of the people.
The richly imaginative Songs of the South contains poems from the southern kingdom of Ch'u. The anthology includes religious pieces which reflect a worship of nature far different from the worship of ancestors and the theoretical God posited in the Book of Songs. Poems in the Songs of the South were written by Ch'u Yuan and other writers influenced by him.
Ch'u Yuan was China's first major poet. He secularized the originally religious songs of Ch'u, producing a complete vision of human life that encompasses myth, history, nature, society, and politics. In his masterpieces, "Encountering Sorrow" and "Nine Chapters", he repeatedly examines the ideals of human existence and the crises and degeneration to which they are subject.
From the Book of History tradition of recording the words of the early kings developed both the narratives of the historians and the speculative works of the philosophers. The most important works of history are the Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lu, the Tso Commentary, and the Conversations from the States. Corresponding to the recording of words in the Book of History is the recording of deeds in the Spring and Autumn Annals. This work records in concise language--often only a single sentence--major historical events in chronological order. It uses the method of "according praise or censure in a single word" to make penetrating ethical judgments about the events it relates. The Kung-yang Commentary, the Ku-liang Commentary, and the Tso Commentary explicate the ethical appraisals of the Spring and Autumn Annals with commentary. The first two stress moral and ethical judgments, while the Tso Commentary supplements the Spring and Autumn Annals with detailed narratives. It is with the Tso Commentary and the Conversations from the States that narrative literature in China became fully mature, fusing the twin traditions of recording words and recording deeds. These works used the techniques of recording deeds and rendering ethical appraisals from the Spring and Autumn Annals as models for their treatment of narrative and subject matter. They also applied the technique of recording words from the Book of History in creating dialogs that illumined the psychology and motivations of characters to thereby depict and morally judge historical events.
Thinkers of the ancient era prior to the third century B.C. not only made major contributions to the development of Chinese thought, but also had a lasting effect on Chinese aesthetics and literature. The effect of the Confucian thinkers is reflected in an emphasis on ethical, social, and political concerns. Taoist influence can be seen in a striving for transcendental, universal meaning, and in an awareness of an eternal, metaphysical significance of life beyond history and society, achieved through an appreciation and description of one's natural surroundings.
The works of these ancient philosophers, through their method
of illustrating morals through fables, established narrative models for
characterization and plot development, which was a break with the recording
of words and deeds of outstanding historical figures in historical narrative.
The various styles that evolved along these lines subsequently influenced
the development of Chinese prose. The Analects of Confucius and the Book
of Tao and Virtue of Lao Tzu made terseness and profundity the foremost
criteria of prose style. The Mo Tzu advanced the methods of logical exposition,
while the Chuang Tzu established the model of an exuberantly imaginative
composite form that defied classification. The Mencius made full use of
the expressive powers of the spoken language in forging an eloquent verbal
style. Hsun Tzu, in addition to being the first writer of Chinese fu (prose-poems),
made full use of the isolating character of the Chinese writing system
to develop a regulated aesthetic of parallelism and antithesis. All these
works became sources and models for later literature, both spoken and written.
The prose-poem is a literary form that is recited rather than sung. Tied less to musical form than poetry, the prose-poem combined visual and aural elements in its attention to formal rules and to euphony. Because it developed in response to the preferences and patronage of the emperor, its earliest subjects were invariably praise and glorification of the splendor of the imperial palace, the capital, parks, and hunting grounds. Out of this arose a tradition of exhaustive description, often accompanied by the coining of new Chinese characters, which catered specifically to the ruler's consciousness of possessing the empire, the world, the universe, and everything in it. Works of this type which were presented to the emperor are called ta-fu (greater prose-poems).
As writers came to realize that a consciousness of totality must be connected with a sense of individuality to have value and meaning, they began to experience anxiety over individual existence. Thus "the scholar born out of his time" became a basic theme of the hsiao-fu (lesser prose-poem). Chia I and Szu-ma Hsiang-ju in the second century B.C., and Chang Heng and Wang Tsan in the second century a.d., were the most important writers of prose-poems, but the prose-poem continued to develop right up until the end of the 19th century.
Shih, or poetry of lines of equal length, was still identified with song when the Yueh-fu (Music Bureau) was established during the reign of Wu Ti (140-86 B.C.) in the Han dynasty. The amalgams of song and poetry produced then were generally referred to as Yueh-fu shih (Music Bureau ballads). Often originating among the common people, these pieces were rich in narrative content and filled with laments over social issues, especially the gap between rich and poor, the posting of soldiers to distant regions, the plight of widows and orphans, and the vicissitudes of life and time. Poems that reflected social realities and contained a sharp consciousness of moral crisis continued to be created under the name of yueh-fu in later times. Although they were no longer set to music, they preserved the external form of early yueh-fu, with its lines of unequal length.
Another literary development during the nearly 400 years of the Han dynasty era was the appearance of poems written in neat five or seven-character lines that was unbound to music. The inspiration for replacing the harmonic effects of music with a strictly regulated form may have come from the prose-poem. Poetry consisting of lines of five or seven characters later became the universally acknowledged fundamental poetic form. The rules for matching and balancing characters in parallel constructions became increasingly refined, and ultimately resulted in the regulated verse of the seventh century onward. Middle antiquity can be considered the period of formalization of Chinese literary aesthetics. From the third century onward, the method of writing prose-poems was extended to the writing of essays, culminating in the blossoming of parallel prose in the sixth century.
The five-character line form of poetry emerged after the period of the lesser prose-poem. Anxiety over life and death became a basic theme for this new poetic form as well. Representative examples are found in the Nineteen Ancient Poems collection of the first century, the most important work in this genre of the time. Finding consolation in Taoist thinking to dispel the cares of existence, poets gradually turned to the subject of fields, gardens, hills, and streams, discovering and reveling in the natural beauty of landscapes. The most important poets of this period were Ts'ao Chih, Juan Chi, T'ao Ch'ien, and Hsieh Ling-yun.
Middle antiquity was also a fruitful period for the narrative tradition. First and foremost of works in this genre was Szu-ma Chien's Records of the Grand Historian. The Records, written during the first century B.C., was the first comprehensive work to recount China's ancient and recent history. It also established a model for historical writing centered around biography. Szu-ma Chien shifted the focus from unity of plot evident in the Tso Commentary and the Conversations from the States to a unity of character. Official Chinese historians after him all adopted the biography as the chief form of their works. Subjects chosen for his biographies included not only great figures of history but also individuals he considered noteworthy because of their special talents or personalities, such as jesters and assassins. His writing helped pave the way for the ch'uan-ch'i (classical tales) of the eighth and ninth centuries.
Pan Ku's History of the Former Han Dynasty was the first history devoted to a single dynasty. Pan Ku's work, together with Fan Yeh's History of the Later Han Dynasty, Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms, and the Records of the Grand Historian, are traditionally considered the pillars of Chinese historical writing.
Although its narrative roots can be traced back to the Chuang
Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Tso Commentary, Chinese fiction is often said to have
begun its development under the influence of the romantic and supernatural
adventures related in the biographies of diviners and imperial concubines
in the Records of the Grand Historian. This genre consisting of depictions
of courtly affairs and supernatural occurrences was referred to as chih-kuai
("recording the strange") fiction. Among the earlier examples of this sort
of fiction were the Private Life of Lady Swallow and the Intimate Biography
of Han Emperor Wu of the fourth century.
During the seventh through ninth centuries, examination candidates were tested in poetry, which led to the widespread development of that genre, whereas during the 10th through 12th centuries, they were tested in essays on public policy, which led to a flourishing of the literary language. The seventh century saw the refinement of regulated verse, in response to the needs of the examination system. Its most popular themes were closely tied to the efforts of the new class to advance as officials, and its basic spirit was emotional experience. The course of an official career might include a posting to the frontier headquarters of a commander, or temporary retirement to the countryside to cultivate one's reputation in hopes of being recruited for a higher office, or a trip to the capital to court powerful patrons and establish one's name as a scholar. Such experiences were brought out in particular in poems with border, forest, and banquet themes. Seventh through ninth century poems generally strived for a consciousness of human existence through descriptions of natural beauty:(from "Lu-yeh shu-huai" ["Traveling at Night, Writing My Feelings"] by Tu Fu)
Wang Wei, Li Pai, Tu Fu, Pai Chu-i, Han Yu, and Li Shang-yin are the most important poets of the T'ang dynasty (which spanned the seventh through ninth centuries) and are major figures in the history of Chinese poetry.
The Sung dynasty poets of the 11th and 12th centuries introduced philosophy into poetry, and discourse and reasoning became important characteristics of their works. To the technique of conveying emotion through scenic description, they added the poetic metaphor:(from "Ho Tzu-yu Min-ch'ih Huai-chiu" ["Matching Tzu-yu's Poem Recalling the Past at Minchih"] by Su Shih)
T'ang and Sung poetry became the twin paradigms of Chinese poetry in later ages. Ou-yang Hsiu, Wang An-shih, Su Shih (Su Tung-po), Huang T'ing-chien, and Lu Yu are the major representatives of Sung poetry.
The medieval era of the seventh through ninth centuries was a time of cultural fusion. Not only was there a melding of the contrasting cultures of earlier dynasties from the fourth through sixth centuries when China was politically divided, but the administration of the western regions and reopening of the Silk Road led to the absorption and popularity of music and dance from Central Asia.
The lyric, a poem originally set to music and with lines of unequal length, became the dominant poetic genre. Poems (i.e. shih) of the literati had by this time moved toward strict regulation (both in formal "neatness" and in tonal contraposition) due to the examination system, and had become increasingly alienated from the spoken language. The art of the lyric, on the other hand, was cultivated at banquets and entertainment activities among merchants and the common people.
The lyric genre began to attract the attention of the literati during the ninth and 10th centuries, and by the 11th century, had become the second most important poetic genre among literati. Due to the differing lengths of its lines and its origins among the common people, it preserved to a considerable degree characteristics of the spoken language. Because it was popular at performances and banquets attended by both men and women, its basic themes were love and feminine emotions. And even though poets later turned to this genre to express their thoughts about life, human experience, the nation, and history, it never fully broke away from its mild and gracious original character, and its minute observations of women's quarters, courtyards, and seasonal changes. The following example is typical of this style:("Huan-hsi sha" [To the tune of "Sand of the Washing Stream"] by Ch'in Kuan)
For poets of the Sung dynasty, the poem came to express the rational and public aspect of the writer's spirit, and the lyric, his emotional and private side. The most important lyricists were Wen T'ing-yun, Wei Chuang, Feng Yen-szu, Li Yu, Liu Yung, Su Shih, Chou Pang-yen, Hsin Chi-chi, and Chiang K'uei.
Another major literary development of late antiquity was the revival of the classical literary language, or ku-wen. P'ien-wen, or parallel prose, had been criticized as being beautiful in form but shallow in substance ever since the late sixth century. The reform of prose writing, however, had to await the mid-eighth century, when Han Yu and Liu Tsung-yuan began to promote the classical literary language. Their models were the Mencius and the Records of the Grand Historian. They ultimately succeeded in developing a new, more comprehensive style of writing that reflected the life of people outside the class of officials and returned to the tenets of Confucian thought as a main theme.
This type of writing emphasized narration and argument, which became autobiographical and lyrical vehicles of expression by lending prominence to the writer as a subjective entity. The classical literary language achieved unprecedented success during the 11th century and became the main form of prose writing in China thereafter. Major writers in this genre during the Sung dynasty were Ou-yang Hsiu, Wang An-shih, Su Hsun, Su Shih, Su Che, and Tseng Kung.
The career ups and downs experienced by the new class of officials inspired a narrative form that conveyed change. The form gradually encompassed social realities and human life, but was at the same time influenced by the chih-kuai (reportage) genre of fiction of the fourth century onward, and the Records of the Grand Historian tradition that emphasized outstanding individuals. By the eighth century, this type of fiction was called the ch'uan-ch'i (classical tale). These stories often added elements of the mysterious and fantastic to everyday occurrences.
Such tales might feature an overnight lodging turning into a dragon's
palace; a fiancee revealing herself to be a fox spirit, an ant princess,
or a dragon king's daughter; or some other extraordinary individual who
changes the fate of the protagonist. The classical tale was typically based
in reality but interwoven with fantasy and descriptions of a mysterious,
imaginary world. Representative classical tales include the Chen-chung
Chi by Shen Chi-chi, the Nan-k'o T'ai-shou Chuan by Li Kung-tso, and Ying-ying
Chuan by Yuan Chen, and Ch'ang-hen Ko-chuan by Ch'en Hung.
The musical influence on plot structure inherited from the chantefable, combined with the verbal repartee of the yuan-pen genre of dramatic skits of the 11th century, formed the basis for the earliest known form of completely developed music drama in China, the Yuan tsa-chu, or Yuan Music Drama of the 13th century. Less than 170 complete examples of this genre have survived, with plots ranging from melodrama and crime to comedy and spiritual redemption. Among these theatrical works are intensely melodramatic works, such as Kuan Han-ch'ing's Injustice to Tou O, Pai Pu's Rain on the Kolanut Tree, Ma Chih-yuan's Autumn in the Han Palace, and Chi Chun-hsiang's Orphan of Chao. Most of the musical comedies were social satires, such as fantasies about scholars climbing the bureaucratic ladder, often through love and at the expense of merchants. One of the most influential romantic music comedies from the 14th centuries was the Romance of the Western Chamber, traditionally attributed to Wang Shih-fu, which had an enormous impact on the plot structure of later music drama and fiction with its popularization of the chia-jen ts'ai-tzu ("Beauty-Scholar") motif.
The literary heart and soul of all three of these theatrical forms, the chantefable, yuan-pen, and Yuan Music Drama, was a new kind of poetry called the ch'u (ditty) based on a new song form that appeared in the north of China during the 12th and 13th centuries. The lyrics of the ditty also became an independent poetic form in their own right, originally sung to the tune of the ditty in a manner like the lieder settings of 18th and 19th century German poetry by Franz Schubert and other contemporary Viennese composers. The major difference was that these composers created music to match an already existing poetic text, while the 12th and 13th century Chinese ditty poets created text to match an already existing ditty melody. By the 14th century, the original northern ditty melodies were gradually lost, yet ditty lyrics were still successfully set to what succeeding generations preserved as their original tune matrix, and new music from southern China was ultimately created to again allow musical performance.
A special characteristic of the ditty was that filler words could be freely added outside the fixed metrical pattern for euphonic effect. The metrical pattern itself was flexible within certain musically proscribed limits. This freedom gave the ditty a strikingly colloquial nature. Furthermore, several or even a score of ditties in the same mode could be combined into a ditty sequence. This enabled it to be freely extended to a length that surpassed the scope of ordinary poetry, and endowed it with a special vividness:(Pu-fu-lao ["Not Bowing to Old Age"] by Kuan Han-ch'ing)
Verbal effects like these were possible only in ditties. As the above two verses show, ditty writers in either music dramas or independent verses often flirted with the comic and risque, although nostalgic and angry ditties were also written. In addition to the Yuan playwrights who frequently wrote ditties outside the context of music dramas, major ditty poets included Chang Yang-hao and Chiao Chi.
Earlier kinds of poetry, the Shih and lyric, were part of the fabric of vernacular fiction in its earliest manifestation, prompt books or hua-pen. These seem to have arisen, either directly or indirectly, through imitation from the oral storytelling tradition whose roots extended back to the 11th or 12th centuries during the Sung dynasty. All three kinds of poetry played an integral role in short, medium, and full-length vernacular fiction until the 19th century. The vernacular fiction genre flourished in the 14th through 16th centuries of the Ming dynasty, thanks to the expansion of commercial printing.
The most outstanding extant examples of short story collections from this period are Feng Meng-lung's Three Collections of Words [to Awaken the World] and Ling Meng-chu's Two Collections of Striking the Table [in Amazement]. There are four great works of extended fiction, major editions of which date from the 15th and 16th centuries of the Ming: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; Water Margin, also translated as All Men are Brothers; Journey to the West, also translated as Monkey; and Golden Lotus.
Unlike earlier ninth through 12th century classical literary tales written in the literary language about scholars, courtesans, semi-mythical characters, fox-spirits, and ghosts, the vernacular short story generally featured characters in an urban, middle-class setting. Money, marriage, social and business ethics, and the vagaries of fortune often constituted the principal plot concern. The four great works of extended fiction, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West, were all products of a long and gradual process of revision and embellishment by story tellers and editors over the centuries leading up to the Ming dynasty, so they can be considered collective national creations, even if their later Ming versions primarily reflect a single literary mind. This process of collective revision could even be said of Golden Lotus, which circulated in manuscript form among various Ming literati prior to appearing in several different editions. In their Ming manifestations, all four great works of extended fiction reflect a growing sense of literary irony in their retelling of the traditional story plot. This may be an expression of growing literati dissatisfaction with the moral and political climate of the Ming court and society.
The Ming also witnessed the flourishing of a new kind of literati music drama called ch'uan-ch'i (Grand Music Drama), the same Chinese name as the literary tales of the eighth century onward, but otherwise a completely separate literary genre. Unlike Yuan Music Drama, which continued to be written during the Ming, albeit in increasingly modified form, Grand Music Drama evolved from an early popular form of music drama in southern China known as nan-hsi (Southern Music Drama) into a highly sophisticated theatrical genre that came to rival the prevailing Yuan Music Drama in literary quality. Grand Music Drama plots were more complex and expansive than the neat, highly structured Yuan Music Drama which organized acts around suites of ditties in the same key or mode. Instead of being dominated by musical considerations, the structure of Grand Music Drama plots often became bipolar, with two major strands of plot development interwoven through the length of the play. The dominant plot strand was almost always a variation on the "Beauty-Scholar" theme so prevalent in both drama and fiction throughout the Ming. Various actors on the stage could sing roles at the same time, unlike the northern Yuan Music Drama which restricted the singing role to a single star throughout the drama.
The most influential early example of Grand Music Drama was The Lute by Kao Ming, which has even appeared in a highly modified version on the Broadway stage as The Lute Song. By its more extensive use of imagery and poetic diction than ever before, the 14th century Ming original set a new standard for the Southern Music Drama tradition, lifting it beyond the ken of casual theatergoers. As a result, Grand Music Drama after The Lute gradually evolved a new, highly complex musical tradition which took its name and some of its characteristics from the music of K'un-shan. K'un-ch'u (K'un Music Drama), as Grand Music Drama had then come to be called, reached its peak of popularity during the 16th century when T'ang Hsien-tsu wrote his cycle of four dream plays, including The Peony Pavilion. Although a famous scene from The Peony Pavilion is often performed today as one of the few remaining examples of K'un Music Drama, T'ang Hsien-tzu was in fact less concerned for musical effect than for achieving highly theatrical effects through the lyrical intensity and figural density in his poetic imagery.
The fall of the Ming dynasty and the ultimate consolidation of political power under the Manchus in the 17th century are reflected in the plot of the most famous 17th century K'un Music Drama, Peach Blossom Fan by K'ung Shang-jen. The Peach Blossom Fan also bears witness to the increasing distance between the musical and literary dimensions of K'un Music Drama which culminated in the virtual demise of the form by the 18th century. But a century earlier, the genre reached the climax of its literary development in Hung Sheng's Palace of Eternal Sorrow. Appropriately, it took as its plot kernel a well-known narrative poem by the ninth century poet Pai Chu-i titled, "Song of Eternal Sorrow" depicting the story of the eighth century Emperor Hsuan-tsung and the loss of his favorite imperial consort, Yang Kuei-fei. While echoing the era of medieval Chinese poetry when vernacular fiction and drama may have first taken form, the Palace of Eternal Sorrow also invoked the "Beauty-Scholar" theme, which usually resulted in the union of male and female principal leads by the final scene, in a more poignant, ironic way. Thus, 17th and 18th century K'un Music Drama achieved a literary richness beyond that of its predecessors, but in its greatest works, also conveyed a sense of despair and irrevocable loss indicative of the age.
This same mixture of literary qualities can be found in increasing intensity among the majority of 17th through 19th century works of extended fiction, such as Wu Ching-tzu's The Scholars, Li Ju-chen's Flowers in the Mirror, and Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in's Dream of the Red Chamber or as it is alternatively known, The Story of the Stone. The extended fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries generally displayed a growing sense of despair at the moral lethargy of contemporary society. Among them were Wu Yen-jen's Strange Events Witnessed in the Past Twenty Years, Li Po-yuan's Bureaucracy Exposed, and Liu O's The Travels of Lao Ts'an.
Although fiction became increasingly popular from the 13th century onward, this was mainly as leisure reading among the literati and merchant class. After the Mongols were driven out in the 14th century and Han Chinese rule re-established, efforts were made to return to the views and values of two earlier great periods of Han Chinese rule, the Han and T'ang dynasties. The formalistic eight-legged essay (so named because it was divided into eight parts) also got its start at this time. The eight-legged essay was the form adopted for the explication of the Confucian classics, which formed the basis for a reinstatement of the examination system. Thus the eight-legged essay and imitations of the classical literary language of the earlier eras of Chinese cultural greatness became the major written genres of the time. There were no further breakthroughs in literary writing, except for a style of artistically heightened descriptions of everyday life experiences, called hsiao-p'in ("little sketches"), which emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Fiction in the form of jottings, written in the literary language,
also regained popularity at this time. The most important fiction collections
in this genre were Pu Sung-ling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio
and Chi Hsiao-lan's Jottings from the Thatched Hall of Close Observations.
Although vernacular literature developed greatly during 14th through 19th
centuries, literature written in the classical literary language by scholars
still constituted the cultural mainstream, given that literacy was still
primarily their specialized province. This situation remained essentially
unchanged up until the emergence of the New Literature Movement.
The new literature was to herald social reform. Hu Shih raised the curtain for the literary revolution with his 1917 essay, "A Modest Proposal for the Reform of Literature." In another essay, "On a Constructive Literary Revolution," Ch'en Tu-hsiu, Ch'ien Hsuan-t'ung, and Hu Shih advocated .".. a literature in the national language, and a national language of literary quality." He hoped that a nation with more than 2,000 different dialects could adopt a unified "national language", and that the written literary language of the scholarly class be discarded in favor of this national language, the ordinary speech of everyday, as the basis for writing (see Chapter 4, Language). In his History of Vernacular Literature, Hu Shih re-evaluated the Chinese literary tradition, and attempted to raise the vernacular literature of the people from its previous position as a sub-branch of literature to the mainstream. His goal was for vernacular literature to replace the classical literature of the scholars, which he pronounced "dead writing."
The early period of new literature was fraught with contradiction: individual freedom was encouraged so as to oppose traditional society, but was at the same time to be abandoned in the name of social justice, social concern, and the building of modern organizations. Rejecting the traditional culture and literature of the scholars, the reformers insisted that vernacular literature was the only living literature. Yet because vernacular literature grew out of the professional storytelling tradition, they also viewed it as backward and primitive. And, except for a few great works rich in cultural criticism, they adopted a largely negative attitude towards the vernacular tradition because it had originated as popular entertainment.
Chou Tso-jen and the others faced the dilemma of advocating a
vernacular literature while being unable to identify with either the form
or content of traditional Chinese vernacular literature. To solve this
dilemma, Hu Shih, Ch'en Tu-hsiu, and others proposed using the genres,
forms, and spiritual consciousness of Western literature as models for
imitation. Translation became a required intermediary in the creation of
the new literature. The first translators had no scruples about remolding
the Chinese language along European lines, and the foreign flavor of their
writing became one of its major characteristics. Thus a deliberate "horizontal
transfer" of literature was advocated as part of the movement to modernize
China. Actual literary works of the time, however, were not simply imitations
of foreign models. Lu Hsun's story, Diary of a Madman, for example, was
obviously influenced by Gogol, but the thrust of its contents--its denunciation
of the overly severe and demanding ethics of traditional culture--was an
expression of a uniquely Chinese situation. Its style approached that of
the fables of Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, Han Yu, and Liu Tsung-yuan.
The neat five and seven-syllable lines of traditional poetry were replaced in this period by the cadences of spoken Chinese, modeled after the line patterns of Western poems. Even more notable was the discord that resulted from the introduction of intellectual argumentation and search for meaning and freedom into the traditional themes of love and natural scenery. Whether through ardent passion or cold critique, these poems signaled an end to gentleness and ingenuousness, to the fusion of emotion and scenery, and to the original harmony of man and nature. They announced the beginning of an aesthetics of bitterness and anguish.
Prose writers such as Lin Yu-t'ang and Liang Shih-ch'iu, who were intimately acquainted with the Western tradition, wrote informal essays in the style of Montaigne and Lamb. Excepting for their use of the colloquial language, they generally followed the classical prose style of the ninth through 12th centuries, mixing reason with emotion, and musing on minor events of daily life. Chu Tzu-ch'ing, Hsia Mien-tsun, Feng Tzu-k'ai, and Hsu Chih-mo were all masters of this genre of writing.
The impassioned critiques of Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, the cogent lucidity
of Hu Shih, and the caustic wit of Lu Hsun were often expressed in "wars
of the pen." Standing in contrast to this high level of social involvement
were writers such as Chou Tso-jen and Lin Yu-t'ang, who rediscovered the
informal essays of the 16th and 17th centuries. They advocated an easygoing
humor and the savoir-vivre of sipping bitter herb tea and copying old books;
but were at the same time conversant with Freud and D.H. Lawrence. Although
both types of essays were written in the colloquial language, their spirit
was still rooted in the old culture of the scholar. The writers themselves,
however, were not government officials but college professors, publishing
house editors, journalists, and high school teachers.
In the process of fanning the flames of patriotism and nationalistic
fervor during the War of Resistance, a higher reassessment was made of
traditional Chinese culture and literature. Many writers began adopting
methods from folk drama and storytelling in their propaganda campaigns,
presaging the literature of workers, peasants, and soldiers later espoused
by the Chinese Communists. Immediately following the Japanese surrender,
China was plunged into all-out civil war. After the Chinese mainland fell
into Chinese Communist hands, socialist realism and Mao Tse-tung's talks
on art and literature at Yenan set the narrow confines within which writers
on the mainland could operate. At the same time, the withdrawal of the
ROC government to Taiwan turned a new page in modern Chinese literature.
After the initial outpouring of anti-communist works, literature in Taiwan developed in two main directions during the next decade. One was an enthusiastic embracing of such Western fictional techniques as surrealism, displacement of time and place, and a plunge into the subjective consciousness, in combination with rich lyrical symbolism and expressiveness inherited from the native tradition. The other was a nostalgic literature rooted in emotional needs. It typically described people and localities on the Chinese mainland or delved into the psychology of displaced mainlanders in Taipei. Mainland-born soldiers such as Ssu-ma Chung-yuan and Chu Hsi-ning depicted settings in the Chinese mainland, while Wang Chen-ho's An Oxcart for Dowry, published in 1972, and Huang Chun-ming's short stories, such as Drowning an Old Cat, used the Taiwanese countryside for the settings of their stories. One of the best known works exploring displaced mainlander psychology was Pai Hsien-yung's Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, also known as Tales of Taipei Characters.
The second generation of writers after the ROC government's move
to Taiwan witnessed the internal struggles and conflicts of the older generation
torn between two times and places. They themselves, however, were torn
among three: the United States, where many of them had resided; a Chinese
mainland that existed only in their dreams; and the Taiwan in which they
had grown to adulthood. Furthermore, the previous generation of writers
born on Taiwan, corresponding to the first generation of writers who had
come from the mainland, had experienced similar feelings of loss and of
struggle between two times and places. Soon after being freed from Japanese
rule, they were faced with the task of learning the Chinese national language,
and were exposed to all the new cultural developments that had occurred
since the May Fourth era. World War II had left its mark on them as well:
many had been sent by the Japanese to Southeast Asia as soldiers, and Taiwan
itself had suffered from U.S. bombings. All of this became grist for novels,
poetry, essays, and films.
The primary literary genre in contemporary Taiwan rema ins the prose essay--a sort of one-way conversation between author and reader--which has its roots in the classical tradition of jottings dating from the eighth century onward. The modern Chinese prose essay has its literary counterpart in the English prose essay of the 16th through 18th centuries which atrophied under the development of the novel in late 18th and early 19th century Europe and was ultimately subsumed by it. Newspapers in Taiwan are the primary vehicle of the prose essay, which then are collected and published in book form after undergoing some rewriting. When read in translation, the eclectic and anecdotal nature of most such essays often requires some acclimation by Western readers not generally used to encountering the use of non-fictional prose as a literary vehicle.
Fiction is certainly the next most important genre, but modern Taiwanese fiction, like its counterpart on the Chinese mainland, retains the predilection of traditional Chinese fiction for an episodic plot rhythm that often manifests itself in shorter length and scope than the Western novel. Thus, short stories are by far the most common form of Taiwanese fiction, often highly descriptive of the physical and emotional joys and hardships of life in a particular historical, social or political context. Thus, the principal energy of Taiwanese fiction (and modern Chinese fiction in general) lies in vividly capturing the sensational and emotional atmosphere of being a part of life in a given place or social level of Chinese society in a way that is convincing to a reader who has shared the experience, or thinks he or she could have. What is often uniquely Taiwanese about this fiction is its sense of cultural distinction (in the positive sense) or alienation (in the negative) from the grand sweep of modern Chinese culture.
This latter goal is part of the process of searching for a cultural identity that spans every historical period of Taiwanese literature dating from the Japanese occupation to the onslaught of Western culture over the past twenty years. Even the most rudimentary aspects of the heritage of fifty years of Japanese occupation have yet to be explored by Taiwanese writers in a conscious way, but after a visit to the Chinese mainland across the Taiwan Straits, every Taiwanese is at some level aware that his culture is different from its counterpart in southern Fukien Province.
Aurally and visually, some differences in the language of literature are obvious. In actual day-to-day usage, standard Chinese spoken in Taiwan reflects not only the influence of some pronunciation characteristics of southern Chinese languages but also their word usages and grammatical peculiarities. In addition, the traditional forms of Chinese characters are still used on Taiwan, while publications from the mainland have mostly abandoned them for simplified forms.
In terms of content, most modern Taiwanese writers feel the need to grapple with defining what is Chinese about life in Taiwan amidst the rapid profusion of Western (primarily American) political, economic and social norms, and the large-scale and intensive onslaught of Japanese commercial products, such as department stores, supermarkets, and consumer products. Taiwanese writers in recent years have often felt the need to address the maddening pace of change in their society and the materialism that is eroding traditional Chinese moral and ethical values. As such, this concern parallels similar concerns in the larger body of all contemporary Chinese literature for what direction modern Chinese culture is taking after abandoning the well-known confines of the traditional Chinese culture at the start of this century.
A uniquely Taiwanese literary vehicle for this concern is Down Home Country literature, which dates from the 1950s but gained critical attention in the 1970s. In its earlier incarnation, Down Home Country literature consisted of sentimental reminiscences and vignettes of life and characters from the Taiwan countryside. They were often slightly melancholic or subtly humorous, but in one way or another evoked the feel and atmosphere of a conservative countryside culture still in some semblance of what the author perceived of as the pristine state prior to the arrival of mainland Chinese in 1949. Even in its post-1970 form as primarily polemical literature railing against rapid urbanization and environmental despoliation, Down Home Country literature has mostly remained an expression of the need to make finer cultural distinctions in Chinese identity than is possible through mainstream literature in order to define Taiwan's unique cultural identity. This can be seen in the trilogy of three works of extended fiction, Cold Nights, The Deserted Village, and Lone Light (1979-80) by Li Ch'iao.
The function of language as a symbol for culture is nowhere more apparent than in the linguistic problems Down Home Country literature has raised for educated readers on Taiwan, that is, can the unique features of life in Taiwan be effectively described in the written version of standard Chinese? Or should dialogue between characters, in particular, be recorded in the local Chinese dialect?
To non-speakers of Chinese, this may seem to be a somewhat abstruse concern. However, the term "Chinese" masks two meanings, namely, literature written by Chinese people, and literature written in the Chinese language. Chinese characters provide a single, graphic form that when read by virtually all educated speakers, is read with the pronunciation, grammar and word usage of Standard Chinese (Mandarin). So attention to these two meanings of Chinese literature is only necessary when we consider that there are in fact an array of Chinese languages distinct from Standard Chinese, such as Cantonese, Southern Fukienese, Hakka, etc. These are spoken by a significant portion of Chinese speakers and are clearly related to each other, yet mutually unintelligible in much the same way as are French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Taiwan's native Chinese population mostly speaks one of several dialects of Southern Fukienese, which they call "Taiwanese." Speaking in this dialect is one way for Taiwanese whose ancestors have lived on Taiwan for hundreds of years to define their cultural distinction from the larger polymorphous culture of greater China. For some authors, fiction intended to reflect Taiwan's local version of southern Fukienese culture requires the use of occasional Taiwanese word usages that do not exist in Standard Chinese, or in dialogues of complete sentences that accurately capture the grammatical and semantically distinct features of the Taiwanese dialect.
Although virtually all educated Chinese have never been trained
to read in them, it is in fact for the most part possible to write each
of these languages in Chinese characters (as is often done for Cantonese),
pronouncing each character in the local dialect. Most native Chinese readers
object to this process, however, because Chinese characters not only represent
sound, but also meaning, and when the proper character is used to represent
a Taiwanese sound, it often reveals a meaning or usage no longer current
in standard Chinese. Many educated readers, long used to the meanings and
visual harmony of Mandarin, feel disoriented and even at times uncomfortable,
especially when presented with characters that are rare or completely unknown
to them in Mandarin. Therefore, attempts to write a literary work completely,
or even mostly in the Taiwanese dialect of Southern Fukienese have appeared
only sporadically over the past few years. As such, this mode of literary
expression still awaits greater linguistic acceptance on the part of its