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China has a great tradition of literature and poetry but unfortunately much of it is difficult to translate into Western languages. As of 2005 there was only one serious translator of Chinese literature into English, Howard Goldblatt, the founding editor of “Modern Chinese Literature” and a professor at the University of Notre Dame. The fact that so little Chinese literature makes its way to the West is worrisome.

The Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature are: 1) “Water Margin” (“Shuihu Zhuàn”) by Shi Nai'an,14th century; 2) “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (“Sanguó Yanyì”) by Luo Guanzhong,14th century (a collection of stories sometimes referred to as the Chinese equivalent of Arthurian legends); 3) “Journey to the West” (“Xi Yóu Jì”) by Wu Cheng'en,16th century; and 4) “Dream of the Red Chamber” (“Hónglóu Mèng”) by Cao Xueqin,18th century. Honorable mentions include: “Romance of the Western Chamber” (Yuan Dynasty) , “The Plum in the Golden Vase” (late Ming Dynasty) and “Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio” (1740). The latter four all had their Manchu versions. Many classic stories are associated with Chinese Theaters. (See Theater and Opera).

In the old days “news singers” were fixtures of Chinese teahouses. The Chinese have a saying: "use the past to criticize the present." One Chinese intellectual told the writer Paul Theroux, "That is a Chinese preoccupation. There was a mayor who wrote a play about an obscure figure during the Ming period. People were shocked. 'You are criticizing Mao!' they said. That mayor was removed very soon after. And he disappeared." A similar incident triggered the Cultural Revolution.

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Early Chinese literature consists primarily of historical and philosophical prose as well as various kinds of poetry. The earliest extant poems, probably transcriptions of folk songs, date from the eighth century B.C. since then there is an unbroken tradition of poetry both as a folk form and as a gentlemanly literary endeavor. In classical poetry, lyric and narrative forms are both found, but the epitome of the tradition is the short lyric on the themes of nature, the transience of life, or male friendship. In the late imperial period, the multivolume episodic novel, written in vernacular style, gained great popularity; its themes range from historical romance to Buddhist fantasy to psychological family chronicle. Fiction and political essays, now written entirely in the vernacular or baihua, have been the primary genres in the postimperial period. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project

Early Chinese Literature

China has a very old and rich tradition of literature, both poetry and prose,. It is the only place in the world with a literature written, still largely read is same language it was written in 3,000 ago. Early writings included philosophical and religious essays and conversations in works attributed of Confucius (551–479 B.C.), Lao-tzu (probably 4th century B.C.) and other writers and scholars from around the same time. Their works often dealt with how people should act and how the society and how political entities should be organised. China also a strong tradition of historical writing. One of the earliest historians, still published today, is Sima Qian (145 – 86 BC) , whose “Records of the Grand Historian” is still the source of much of what we known about ancient Chinese history.

China has a wealth of classical literature dating from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.) that included the Classics attributed to Confucius and his contemporaries Classical Chinese literature is made up of Confucian texts and vernacular Chinese literature consisted largely of grand prose epics that were regarded as low-class by classical scholars when they were written and popularized. Fiction developed relatively late with the oldest known stories written in the vernacular dating back to the Tang period (A.D. 690-907). .

In a review of “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabrina Knight, Li-hua Ying of Bard College wrote in the MCLC Resource Center Publication: The first chapter, a well-argued treatment of classics, begins with the famous fish parable in Zhuangzi, which advocates the acquisition of a broader perspective, a concept "shared by all the major schools of Chinese thought". To illustrate this point, Knight goes into an explication of the Chinese writing system, and Confucian and Daoist classics, highlighting the role of the literati in transmitting and transforming Chinese culture, since "China's survival over three thousand years may owe more to its literary history than to its political history" The second chapter, packed with many insights and a forcefully articulated point of view, focuses on classical poetry, which, according to Knight, "offered ways to find meaning amid time's transience, regulate bodily energies, and cultivate benevolence." [Source: Li-hua Ying, MCLC Resource Center Publication, October 2012]

The third chapter deals with a wide variety of prose writings, including historical narratives and belles lettres (essays and jottings), as well as short stories of "strange" and fantastic nature. By including historical narratives as wenxue (lit., "the study of writing" or literature), Knight makes an important point in keeping with Chinese practice prior to the late nineteenth century. She underscores the function of early narratives as record keeping and moral teaching, and her extensive list includes historical narratives such as Zuo's Commentary (a.k.a., The Chronicle of Zuo or The Commentary of Tso) and The Historical Records (a.k.a., Records of the Grand Historian); supernatural or marvelous tales found in Classics of Mountains and Seas (a.k.a.,The Classic of Mountains and Seas), In Search of Spirits (a.k.a., In Search of the Supernatural), and Strange Tales from a Leisure Studio (a.k.a., Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio); and tales of the mundane, such as those collected in New Accounts of the Tales of the World. These texts are wildly diverse in theme and style.

Confucian Classics

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Song-era Book Six of
the Confucian Classics

The are five Confucian classics: 1) “Book of History”, a collection of documents ascribed to ancient Emperors and officials; 2) “Book of Songs” (“Shijing”), an anthology of early poems also known as “Book of Poem” ; 3) “Book of Changes” (“I Ching”), a manual of divination and philosophical appendices; 4) “Rites” (“Li Chi”), a compendium of rituals; and 5) “The Spring, Autumn Annals”, a chronicle of the state of Lu; and the attached “Zuo Commentary”.

Among the most important classics in Chinese literature is the "Yijing" (Book of Changes), a manual of divination based on eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The "Yijing" is still used by adherents of folk religion. [Source: Library of Congress]

The "Shijing" (Classic of Poetry) is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. The "Shujing" (Classic of Documents) is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains the best examples of early Chinese prose.

The "Liji" (Record of Rites), a restoration of the original "Lijing" (Classic of Rites), lost in the third century B.C., describes ancient rites and court ceremonies. The "Chun Qiu" (Spring and Autumn) is a historical record of the principality of Lu, Confucius' native state, from 722 to 479 B.C. It is a log of concise entries probably compiled by Confucius himself. The "Lunyu" (Analects) is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples.

In Confucius’s time there was an additional classic, “Music”, but it has been lost. The oldest versions of the “I-Ching” and Confucius' Discourse on the Book of Poetry are on chop-stick-like bamboo slips in the Shanghai Museum. They are believed to be more than 2,200 years old.

The Four Books — “The Analects”, (“Conversations,” or "Classics"), “The Doctrine of the Mean”, “The Great Learning” and “Mencius” — form the basis of Confucian education and training for imperial officials. “The Analects” has been described as "the most influential book in the history of the human race" and a "modern book" with "the oldest intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man." One Confucian told the New York Times, "All human knowledge is contained in this book. If you read this book carefully, you don't need another."

Confucius reportedly compiled the sayings, aphorism, maxims and episodes that make up “The Analects” during his retirement. But this seems unlikely. The 20 chapters and 497 verses of “The Analects” were unknown until 300 years after his death. More likely they were compiled by his disciples and written down by other people. Confucius himself once said he merely "transmitted" what was taught to him "without making anything up" on his own. The first half of “The Analects” is stylistically and thematically very different from the second half. University of Southern California historian John Wills Jr. told Atlantic Monthly, "We have known for a long time that some of the later parts of the book are suspect. After Chapter Ten or Twelve you get a lot of fishy Taoist stuff."

Revival of the Classics in China

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: ““The wandering soul, in one form or another, has been stirring.As China undergoes an economic transformation ten times the speed of the first industrial revolution, people are turning to ancient ideas for a connection to the past. The classics have become such reliable best-sellers that, in 2009, the company behind National Studies Web, a site that sells digitized Confucian texts, went public on the Shenzhen stock exchange. To appeal to entrepreneurs, Peking University and other respected schools created mid-career courses that promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in the classics. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]

The well-known Chinese author Wang Meng has been pouring a lot of his energy into generating interest in the Chinese classics. Li Yingxue wrote in the China Daily, “Born in 1934, Wang is a former culture minister who also worked as editor-in-chief of People's Literature and as vice-executive-chairman of the Chinese Writers' Association. He is also a prolific author of literary works, including novels, essays and poems. “Wang's book Zhongguo Tianji (God Knows China) was published five years ago. The work demonstrated his profound understanding of Chinese history. Now Wang is bringing his audience a companion piece - Zhonghua Xuanji ("Chinese recondite principle") - which provides a deeper insight into Chinese philosophy and traditional culture. [Source: Li Yingxue, China Daily, December 15, 2017]

“"Six years ago, I wrote about the role of predictability and unpredictability in modern and contemporary Chinese history, where tianji referred to the rule of inevitability," says Wang. "But this time, xuanji can have many different meanings." The Chinese character xuan can mean black or mysterious. "Tao Te Ching, or Dao De Jing, a text written by Chinese sage Laozi around the sixth century BC, only has 6,000 characters, but it's one of the most influential philosophy books in the world," Wang says. With a limited number of words, the principles set out are open to a variety of interpretations, and researchers can always find ways to dig deeper. "So, it could take you more than a lifetime to finish studying Chinese culture," says Wang.

“"Unlike more straightforward foreign tracts, Chinese philosophy tends to view things dialectically. "We have a Chinese saying - One step back today for two steps forward tomorrow - which doesn't mean we will always have to take a step back, but rather that we are seeking a way to zigzag forward."Taoism, Confucianism and Mencius' thought are not the only representations of Chinese culture. Chinese poetry from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties are just as valid.

“Wang likens Chinese culture to a huge tree. "For example, Chinese poetry is like a tree with thick branches, full of flowers and fruit that attracts birds and cicadas," Wang says. "When I read one poem, there are hundreds of poems singing together in my mind."Wu Shulin, executive vice-president of the Publishers Association of China, says he is pleasantly surprised to see that Wang has written several books exploring traditional Chinese culture in recent years."He has precise understanding of Chinese culture, and all his books about this topic are based on his knowledge reserves built up over all these years," says Wu.

Literary Sayings and Proverbs

1) “A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step — from Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing ascribed to Laozi, erroneously ascribed to Confucius.
2) “Facts beat eloquence” — sort of "Actions speak louder than words", from Lu Xun's "Hot Wind"
3) “No standards not become perimeter” — nothing can be accomplished without or standards, from of Mencius and his students,.
4) “A word already produced is difficult for a team of four horses to chase down” — from "The Analects of Yan Yuan" — a word spoken can never be taken back, or a promise must be kept.
5)“Have truth walk all land-under-heaven; no truth cun [Chinese inch] step difficult walk” — With truth on your side, you can go anywhere; without truth, you can't take a tiny step, from the philosophical work "White Horse Thesis" by Gong Sunlong. [Sources: Candice Song, China Highlights, September 15, 2021; Veronika Gomez Skopalova,,]

6) “Three thoughts and after act" — Look before you leap, from "The Analects".
7) “Good medicine bitter mouth” — frank criticism is hard to swallow.
8) Subjects think food is heaven” — hunger breeds discontent, from "Records of the Grand Historian".
9) “Player confused; spectator clear” — The player is lost; the watcher is lucid, from the "Biography of Yuan Xingchong" in the Old Book of Tang.
10) “Punish before prevent after” — learn from past mistakes to avoid future ones, from "Sacrificial Odes of Zhou" in the Confucian classic "Book of Songs".
11) “10 years cultivate wood, 100 years cultivate man” — education is a life-long process, from the work of Guan Zhong who was a politician in the Spring and Autumn Period.
12) “Few families happy few families worried” — one man's disaster is another man's delight.
13) “Man meet happy-occasion spirit invigorated” — everyone likes a happy occasion, from "Journey to the West".

14) “One move two gains” — to kill two birds with one stone, variously attributed to "History of the Later Han Dynasty" (c. 200), "The Book of Jin" (420), "Stories to Caution the World" (1624, Feng Menglong), and Lu Xun's collected letters.
15) “Like sit needle felt” — feel tense and uneasy.
16) “All ready, only lack east wind” — everything is ready for most important part, from the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", this means that.
17) “Sparrow although small, five organs entirely complete” — looks can be deceiving, from Qian Zhongshu's work "Fortress Besieged".
18) “Good have good recompense” — one good turn deserves another, from the Southern Dynasties work "New Wine and Meat" by Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549).
19) “Mute eats dumplings, heart inside has number” — someone knows the situation quite well, yet says nothing.

20) “Adversity come follow receive” — take things as they come.
21) “Timber already become boat; raw rice boiled into cooked rice” — what's done cannot be undone.
22) “Body physical-strength acts” — practice what you preach, from the "Huainanzi".
23) “Great wisdom seem stupid” — from "Laozi".
24) “Change shield spear for jade silk” — bury the hatchet, from the first chapter of the "Huainanzi".
25) “Soldiers don't hate deceit” — all's fair in love and war, from an ancient Chinese political philosopher Master Han Fei's work "Han Feizi".
26) “Quick foot first climb” — "first come, first served"
27) “Road distant know horse strength, days old see man heart” — time reveals a person's character, from the anonymous work "Fight Gratitude" of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368).

Longest and Oldest Books

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Yongle Dadian Encyclopedia

According to the “Guinness Book of Records”, the largest publication and largest encyclopedia ever was the “Yongle Dadian” (an 11,095 volume work with 22,937 chapters produced by 2,000 Chinese scholar between 1403 and 1408). Only three copies were made.

The Chinese are credited with inventing wood block printing in the 3rd century A.D., and printing presses in the 11th century. Before giving China full credit for inventing printing it must pointed out the wood-block printing invented by the Chinese was very different from the movable type printing used by Gutenberg to print his famous Bible. Chinese printing with wooden movable type, has been proposed for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status.

The world's oldest surviving book, “The Diamond Sutra”, was printed with wooden blocks in China in A.D. 868. It consisted of Buddhist scriptures printed on seven 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together in one 16-foot-long scroll. Part of “The Perfection of Wisdom” text, a Mahayanist sermon preached by Buddha, it was found in cave in the Gansu Province in 1907 by the British explorer Aurel Stein, who also found well-preserved 9th century silk and linen paintings.

In Imperial times, the Chinese preferred handwritten calligraphy over printing for important texts. Printing was used by those who could not afford anything better. In 932 a Chinese prime minister wrote: "We have seen... men from Wu and Shu who sold books that were printed from blocks of wood. There were many different texts, but there were among them no orthodox Classics [of Confucianism]. If the Classics could be revised and thus cut in wood and published, it would be a very great boon to the study of literature."

Handscrolls and Literature

Until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 690-906), most books and documents were kept as handscrolls that were around a foot and half wide and varied in length from a few inches to several hundred feet. The proper way to look at hand scroll is to hold it vertically, unroll it from the left and roll it from the right, examining a section at a time. The first handscrolls, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 B.C.), were made mostly from bamboo or wood strips bound together with chord. Ones from the eastern Han Period (25-220 A.D.) used silk and early paper.

Ancient books and documents as well as art masterpieces were put on handschrolls. These are not intended to be hung or mounted on walls, but rather are meant to be stored in boxes and periodically taken out to be looked at. This helps preserve the frail paint and ink which breaks down when exposed to humidity and air. Collectors have traditionally unrolled their scrolls after the rainy season in the summer, savored them with some tea and returned them their boxes. Handscroll texts were generally much longer than they were wide. Compositions were focused from left to right.

Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University wrote: A handscroll is a continuous roll of paper or silk of varying length on which an image or text has been painted, and which, when not being viewed, remains rolled up. Ceremony and anticipation underlie the experience of looking at a handscroll. When in storage, the handscroll is several layers removed from immediate view, and the value of a scroll is reflected in part by its packaging. Scrolls are generally kept in individual wooden boxes that bear an identifying label. Removing the lid, the viewer may find the scroll wrapped in a piece of silk, and, unwrapping the silk, encounters the handscroll bound with a silken cord that is held in place with a jade or ivory toggle. After undoing the cord, one begins the careful process of unrolling the scroll from right to left, pausing to admire and study it, shoulder-width section by section, rerolling a section before proceeding to the next one. [Source: Dawn Delbanco Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Old Books of Imperial China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Because of China's unique writing system and geographical environs, bamboo and wood were adopted as the earliest media for carrying written characters. The text was written vertically on wood or bamboo strips, starting from the right, one line a strip, moving on to the left. The strips were then strung into a(cè), the character denoting pictorially a volume, later expressed in another ideographic form:(shu), meaning book. Then paper was invented; next, block printing came along, and books went from strung strips to rolled-up scrolls to finally an album format of bound pages. Once reaching this stage, how to achieve a pleasing layout on a printed page became the major concern of the printer-cum-cutter. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“In the many history of Chinese printing, the system of one-spread-a-block seemed to have persisted without much change. In fact, the size of the text area, the margin and spacing, the choice of fonts, the design of the "heart" section, the placement of the illustrations, and even the use of colors, all had been critical success factors of a given book, contributing significantly to its readability. Layout design, after all, is a form of visual art. The wisdom and techniques accumulated over the time in this field help shape the book culture of a particular place, even of an era.

“Layout design in the study of the Chinese book is termed "imprint style," literally translated. It involves the following components: text frame, column border, word count (numbers of columns and characters), "heart" (central fold), "fishtail" (folding mark), "elephant trunk" (additional markings between the heart and fishtail), "book ear" (tags near margins), font, and so on. Format variations in the use of these elements provide important clues to the authentication of old books at a time when they are becoming fewer and fewer by the day. Some imprints come illustrated to enhance visual effects. Others allow a glimpse into how the color printing had emerged and evolved. An examination of the various "imprint styles" over the time, especially their copyright proclamations versus ours, helps us put into perspective the connections between old books and their modern counterparts

Old Chinese Stories

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In imperial times until the 20th century, people flocked to tea houses and public squares to listen to storytellers, who often told multi-part stories that kept audiences coming back for more. Popular literature was absorbed by the masses more in this way than through the reading of books.

Famous old stories include “The Good-Luck Horse” by Chih-yi Chan, a story about a boy and his miraculous pony; “Give Brother”, an old folk tale; “Shen of the Sea”; and “The Treasure” of Li-Po. Some scholars believe that the Cinderella story had its origins in China. Some classic stories have been rewritten so many times, with so many variations and differences, it is difficult to ascertain what the original story was.

There are also old stories about a silkworm, a beautiful lady with a white hare, the first firecrackers, the origin of rice, demons, warriors, ghosts, mandarins, and peasants. Famous stories explain why human sacrifices are necessary to makes bells and how the willow pattern on blue-and-white porcelain evolved. “Biographies of Model Women” is a 2000-year-old text from the Han Dynasty with some rather juicy descriptions of sexually liberated women.

Many popular stories were performed as Chinese opera. The love story between Xiang Yu, the ruler of the 2,200-year-old kingdom of Chu, and Lady Yu, is well known in China. The inspiration for the film “Farewell My Concubine”, it described how Xiang Yu challenged but ultimately lost to the first Han dynasty ruler and ends with Xiang Yu and Lady Lu in tent surrounded by Han forces. Rather than surrender they commit suicide. Lady Yi kills herself first after performing a sword dance and vowing to love Xiang forever, even in death.

Old Chinese stories often featured magic mirrors. In the tale of Yin Zhongwen a man is executed shortly after he looks into a mirror and doesn't see his reflection. There is another famous short tale about a woman who is unimpressed by a painting of woman said to be very beautiful. The punch line is when the woman realizes she is starting not at a painting but a mirror.

Development of Prose in China

“The proponents of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the Warring States and Spring and Autumn periods made important contributions to Chinese prose style. The writings of Mo Zi (Mo Di, 470-391 B.C.”), Mencius (Meng Zi; 372-289 B.C.), and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.) contain well-reasoned, carefully developed discourses and show a marked improvement in organization and style over what went before. Mo Zi is known for extensively and effectively using methodological reasoning in his polemic prose. Mencius contributed elegant diction and, along with Zhuang Zi, is known for his extensive use of comparisons, anecdotes, and allegories. By the third century B.C., these writers had developed a simple, concise prose noted for its economy of words, which served as a model of literary form for over 2,000 years. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Tang period also saw a rejection of the ornate, artificial style of prose developed in the previous period and the emergence of a simple, direct, and forceful prose based on Han and pre-Han writing. The primary proponent of this neoclassical style of prose, which heavily influenced prose writing for the next 800 years, was Han Yu (768-824), a master essayist and strong advocate of a return to Confucian orthodoxy. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Vernacular fiction became popular after the fourteenth century, although it was never esteemed in court circles. Covering a broader range of subject matter and longer and less highly structured than literary fiction, vernacular fiction includes a number of masterpieces. The greatest is the eighteenth-century domestic novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). A semiautobiographical work by a scion of a declining gentry family, Hong Lou Meng has been acknowledged by students of Chinese fiction to be the masterwork of its type.

Ruan Ji: A Story from China in A.D. 3rd Century

Stories about Ruan Ji (210-263) in the “Shishuo xinyu”:“1. When Ruan Ji, the Commandant of Infantry, whistled, he could be heard from several hundred paces. Now at this time, a Perfected Sage had suddenly appeared in the Sumen Mountains and the woodcutters there were all recounting tales about him. Ruan Ji went to see for himself and spied the man crouched by a cliff side with his arms around his knees. Ruan Ji climbed the ridge to reach him and squatting down facing him, he began to speak with the man about matters of remotest antiquity. He touched on the mysteries of the Dao of the Yellow Emperor and the Spirit-like Farmer, and the excellence of the Three Eras, Xia, Shang, and Zhou. But when Ruan Ji asked the man for his views, the man simply raised his head high and made no reply. Ruan Ji then went on to speak of that which lies beyond human pursuits and the techniques for settling the spirit within and controlling one’s vital “qi”, laying this all before the man. Yet he continued to look away with a fixed stare. Thereupon, Ruan Ji blew a long whistle towards him. After a long wait, the man laughed and said, “Do it again.” Ruan Ji whistled a second time, but having now lost interest, he departed. When he had returned slightly further than halfway down the ridge, he heard from above a long drawn sound, as though a full orchestra were playing. The forests and valleys below echoed with the music. Turning back, he saw it was the man whistling. [Source:“Shishuo xinyu” (“New accounts of tales of the world”), a fifth century collection of anecdotes; Robert Eno, Indiana University ~ ]

“2) When the office of the Commandant of Infantry fell vacant, several thousand measures of wine were stored in its commissary. That is how Ruan Ji came to seek appointment as Commandant of Infantry. 3) Ruan Ji’s sister-in-law was once preparing to return to her parents’ home, and Ruan Ji went to visit and bid her farewell. When he was attacked for this breach of rules, Ruan Ji said, “How could ritual “li” have been established for people like me?” [According to ritual texts, a man was not to have private contact with his sister-in-law.] 4) The wife of Ruan Ji’s neighbor was a beautiful woman. She worked at a wine shop, tending bar and selling wine. Ruan Ji and Wang Rong frequently went to her bar to drink, and after Ruan became drunk he would lie down beside her and sleep. When he first heard about it the husband was very alarmed, but after he spied on them he realized that after all there was nothing more to it. ~

“5) During the period when Ruan Ji was observing mourning rites for his late mother, he attended a gathering in the house of the Prime Minister, Sima Zhao, and helped himself to meat and wine. Capital District Governor He Zeng, who was also present, said to Prince Wen, “My Lord, you govern the world through your filial devotion, yet Ruan Ji brazenly appears here during his period of deep mourning, drinking wine and eating meat as a banquet guest. He should be exiled from the realm to demonstrate to all what is proper.” Sima Zhao replied, “Look how Ruan Ji has grieved himself into a state of emaciation – how can you fail to feel empathy for him in his troubles? And after all, the ritual “li” do include the rule, ‘When one is ill, drink wine and eat meat.’” Meanwhile, Ruan Ji went right on gulping down meat and wine, completely at ease in mind and appearance. ~

“6. When the emperor had the Wei court enfoeff Sima Zhao as Duke of Jin, full ceremony was employed, including the bestowal of the Nine Imperial Gifts. But Sima Zhao was adamant in refusing to accept them. All the leading figures of government, civil and military, set off for Sima Zhao’s headquarters to urge him to accept. The Director of Works, Zheng Chong, sent a messenger galloping off to Ruan Ji requesting a letter supporting their request. Ruan Ji was at the home of Yuan Zhen, drunk and fast asleep after a night of carousing. Raised from his bed with the assistance of others, he began writing on a wooden tablet. Without any changes or stray blots of ink, he straightaway completed his inscription and handed it to the messenger. Contemporaries judged it an inspired work.” ~

The next two stories deal with Ruan Ji’s nephew, Ruan Xian (234-305), another of the Seven Sages: “7) All the households of the Ruan clan dwelt to the north of the main street, only Ruan Xian and his uncle Ruan Ji had homes to the south. [The Ruans had been Confucian 5 scholars for generations, and were adept at securing prestigious posts, but the southern Ruans esteemed Daoism and avoided responsibilities, devoting themselves to drink.] The northern Ruans were all wealthy; the southern Ruans were poor. On the seventh day of the seventh month, as was the custom at the time, the northern Ruans took their robes and hung them above their courtyards to sun – nothing but delicate silk gauze and colorful brocades. Over his courtyard, Ruan Xian set a bamboo pole on which he hung a big pair of calf-nose underpants, prompting some people to express astonishment. “I wouldn’t want to violate custom,” he replied. “I’m just doing what I can.” 8) The Ruans were all great drinkers, but when Ruan Xian joined a clan gathering, they put away the everyday wine cups and seated themselves round a great terra cotta vat from which they gulped down big drafts. Once a herd of pigs got in and went straight up to the vat, whereupon the men simply drank from the vat with the pigs.” ~

Xi Kang and Liu Ling

Stories about Xi Kang (223-262), who was executed as a threat to public morality, in the “Shishuo xinyu”: “9. Zhong Hui was a man of keen intelligence and ability. Not being previously acquainted with Xi Kang, he assembled some of the most worthy and outstanding men of the time and went with them to pay Xi Kang a visit. Xi Kang was at that moment engaged in forging a metal object beneath a tree with Xiang Xiu (a famous commentator on the “Zhuangzi”), who was assisting him at the bellows. Xi Kang went right on pounding his hammer as if nobody had come, letting the time pass by without exchanging a single word until Zhong Hui rose to go. “What had you heard that made you come?” said Xi Kang. “What have you seen that makes you go?” “I came after hearing what I’d heard,” Zhong Hui replied. “I go after seeing what I’ve seen.”Zhong Hui was well connected, and Xi Kang was ill advised to be witty at his expense. When Xi Kang ultimately was put to death, it was Zhong Hui who successfully urged his execution. [Source:“Shishuo xinyu” (“New accounts of tales of the world”), a fifth century collection of anecdotes; Robert Eno, Indiana University ~ ]

“10. As Xi Kang was taken towards the Eastern Marketplace for execution, his spirit and bearing were unchanged. Reaching for his zither he began to play “The Melody of Guangling.” When the song was ended, he said, “Yuan Zhun once asked to learn this piece from me, but I was unwilling to give it to him and I never relented. And now indeed the ‘Melody of Guangling’ shall be no more.”

Stories about Liu Ling (d. after 265) in the “Shishuo xinyu”: 11) Liu Ling was about five feet tall and very crude in appearance. Dissolute and reckless, he viewed the universe as inconsequential and all things as of equal value. He was a man of few words and did not make friends easily, but when he met Ruan Ji and Xi Kang his felt the joy of grasping like-minded spirits, and he entered the grove with them hand in hand. From the start having had no concern about the wealth of his household, he used to ride in a deer drawn cart, hoisting a pot of wine, with a servant following behind him shouldering a spade. “If I should die,” he ordered him, “bury me on the spot.” [Source:“Shishuo xinyu” (“New accounts of tales of the world”), a fifth century collection of anecdotes; Robert Eno, Indiana University ~ ]

12) Liu Ling never put his mind into written composition. By the end of his era, the only surviving work bearing his name was his “Hymn to the Virtue of Wine.” 13) Hungover with a powerful thirst, Liu Ling asked his wife to bring him some wine. But his wife poured out all his wine and smashed the wine vessels. Then she pleaded with him, tears streaming down. “Your drinking has gone too far! This is no way to preserve your life. You have to cut it off!” Ling said, “You are perfectly right, but I can’t quit by myself. I need to offer a prayer and take a sacred oath to quit before the spirits. Please prepare offerings of wine and meat right away.” “I shall do exactly as you say,” said his wife.

She set out wine and meat before the spirit tablets and asked Ling to proceed with his prayer and oath. Ling knelt down and prayed:
Heaven gave to Liu Ling life
And made him famed for wine.
Gulping a gallon, for hangover’s grief
Five pints will make him fine.
As for the talking of his wife,
Be sure to pay no mind!” Then he drained the wine and ate the meat, and in no time he was drunk again. ~

“14. Often when Liu Ling drank without restraint he would behave with wanton freedom, sometimes stripping off his clothes and sitting naked in his room. Once, when some visitors encountered him in this state they rebuked him. “I take Heaven and Earth for my pillars and roof,” he replied, “and the rooms of my house are my jacket and pants. What are you gentlemen doing in my pants?” ~

Classic Chinese Poetry

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Poetry by Wan Cheih
Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies is the Chuci (Songs of Chu, The Book of Songs), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi-legendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). Qu Yuan is one of the first individual poets whose work is still read today. He is best known for his piece called Li Sao, or The Lament. The songs in Chuci are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism. [Source: Library of Congress; Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line.

Subsequent writers of classical poetry lived under the shadow of their great Tang predecessors, and although there were many fine poets in subsequent dynasties, none reached the level of this period. As the classical style of poetry became more stultified, a more flexible poetic medium, the ci, arrived on the scene. The ci, a poetic form based on the tunes of popular songs, some of Central Asian origin, was developed to its fullest by the poets of the Song dynasty (960-1279). As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Chinese poets have traditionally given themselves pen names like The Wanderer and participated in groups with names like the Crescent Moon Society.

Qu Yuan (340-277 B.C.) is regarded by some as the father of Chinese poetry, One of his most famous lines goes: “Long did I sigh to hold back tears, saddened I am by the grief of my people.” He is still admired today. See, Festivals, Dragon Boat Racing

Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Poetry

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Poem by Wang To Qing

Poetry is much more fully integrated into painting and calligraphy in Chinese art than it is into painting and writing in Western art. There are two words used to describe what a painter does: “Hua hua” means "to paint a picture" and “xie hua” means "to write a picture." Many artists prefer the latter. Poetry, painting and calligraphy were known as the "Three Perfections." Poems are often the subjects of painting. Painters were often inspired by poetry and tried to create works with a poetic, lyrical quality.

Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Chinese poetry is not just a linguistic feat but a visual one. Classical poems express balance through both rhyme and tone as well as through the physical layout of the characters on the page. Recalling a series of twelve poems by Su Shih (1036-1101) that inspired him, the great master painter Shih T'ao (1641-1717) wrote: "This album had been on my desk for a year and never once did I touch it. One day, when a snow storm was blowing outside, I thought of Tung-p'o's poems describing twelve scenes and became so inspired that I took up my brush and started painting each of the scenes in the poems. At the top of each picture I copied the original poem. When I chant them the spirit that gave them life emerges spontaneously from paintings." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

When a painting did not fully convey the artist feelings, the artist sometimes turned to calligraphy to convey his feelings more deeply. Describing the link between writing and painting, the artist-poet Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) wrote:

“Do the rocks in flying-white, the trees in ancient seal script
And render bamboo as if writing in clerical characters:
Only if one is truly able to comprehend this, will he realize
That calligraphy and painting are essentially the same.”

Other times the message of the calligraphy was more mundane. An inscription on the side of “Sheep and Goat” by Zhao Mengfu read: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep, so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I can not get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit”.

Tang Dynasty Poetry

left Chinese poetry reached its zenith in the Tang dynasty. Poets often sat beneath the moon and drank wine from cups floated on rivers and composed poems like: "The sun beyond the mountain glows/ The Yellow River seaward flows/ But if you desire a grander sight/ The you must scale a greater height." Poets sometimes played a game in which a cup was placed in a stream and a poet had to compose a poem before the cup floated by. If he failed he had to consume a glass of wine.

Famous Tang dynasty poets include Tu Fu (Du Fu, 712-70), Li Po (701-62,) Wang Wei (701-761), Li Bai (701-762), Bo Juyi, Li You and Huang Tingjian. Tu Fu poems inspired many Chinese painters. Xue Tao was a famous female poet. Wang Wei was a poet-painter who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings." See Literature

The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai and Du Fu. Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society. His poems inspired many Chinese painters. Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi (772-846), whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time. Other famous Tang dynasty poets include Wang Wei, Li You and Huang Tingjian. Xue Tao was a famous female poet. Wang Wei (701-761) was a poet-painter who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings."

Image Sources: 1) Storyteller, Bukliin archives ; 2) Book, Calligraphy, Palace Museum Taipei ; 3) Encyclopedia, Li Bao, wikipedia; 4) Handscroll, Columbia University; 5) Tang party, University of Washington ; 6) Red Chamber TV, Hongloumeng; 7) Bei Dao, 8) Pearl Buck, Pearl Buck website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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