In the realm of martial classics, the Art of War (孫子兵法，孙子兵法) by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC marks the first milestone in the tradition of Chinese military treatises written in following ages, such as the Wujing Zongyao (武經總要，武经总要; 1044 AD) and the Huolongjing (火龍神器陣法，火龙神器阵法; written before 1375 when Liu Ji died, preface in 1412 AD). Furthermore, the Art of War is perhaps the first to outline guidelines for effective international diplomacy. The other two works, the Wujing Zongyao and Huolongjing, are invaluable written works for the understanding of the gradual development of early Chinese gunpowder warfare.
The Chinese wrote consistent and accurate records at court after the year 841 BC, with the beginning of the Gonghe regency of the Western Zhou Dynasty. The earliest known narrative history of China was the Zuo Zhuan, which was compiled no later than 389 BC, and attributed to the blind 5th century BC historian Zuo Qiuming. The Classic of History is thought to have been compiled as far back as the 6th century BC, and was certainly compiled by 300 BC, the latest date for the writing of the Guodian Chu Slips unearthed in a Hubei tomb in 1993. The Classic of History included early information on geography in the chapter of the Yu Gong. There was also the Bamboo Annals found in 281 AD in the tomb of the King of Wei, who was interred in 296 BC. However, unlike the Zuo Zhuan, the authenticity of the early date of the Bamboo Annals is doubtful. Another early text was the political strategy book of the Zhan Guo Ce, compiled between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, with partial amounts of the text found amongst the 2nd century BC tomb site at Mawangdui. The oldest extant dictionary in China is the Erya, dated to the 3rd century BC, anonymously written but with later commentary by the historian Guo Pu (276–324).
Although court records and other independent records existed beforehand, the definitive work in early Chinese historical writing was the Shiji (史記/史记), written by the Han Dynasty court historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC). This groundbreaking text laid the foundation for Chinese historiography and the many official Chinese historical texts compiled for each dynasty thereafter. He is often compared to the Greek Herodotus in scope and method, as he covered Chinese history from the mythical Xia Dynasty up until the contemporary reign of Emperor Wu of Han, while pertaining an objective and non-biased standpoint (which is often difficult for the official dynastic histories who used historical works to justify the reign of the current dynasty). His influence was far and wide and impacted the written works of many Chinese historians, including the works of Ban Gu and Ban Zhao in the 1st and 2nd centuries, or even Sima Guang in the 11th century with his enormous compilation of the Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑒/资治通鉴) presented to Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1084 AD. The overall scope of the historiographical tradition in China is termed the Twenty-Four Histories, created for each successive Chinese dynasty up until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), is not included.
There were also large encyclopedias produced in China throughout the ages. The Yiwen Leiju encyclopedia was completed by Ouyang Xun in 624 during the Tang Dynasty, with aid from scholars Linghu Defen and Chen Shuda. In the Song Dynasty alone, the compilation of the Four Great Books of Song (10th century - 11th century) begun by Li Fang and finalized by Cefu Yuangui represented a massive undertaking of written material covering a wide range of different subjects. This included the Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (978), the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (983), the Finest Blossoms in the Garden of Literature (986), and the Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau (1013). Although these Song Dynasty Chinese encyclopedias featured millions of written Chinese characters each, their aggregate size paled in comparison to the later Yongle Encyclopedia (1408) of the Ming Dynasty, which had a total of 50 million Chinese characters. Yet even this size was trumped with later Qing Dynasty encyclopedias, such as the printed Gujin Tushu Jicheng (1726). This Qing encyclopedic compilation features over 100 million written Chinese characters in over 800,000 pages, printed in 60 different copies using copper-metal Chinese movable type printing. Other great encyclopedic writers and content include the polymath scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and his Dream Pool Essays, the agronomist and inventor Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333) and his Nongshu, and the minor scholar-official Song Yingxing (1587–1666) and his Tiangong Kaiwu.
Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (楚辭，楚辞) (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi-legendary Qu Yuan (屈原) (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (宋玉) (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collection 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 (賦，赋) , 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. The Han Chinese astronomer, mathematician, and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) was also largely responsible for the early development of Shi (詩，诗) poetry.
Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its "lushi" 律诗 (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; Zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju （绝句）(truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). 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. 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.
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 (詞，词), 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 AD). The Song era poet Su Shi (1037-1101 AD) mastered ci, shi, and fu forms of poetry, as well as prose, calligraphy, and painting.
As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, Chinese Sanqu poetry, a more free form, based on dramatic arias, developed. The use of sanqu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.
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 18h century domestic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢).
The late Qing also saw a "revolution in poetry" (诗界革命), which promoted experimentation with new forms and the incorporation of new registers of language. Yet the poetry scene was still dominated by the adherents to the Tongguang School (named after the Tongzhi and Guangxu reigns of the Qing), whose leaders — Chen Yan (陈衍), Chen Sanli (陈三立), Zheng Xiaoxu (郑孝胥), and Shen Zengzhi (沈曾植) — promoted a Song style in the manner of Huang Tingjian. These poets would become the objects of scorn by New Culturalists like Hu Shi, who saw their work as overly allusive, artificial, and divorced from contemporary reality.
In drama, the late Qing saw the emergence of the new "civilized drama" (文明戏), a hybrid of Chinese operatic drama with Western-style spoken drama. Peking opera and "reformed Peking opera" were also popular at the time.
In the course of the New Culture Movement (1917-23), the vernacular language largely displace the classical in all areas of literature and writing. Literary reformers Hu Shi (胡適) (1891-1962) and Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀) (1880-1942) declared the classical language "dead" and promoted the vibrant vernacular in its stead. Hu Shi once said : " A dead language can never produce a living literature". It should be said, however, that Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu were not the first to promote the vernacular, which had its proponents in the late Qing. In terms of literary practice, Lu Xun (1881-1936) is usually said to be the first major stylist in the new vernacular prose that Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu were promoting.
Though often said to be less successful than their counterparts in fiction writing, poets also experimented with the new vernacular in new poetic forms, such as free verse and the sonnet. Given that there was no tradition of writing poetry in the vernacular, these experiments were more radical than those in fiction writing and also less easily accepted by the reading public. Modern poetry flourishes especially in the 1930s, in the hands of poets like Zhu Xiang (朱湘), Dai Wangshu (戴望舒), Li Jinfa (李金发), Wen Yiduo (闻一多), etc. Other poets, even some of the May Fourth radicals (e.g., Yu Dafu), continued to write poetry in classical styles.
May Fourth radicalism, as well as changes in the education system, made possible the emergence of a large group of women writers. To be sure, there were women writers in the late imperial period and in the late Qing, but nowhere near on the scale as during the May Fourth. These writers generally tackled "domestic" issues, such as relations between the sexes, family, and friendship, but they were revolutionary in giving direct expression to female subjectivity. Ding Ling's (丁玲) story "Diary of Miss Sophie" (莎菲女士日记) exposes the thoughts and feelings of its female diarist in all their complexity.
The late 1920s and 1930s were years of creativity in Chinese fiction, and literary journals and societies espousing various artistic theories proliferated. Among the major writers of the period were Guo Moruo (郭沫若) (1892-1978), a poet, historian, essayist, and critic; Mao Dun (茅盾) (1896-1981), the first of the novelists to emerge from the "League of Left-Wing Writers" and one whose work reflected the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920s; and Ba Jin (巴金) (1904-2005), a novelist whose work was influenced by Ivan Turgenev and other Russian writers. In the 1930s Ba Jin produced a trilogy that depicted the struggle of modern youth against the ageold dominance of the Confucian family system. Comparison often is made between Jia (Family), one of the novels in the trilogy, and Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦). Another writer of the period was the gifted satirist and novelist Lao She (老舍) (1899-1966). Many of these writers became important as administrators of artistic and literary policy after 1949. Most of those authors who were still alive during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were either purged or forced to submit to public humiliation.
The 1920s and 1930s also saw the emergence of spoken drama. Most outstanding among playwrights of the day are Ouyuang Yuqian (欧阳予倩), Hong Shen (洪深), Tian Han (田汉), and Cao Yu (曹禺). More popular than this Western-style drama, however, was Peking Opera, raised to new artistic heights by the likes of Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳).
The League of Left-Wing Writers was founded in 1930 and included Lu Xun (魯迅) in its leadership. By 1932 it had adopted the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, that is, the insistence that art must concentrate on contemporary events in a realistic way, exposing the ills of nonsocialist society and promoting the glorious future under communism.
Though it might have liked to, the League did not control the entire literary field in the 1930s. Indeed, there were many styles of literature at odds with the highly political literature being promoted by the League. The "New Sensationsists" (新感觉派) - a group of writers based in Shanghai who were influenced, to varying degrees, by Western and Japanese modernism--wrote fiction that was more concerned with the unconscious and with aesthetics than politics or social problems. Most important among these writers were Mu Shiying (穆时英), Liu Na'ou (刘呐鸥), and Shi Zhecun (施蛰存). Other writers, most famously Shen Congwen (沈从文) and Fei Ming (废名), balked at the utilitarian role for literature by writing lyrical, almost nostalgic, depictions of the countryside.
The Communist Party of China had established a base after the Long March in Yan'an. The literary ideals of the League were being simplified and enforced on writers and "cultural workers." In 1942, Mao Zedong gave a series of lectures called "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature" that clearly made literature subservient to politics via the Yan'an Rectification Movement. This document would become the national guideline for culture after the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
During this period, a large number of novels and short stories were published. Literary magazines from before the Cultural Revolution were revived, and new ones were added to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite of the reading public. There was a special interest in foreign works. Linguists were commissioned to translate recently published foreign literature, often without carefully considering its interest for the Chinese reader. Literary magazines specializing in translations of foreign short stories became very popular, especially among the young.
It is not surprising that such dramatic changes brought objections from some leaders in the government, literary and art circles, who feared it was happening too fast. The first reaction came in 1980 with calls to combat "bourgeois liberalism," a campaign that was repeated in 1981. These two difficult periods were followed by the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in late 1983.
At the same time, writers were more free than ever before to write in unconventional styles and to treat sensitive subject matter. A spirit of literary experimentation flourished, especially in the second half of the 1980s. Fiction writers, such as Wang Meng (王蒙), Zhang Xinxin (张辛欣), and Zong Pu (宗璞), and dramatists, such as Gao Xingjian 高行健, experimented in modernist language and narrative modes. Another group of writers--collectively said to constitute the Roots (寻根) movement sought to reconnect literature and culture to Chinese traditions, from which a century of modernization and cultural and political iconoclasm had severed them. Han Shaogong (韩少功), Mo Yan, and A Cheng (阿城) are exemplary. Other writers (e.g., Yu Hua (余华), Ge Fei (格非), Su Tong (苏童) experimented in a more avant-garde (先锋) mode of writing that was daring in form and language and showed a complete loss of faith in ideals of any sort.
In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and with the intensification of the market reforms, literature and culture turned commercial and escapist. Wang Shuo (王朔), the so-called "hooligan" (痞子) writer, is the most obvious manifestation of this commercial shift, though his fiction is not without serious intent. Though not all writing in China today is commercial. Yan Lianke 阎连科, for example, takes seriously the role of literature in exposing social problems, such as the plight of HIV-AIDS victims in his novel Dreams of Ding Village (丁庄梦). As in the May Fourth, women writers flourish in present-day China. Many of them, such as Chen Ran (陈然), Wei Hui (卫慧), Wang Anyi (王安忆), and Hong Ying (虹影), explore female subjectivity in a radically changing society. Neo-realism (e.g., Liu Heng (刘恒), Chi Li (池莉), Fang Fang (方方), He Dun (何顿), and Zhu Wen (朱文) is another important current in post-Tian'anmen fiction. In short, contemporary literature in the PRC is multifarious and cannot be reduced to any single school or trend.
China's state-run General Administration of Press and Publication (新闻出版总署) screens all Chinese literature that are intended to be sold on the open market. The GAPP has the legal authority to screen, censor, and ban any print, electronic, or Internet publication in China. Because all publishers in China are required to be licensed by the GAPP, that agency also has the power to deny people the right to publish, and completely shut down any publisher who fails to follow its dictates. Resultingly, the ratio of official-to-pirated books is said to be 40%:60%. According to a report in ZonaEuropa, there are more than 4,000 underground publishing factories around China. The Chinese government continues to hold public book burnings on unapproved yet popular "spiritual pollution" literature, though critics claim this spotlight on individual titles only helps fuel booksales. Many new-generation Chinese authors who were the recipients of such government attention have been re-published in English and success in the western literary markets, namely Zhou Weihui of Shanghai Baby fame, Anchee Min and her controversial memoir Red Azalea, Time Magazine banned book covergirl Chun Sue (Beijing Doll) and "Candy" authoress Mian Mian. See also: Censorship in the People's Republic of China
Chinese language literature also flourishes in the diaspora--in South East Asia, the United States, and Europe. China is the largest publisher of books, magazines and newspapers in the world. In book publishing alone, some 128,800 new titles of books were published in 2005, according to the General Administration of Press and Publication. There are more than 600 literary journals across the country. Living and writing in France but continuing to write primarily in Chinese, Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.
The book market in China traditionally works with book-ordering during the bookfairs as the country lacks a national book ordering system. In 2006, 6.8 million titles were sold, not including unknown number of banned titles, bootleg copies and underground publishing factories (3.3 % less than 2005). There are no fixed prices, although prices are printed on the books.
Private publishing is tolerated. Apart from the 570 public publishers, these small ones jump onto the expanding book market. 20% of all bestsellers were online first (sic!) in China, as the country's laws regarding the internet are more liberal than those covering printed material. Private Publishing can collect authors and themes. This is also the - in China new - role of a Literary agent and literature scout.
According to The Guardian (British newspaper), the cultural life of the 1.3 billion people who live and work in this economic superpower remains a closed book to many in the west - their bestselling authors unfamiliar, their most exciting writers untranslated. However, in 2005, the Chinese government started a sponsoring program for translations of government-approved Chinese works - which already worked out for more than 200 books from Chinese into another language.
220,000 books were published in 2005 as the middle class becomes more economically viable. Beijing Book City, for example, which are the size of department stores, employs about 700 people and carries 230,000 titles on the shelves.
Chinese writers writing in French: