Literature in Ancient China

Ancient Chinese had a rich literary tradition that started developing along with the first script. Literature was highly valued in Chinese society, and they even had a god of literature named Wen Cheng, Wen Ti, or Wendi.

Writers were required to use their talents well. Otherwise, they would be punished by god. A legend says that Wen Cheng was a writer himself before he died and got deified.

His name was Zhang Ya, and he was extremely talented, but once he created a disappointing work, he drowned himself. As a god, he was in charge of living writers and the Chinese script.

Chinese deity of literature

Ghost Stories

The earliest works in Chinese literature are fantastic mythical tales and ghost stories. Ghosts had an important place in Chinese culture, and ghost stories were extremely popular.

According to ancient belief, the appearance of a ghost meant that the living had failed to properly honor the dead. The wrong had to be righted for the dead to move on to the underworld.

  • One story depicts the ghost of a little girl who visits five brothers. The brothers do all they can to get rid of the ghost but with no results – until one day they decide to give her proper burial.They get a hollow log, seal the ghost in, cap both ends, and send it down the river. The ghost is pleased, thanks them, and sails away.
  • Another story is about the ghost of a woman who visits her son to tell him that someone ruined her grave. The son avenges her dishonor by reporting the criminals to the authorities who get them executed.

Cautionary Tales

  • The tale of Commandant Yang shows a man in front of a tribunal in the afterlife. That man caused lots of suffering during his life but kept stating he was innocent.The king of the underworld requested the reading of Yang’s scrolls, so everyone learned about each individual sin that the man committed, who was affected and who died because of his actions. Commandant Yang ended up condemned and crushed by a giant hand.
  • The story of a man called Coffin Head Li is another cautionary tale. This man was condemned in the afterlife for the abuse and killing of 460 dogs and cats. The lives of animals were apparently highly valued in ancient Chinese society.

Myths

Popular stories included myths about the gods and heroes who lived in the Kunlun Mountains.

  • One myth depicts the demi-god Gun, who had an important task in front of him. There was a great flood during the Xia Dynasty (around 2070-1600 BCE), and Gun needed to stop it, but he failed.Because of the failure, Gun either got exiled or killed himself. Since the task remained undone, the emperor asked Gun’s son Yu to stop the flood.

    Yu didn’t want to repeat his father’s mistake. He analyzed the situation and realized what Gun did wrong; he overestimated his capabilities, tried to do it all alone, did not ask others for help, and did not respect the forces of nature.

    Yu decided to do it differently; asked others for help, showed respect for both people and nature, and the flood finally ceased. Yu became known as the founder of the Xia Dynasty, Yu the Great.

  • The myth of the Queen Mother of the West was popular during the Han Dynasty – so much that it later grew into a cult, and then into legitimate faith.The Queen Mother resided in a marvelous land of eternal life, surrounded by rivers of immortality, trees of deathlessness, and a number of fantastic birds and beasts.

famous Tang Dynasty poet and statesman

Tang Dynasty Literature

  • Ancient Chinese produced all kinds of literary works in all genres, including poetry, drama, prose, personal essays, and historiography, but those were written and rewritten by hand until the development of woodblock printing during the rule of Emperor Taizong (626-649 CE) of the Tang Dynasty.As a result of this technological advance, books became easier to produce and more accessible to everyone. Literacy increased, and literature flourished.
  • Famous authors and literary works from that period are still among the most influential in all Chinese literary history.The poetry of Li Po (701-762 CE) was considered one of the Three Wonders of the World even during his life. Chinese students still read the poem by Bai Juyi (772-846 CE) called the Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about the tragic relationship between emperor Xuanzong and Lady Yang.
  • Along with contemporary literature and poetry, older philosophical and other important writings were printed extensively during this period.These works include the so-called Five Classics and The Four Books: The I-Ching, The Spring and Autumn Annals, The Classics of History, The Classics of Poetry, The Analects of Confucius, The Works of Mencius, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Classics of Rites, and The Great Book of Learning.

Q&A

What were the first Chinese stories about?

They were about ghosts, gods, heroes, and mythical creatures.

What was the name of the Chinese god of literature?

The name of that god was Wen Cheng, also known as Wen Ti or Wendi.

According to the mythical story, who stopped the great flood during and founded the Xia dynasty?

It was Yu the Great.

What was the most popular mythical story during the Han Dynasty?

It was the myth of the Queen Mother of the West.

What changed during the Tang dynasty that caused the flourishing of writing and literature?

It was the development of woodblock printing.