Poetry and War - Ancient Chinese Literature
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Chinese Literature

bone fragment with Chinese characters scratched on it
Chinese oracle bone
(Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC)

January 2017 - People in China began writing about 1500 BC, more than a thousand years later than people in West Asia or Egypt, but earlier than anyone in Europe, Africa, or Central America. It's possible they learned about writing from the same Yamnaya herders who brought horses and chariots to China during the Shang Dynasty. The earliest writing that we know of from China was on animal bones, which are called "oracle bones" because priests used them to tell the future. The writing on these oracle bones is the same writing that people use in modern China, just in an earlier version. The signs they used came from pictures, like earlier Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform.

People in early China also wrote on strips of bamboo wood. Later on, people also wrote on silk cloth. The earliest Chinese literature that we know of probably comes from the later part of the Western Zhou Dynasty about 800 BC (the same time as Homer in Greece) and was written on silk. This is the I Ching, a fortune-telling book, like the earlier oracle bones.

Sometime around 300 BC, in the Warring States period, a general called Sun Tzu wrote a book called the Art of War, about the best ways to organize armies and battles.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, in Chinese

Around 100 BC, Ts'ai Lun invented paper to write on. Paper was cheaper to write on than silk, so more people wrote and copied books during the Han Dynasty. The first woman writer of China, Ban Zhao, lived later in the Han Dynasty, in the first century AD. She wrote many books, including poetry and a history of the Western Han. Ban Zhao also wrote astronomy and math books, and she wrote "Lessons for Women," which advised women to submit to the men around them. This last book became very famous.

During the Tang Dynasty, about 700 AD, people in China invented wood-block printing, which was easier than copying out books by hand and made books much cheaper than they had been before. Many more people learned to read, and many more people wrote books. The poet Bai Juyi wrote a famous poem, the Song of Everlasting Sorrow.

Soon afterward, during the Song Dynasty, about 1000 AD, people invented movable clay type, and this made books even cheaper and more popular than before. In 1103 AD, Lie Jie published a book setting architectural standards for all of China.

One of the most famous novels of early China is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which was written about 1330 AD, during the Yuan Dynasty, by a man named Luo Guanzhong.

A project making a Chinese scroll

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese language and literature:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).

The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the SungPeriod, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).

Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T'ang period figurines.

I Ching
Art of War
Zen Koans
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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