Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2017

Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2012), by Sabina Knight

Chinese Literature (VSI)I finished reading this Very Short Introduction to Chinese Literature in the train on the way home today.

My interest in Chinese literature is primarily contemporary fiction, but I still found this little book very interesting.  As you can see from the table of contents, it traces the foundations of modern literature in an intriguing way:

  1. Foundations: ethics, parables and fish
  2. Poetry and poetics: landscapes, allusions and alcohol
  3. Classical narrative: history, jottings, and tales of the strange
  4. Vernacular drama and fiction: gardens, bandits and dreams
  5. Modern literature: trauma, movements and bus stops

NB Throughout the text, the author uses Chinese characters (logograms) and Romanised Chinese as well as English.  I can’t reproduce the logograms, but have included the Romanised Chinese in excerpts I have quoted.

The fish in chapter one come from an ancient text in which the legendary sage  Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE) has a conversation about the happiness of fish with the logician Huizi. But this is far from the oldest text still extant:

The antiquity of early Chinese texts is astounding by Western standards.  Although modern Chinese differs from early Chinese as much as English differs from Latin, experts today can still read the Chinese inscribed on tortoise shells and sheep scapulae dating from the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).  Used for divination, these oracle bone inscriptions asked questions composed of individual characters (zi), the answers to which were divined by interpreting cracks when the bones were heated over fire.

These characters became the foundation of Chinese culture.  Although their forms and meanings evolved over time, modern Chinese still uses characters from ancient texts, and the continuity of the writing system has been crucial in helping China’s central traditions to cohere. (p.3)

Knight says that China’s survival over three thousand years may owe more to its literary traditions than to its political history. Its unity derives, she says, from faith in the power of writing (wen) and writing played a crucial role in civil practice, nourishing cultural harmony. 

More than merely a mirror of an already existing world or of ideal forms, literature was understood to be a tangible means by which the world comes to be.  The patterns of writing were thought to be concrete forms of the principle (li) of natural structures, and so writing played a key role in passing on the natural and moral Way (Dao).

For most of China’s history, however, writing was the purview of a privileged elite. Scholars and officials within the bureaucracy that developed during the first unified dynasty became an educated gentry with political influence,

…[forging] a bond between written culture and politics that would last until the late twentieth century.  For most of the thirteen centuries between 605 and 1905, governments reinforced this bond by recruiting officials through an examination system based on classical literary study. (p.6)

[Like many early texts in the Western tradition], Chinese texts are about encouraging morality.  Everyone has heard of Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his teachings in the Analects … he and others like him such as Mencius sought to better their world by cultivating virtues such as filial piety, courtesy, ritual, benevolence, moral courage, and ritual propriety. ‘Feeling’ became vital:

Seen as the source of aesthetic, imaginative and subjective consciousness, the term qing came to encompass not only all the richness of the English word love but also affection, emotions and sentience.  Poetry, fiction, and drama all valorised feeling, and tended to portray emotion rather than rational principle as the driving energy of human affairs.  As many traditionalist thinkers came to view feeling as vital to fostering Confucian virtues, feeling was elevated to a cultural and national ideal.  This expanded interest in feeling stressed both romantic love and loyalty to the state and emperor, an emphasis that encouraged martyrdom among Chinese literati in the face of the Manchu’s conquest and rule.  These shifting notions of qing suggest feeling’s centrality to understandings of how people relate to the world, understandings developed above all in poetry, China’s most revered literary genre. (p.24)

The chapter on poetry is too complex to delve into here (and anyway, you should buy the book if you are really interested), but I was fascinated by the example of translated Chinese poetry (Spring Gazing) on page 46.

Update: I have had to remove the image showing the logograms for copyright reasons…

As you can see there are single words underneath each logogram, so that the first line reads:

Nation break mountains rivers exist

and this is translated as

The nation breaks asunder
while mountains and rivers endure.

It is, when you read the rest of the poem, a perfect way to render the original, but it just shows you what a delicate and sophisticated art translation is, in some languages more than others!

Chapter three explores the development of fiction as distinct from history.  Confucius had decreed that writers transmit without creating (Analects 7.2) and stories not based in history were derided as “little talk”, a term that much later became the modern word for fiction.  Nevertheless, Knight gives examples of narratives involving fictional elements such as ghosts and spirits and other strange things, and

By the fourth century, writers recorded simple short “jottings” they did not present as history or philosophy.  United by their use of the classical language, these jottings were favoured by scholar-gentlemen not only for historical anecdotes, social commentary, musings, travel notes, and contemplation of nature, but also for diaries, jokes and what we would now call fiction. (p.60)

The texts under discussion become more accessible (to readers like me, that is) when we get to the four masterworks of the Mind dynasty: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ca. 1552, revised 1679, which has been turned into a mini-series watched by 1.2 billion people worldwide); Water Margin a.k.a Outlaws of the Marsh (ca. 1550, with lots of martial arts); Journey to the West (1641) which is a satire with surreal elements; and The Plum in the Golden Vase (1618) which is about a community obsessed with money, status and sensual indulgence.  All of these have to do with lessons in Buddhist and Confucian ethics, and all of them are easily available at online bookstores.   So are texts of 18th century satire like Dream of the Red Chamber (1792) which I have read in a children’s edition for school i.e. with the sexy bits removed. Dream paints the folly and corruption bred by elite privilege, while also depicting love, loss and longing.  One of its sequels Gu’s Shadows of Dream of the Red Chamber is possibly China’s earliest surviving novel by a woman.

Chapter 5 is about modern literature.  There is extensive reference to a play called Bus Stop (1983) by China’s Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian (1940-).  Reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), it’s about eight people waiting for a bus which never comes.  One, Silent Person, departs fairly soon, and after ten years the others regret that they maintained their optimism and didn’t follow him.  It’s a work of social criticism:

A political allegory of China’s passage from the countryside to the city, Gao’s play suggests five themes central to the modernisation and globalisation of Chinese literature.  Though many critics interpret the play as signalling the government’s failure to deliver the means of progress, others hear in it ongoing commitments to national pride, humanism, progress, memory and pleasure.  (p.98)

But, Gao is an émigré and any discussion about Chinese literature in the communist era must deal with the issue of censorship and self-censorship.  There had been a concerted push to modernise China after the disastrous political events of the 19th century and reformers ensured that readers had access to translations of Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy and others. There was a period of ‘denunciation novels’ but all that shut down during the Cultural Revolution.

[I am simultaneously reading a new book called On the Burning of Books by Kenneth Baker, which includes a section about the Cultural Revolution, and it says that

All non-Communist ideas, all writings that did not conform to Marxist-Leninist principles were to be destroyed together with the people who dared to express them. (On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word by Kenneth Baker, Unicorn, 2016 p.75)]

Some stories from the 17-year period between the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), such as Yang Mo’s Song of Youth (1958), are still popular.  Knight notes that they are marked by a progressive vision and that there were novels modelling Mao’s collectivisation programs which were read as manuals for cadres facing recalcitrant former landlords or apathetic peasants. One of these, which has the dubious distinction of winning the Stalin Prize in 1951, is The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River (1948), notable for its vivid characterisations and ominous depictions of violent vengeance.  

Works promoting socialist progress became dutifully optimistic after Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62), and his vice-minister of culture called for “revolutionary realism” and “revolutionary romanticism”.  (p.109)

Ardent works focussed on the overlapping benefits for the characters’ personal and collective futures. 

The formulaic operas and ballets of “revolutionary model theatre” further glorified self-sacrificing workers, soldiers, and peasants, as did collectivisation novels.  […] Ignoring famines and environmental devastation, legacies of Mao’s programs, these works presented visions of revolutionary history consistent with party policy and Mao’s rising cult status.  (p.109)

Things have changed a bit since Mao’s death.  His successors support the “four modernisations” of agriculture, industry, technology and defence, and “reform literature” addresses the personal costs of modernisation [which I assume would include a novel like Educated Youth by Ye Xin (2016)]. During the thaw, works of so-called Scar Literature testified to long suppressed sorrow and compassion deriving from the sufferings of the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957) and the Cultural Revolution.  [Ai Mi’s Under The Hawthorn Tree is also one of these, but the author’s anonymity means that readers do not know whether it was written from within China].

Knight suggests that writers depicting events before 1949 could exhume traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution with less risk of censorship or reprisals, and cites Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum (1987) as an example.  But she also notes that Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008) set in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre was written and published abroad after Ma’s exile in 1987.  Yan Lianke writes risky novels such as Dream of Ding Village (2006) and more recently The Explosion Chronicles (2013) and it never ceases to surprise me that he escapes censorship, whereas Liao Yiwu had to seek asylum in Europe.

It is sad to see that the last page of this VSI notes that in the west people tend to buy more books written in English by Chinese-born authors such as Ha Jin than translations from Chinese.  (I am pleased to say that it’s not true of this blog).

Once again, this has been an illuminating VSI, and I recommend it to anyone interested in translated fiction in general and China in particular.

Author: Sabina Knight
Title: Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press, 2012
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions).  and on audio Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions (Audio)



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. One of these days, I’m going to get around to some of the Chinese classics I have here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, what have you got?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Guy, which ones? Three Kingdoms? Dream of Red Mansions? Do tell!


  3. Beautiful review and post, Lisa! I want to write a long comment. I will do that later today. Looking forward to discussing Chinese literature with you :)


  4. I guess I’m a peasant when it comes to Chinese Lit, but I have read Monkey. Enjoyed your exposition. VSIs are great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think so too. I think I’m going to read Spanish Lit next:)


  5. Hmm, I guess Chinese literature we must read, Lisa. They are on tops now. Chinese is being taught as a subject in my kid’s school, primary to Junior High. And now Chinese has been introduced as a course in at least one major university here. :-)


    • Hello Celestine, that’s interesting but I’m not surprised. I have read in the media that the Chinese are very busy in Africa, buying friends and influence all over the place.


  6. Beautiful review, Lisa! Loved the whole review! So nice to know that the book covers all aspects of Chinese literature. Since my years of living in China I have been a huge fan of Chinese literature and have acquired a big collection of Chinese literary works. I remember going to the bookshop every Saturday and getting more Chinese books :) Have lots of questions for you. Does the author talk about the 300 poems from the Tang Dynasty, which covers the great poets Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei and Du Fu? Does it talk about the grand historian Sima Qian and his innovative work on Chinese history? Does it talk about Lu Xun? Does it talk about Ba Jin? In my opinion these two gentlemen should have won the Nobel prize. Ba Jin was still alive till 2005 and was a centenarian and he was probably the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century. It is sad that the Nobel committee rewarded a dissident writer like Gao Xingjian and ignored a great like Ba Jin. Also does the book talk about Jin Yong (Louis Cha)? Jin Yong is the most widely read writer in China and his books have been made into movies, TV shows and comics. He writes historical novels which showcase Chinese martial arts. They are very entertaining. Also does the book talk about Wei Hua’s ‘Shanghai Baby’? It was one of the modern unconventional novels to have come out of China in the 21st century and it caught the censor’s eye and it was banned. Underground copies were, of course, spreading like wildfire and the book was very popular. Does the author also talk about Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie? They were both novels set during the Cultural revolution and talk about both sides of the topic. Wolf Totem won the MAN Asian Literature Prize. Also does the book talk about Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio? It is one of the great collections of supernatural tales for grownups. Western authors have been borrowing stuff from it for centuries. For example, this famous idea that a character jumps out of a book into the real world (a theme which appears in many modern novels like The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Kugelmass Episode by Woody Allen (even in Woody Allen’s movie Purple Rose from Cairo), The Flight of Icarus by Raymond Quebeau), originally came in Pu Songling’s book centuries back. What he wrote nearly three centuries back sounds so innovative today. Songling was way ahead of his times. Last question :) Does this VSI also talk about the novel ‘The Scholars’, which criticized the imperial examination system? One last observation I want to make is this. The Plum in the Golden Vase, one of the five great Chinese classics, is not available in China. Because it is regarded as classical erotica and so copies are hard to come by. It is the only classic I don’t have.

    Thanks so much for this post, Lisa! Made me nostalgic about things Chinese! I will read this VSI soon and share my thoughts!


  7. Vishy, I didn’t know you’d been resident in China – and you read Chinese too?
    It’s surprising that a small book covers so much, but it doesn’t go into great detail of course:) But there’s a whole chapter on poetry, and yes, Li Bai is mentioned and so are Wang Wei, Sima Qian and Ba Jin. Jin Yong is also mentioned though I have to say that you make him sound more interesting. Both Rong and Dai Sijie, the latter catching my attention because I’d read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (or was it the film I saw? I can’t remember). There’s a couple of pages about Pu Songling (which is a lot in this little book) but while I remember reading about the limitations of the exam system, I can’t remember if that novel was mentioned and I can’t look it up in the index without knowing the author’s name.
    Maybe you could write some reviews of Chinese Lit? That would be so interesting!


    • Read your review again and loved it again, Lisa 😊 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can’t believe that I wrote such a long comment when I read your review for the first time. I don’t know what I was thinking 🙈 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is such a wonderful book.


      • Yes, and now I’m going to get a copy of the one you’re reviewed, funny how things go round online, isn’t it?


        • Yes 😊 Hope you enjoy this literary history in comics form.


          • Ordered this morning!


            • So wonderful to know that, Lisa! Hope it arrives soon. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts! Happy reading 😊


  8. […] Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Sabina Knight […]


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