June 17, 2014

Chinese classics

Yesterday a friend asked me about the classics in Chinese literature. Since these are probably not very familiar to most Westerners, yet might be of interest to some, I give some basic information for anyone interested in the subject.
  • The Four Great Classical Novels, including Tales of the Marshes by Shi Nai'an, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, and Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, from the 14th to 18th Centuries, are considered the highest achievements in Chinese fiction. In particular, Dream of the Red Chamber is considered the pinnacle of Chinese novels.
  • Li Bai and Du Fu, nicknamed "Poet Transcendent" and "Poet Sage" respectively, are the most prominent poets in China. Both from the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th Centuries), the "golden age" of ancient China, these two poets significantly influenced Chinese culture.
  • The Eight Great Masters of Tang and Song - Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Ouyang Xiu, Song Xun, Su Shi, Su Zhe, Wang Anshi, and Zeng Gong - are most distinguished in prose. The first two of them, Han and Liu, were from the Tang dynasty, and the other six were from Song (10th to 13th Centuries). Among them, Su Shi (aka Su Dongpo), one of the most accomplished writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, and scholar of ancient China, is probably the most known in the West, thanks to Lin Yutang's biography The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo.
  • The Four Books (The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Golden Mean, The Analects, and Mencius) and Five Classics (The Classic of Poetry, The Book of Documents, The Book of Rites, The Classic of Changes (commonly known as I Ching in the English world), and The Spring and Autumn Annals), all of which written before 300 BCE, were the authoritative classics of Confucianism. The Four Books are philosophical and scholarly treatises of Confucianism. The Analects in particular records the teachings of Confucius himself. The Five Classics were already considered "classical" in the Warring States period (476-221 BCE). Each addresses a distinct topic. The most accessible to modern readers among the Five Classics is probably The Classic of Poetry, which is the first collection of poetry in China.
  • There are also the Daoist classics, Daodejing (often stylized as Tao Te Ching) and Zhuangzi, which are also influential to some extent in the Western world.
  • Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, written from 109 to 91 BCE, recounts Chinese history from the Yellow Emperor to Han dynasty. An account of history, it is considered a literary masterpiece as well.
These names are some of the most acclaimed in classical Chinese literature. For modern literature, Zhou Shuren (aka Luxun) is usually considered the preeminent Chinese writer of the Twentieth Century.

1 comment:

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