Chapter 2 Pre-Qin Literature
I Poetry in the pre-Qin period
? China has a long history of poetry and a great ocean of poems by countless
authors. (诗经), the earliest anthology of 305 poems, is the The Book of Songs
first monument in the Chinese poetic tradition. The poems may be dated from
thththe 11 to the 6 century B.C. and were popular in the present-day Shannxi(陕西),
Shanxi（山西）, Henan, Shandong, Hubei and other areas.
? At that time musicians of the Zhou Dynasty and its vassal states collected and
edited folk music and finally compiled the collection which had been first known
thas The Three Hundred Songs(诗三百). After the 5 century B.C., the original
musical scores were gradually lost and only the verses remained. Later it became
one of the five Confucian classics and a required reading for the literati for more
ththan 2, 000 years; not until the turn of the 20 century did it cease to be read as scripture and begin to be appreciated as a collection of poetic composition.
? The anthology is divided into three sections, namely Songs(Feng风, guofeng国风),
Odes(Ya雅), and Hymns(Song颂), each being subdivided. The 160 poems in the first section are mainly folk-songs from the various vassal states, so they are the
finest and perennially lovely. They are rich in content, dealing with labour, love
affairs, marriage, despair and hardships of the underprivileged, and protests
against tyranny and war. The second section contains 105 poems, one part of
which is called Greater Odes(大雅daya, greater ya) and the other Lesser Odes(小雅xiaoya, lesser ya). The last section is divided into Zhou Hymns(周颂),
Lu Hymns(鲁颂) and Shang Hymns(商颂), most of which are formal ritual hymns used in sacrifices to praise the ancestors envisioned in the rites. They reveal
interesting pictures of feasting and religious ceremonies, some facts about the
economy of ancient China, the myths connected with the rise to dominance of the
Zhou people and political satires reflecting the decline of the slave system in the
late period of the Western Zhou Dynasty and the contradictions within the ruling
class. In brief, the realistic songs in the collection give a comprehensive, vivid
and truthful pictures of social life and customs of that period.
? The style of the poems, chiefly written in four-character lines with some
irregular stanzas here and there, in general, is straightforward and natural,
typical of ancient literature in terms of the immediacy of imagery and pervasive
musical quality. The modes of expression, however, are by no means simple: not
only rich in end rhymes and internal rhymes but ample and imaginative use is made
of metaphors and similes to convey ideas and feelings forcefully.
? We Gather Vetch(采薇) in the xiaoya We Gather Vetch dates from the reign of
King Xuan and tells of the hardships of the garrison troops stationed at the
distant frontiers to keep back the Huns. The last verse gives a moving and very
human description of a soldier’s misery when, bound home at last, he suffers
from cold and hunger on the road.
When we left home
The willows were softly swaying;
Now as we turn back
Snow flakes fly.
Our road is a long one,
And we thirst and hunger.
Our hearts are filled with sorrow;
But who knows our misery?
? Chop, Chip, We Cut Elms(魏风*伐檀) This poem points out that although the
nobles neither plough nor hunt, their storehouses are full of grain while game
hangs in their countyards; and the poet asks sarcastically how they are able to
eat without working.
? Field Mouse(魏风*硕鼠) This poem compares the exploiter to a field mouse,
aptly exposing the true nature of the exploiting class. The longing to go to “a
happy land”, in other words a society from tyranny and exploitation, was of
course an empty dream at that time; yet is shows the author’s rebellious spirit.
? Songs about love and marriage form the bulk of the guofeng, and most of these
are folk-songs; but though their theme is the same they possess great variety,
presenting all the sadness or joy of lovers’ partings and reunions. Many
descriptions of encounters, pledges of faith and secret assignations show the
relative freedom of love in those days for ordinary people and the primitive social
conditions. The Roebuck(召南?野有死麕) tells how a hunter in the woods meets a
girl whom he finds as lovely as jade, and how he wins her. The fresh openness of
feeling here harmonizes with the sense of spring in the countryside. “The Quiet
Girl”(邶风*静女), relates how two lovers arrange to meet at the city wall; but
when the young man comes the girl hides herself, throwing him into an anxious
quandary. The ingenuous couple in this poem are full of life. Other songs which
describes young people singing and dancing or young lovers meeting during
festivals are pulsing with joy and reveal a comparative freedom in love. But that
certain restrictions existed can be seen from songs like “I Beg You, Zhongzi”(郑
风*将仲子) in which a girl longs for her lover but dares not let him come to her
because she dreads what her parents, her brothers and the neighbors will say. A
(桧*匪风) and A Simple Fellow(氓), are ballads about Gust of Wind from the Valley
wives forsaken by their husbands. The weak, good woman in the first song
complains that her husband is interested in someone else and has tired of his old
wife, and she reminds him of their former love. But the woman in the second
poem is a stronger character, who expresses more regret than sorrow and is
eager to break with her husband because she has no feeling left for him. Bitter
experience has taught her that even in love there is no equality between sexes.
Of the two poems, this is the more moving because it goes deeper into the
woman’s feelings and state of mind.
? The Book of Songs occupies an important place in the history of Chinese
literature. Many great poets throughout the history drew inspiration from the
anthology. So it is no exaggeration to say that The Book of Songs has exerted a
profound influence upon the entire course of the development of Chinese poetry.
? Second only to the poems in The Book of Songs whether in chronological order or in importance in the history of Chinese poetry are Songs of Chu(楚辞), also
originating in music and dance. Basing on folk-songs in the kingdom of Chu in the
Changjiang River area, the towering genius Qu Yuan(屈原，？340-？278B.C.),
China’s first known poet, developed these folk songs into a genre of poetry with a
number of his immortal poems. The main ones are: （九歌）, which is in Nine Songsfact made up of eleven instead of nine, for the word “nine” here is not in the
sense of an exact number; Questions to Heaven(天问Ask Heaven), in which he poses 172 questions on natural phenomena, ancient myths and legends and
historical figures, showing the author’s valuable spirit of truth seeking; Nine
(九章), which are short lyrics about the poets’s own experiences and Elegies
difficulties, anguish and anger; and The Lament(离骚 Sorrow after Departure).
? The Lament is Qu Yuan’s masterpiece and the most important lyric and romantic
poem os songs of Chu. Slandered by his wicked political enemies and banished
from the court, Qu put all his aspirations and emotions into this poem of 373
lines. Here Qu Yuan, according to Wang Yi(王逸), employs metaphors and similes in accordance with appropriate classes of comparison. Thus birds of beauty and
fragrant herbs are matched with loyalty and integrity; beasts that prowl and
things in nature that offend with their foul smell are made to betoken the
slanderous and the wicked. Princes are likened to fair ladies, and holy men, able
ministers are compared to Fu Fei(宓妃) and other women of beauty. Various
fabulous dragons and phoenixes are employed as vehicles to suggest good persons;
and fleeting clouds and ominous rainbows stand for the ignoble. Maybe some
scholars have the idea that this view is a little farfetched. But one point is
certain: From its beginning to its end, the poem describes the life-and-death
struggle between “something beautiful” and “something ugly” and ruthlessly
exposes the king’s folly and the treachery of evil ministers.
? ? Qu Yuan, filled with patriotic sentiments and with a lofty and unsullied
personality, “used the Chu written language, followed the Chu pronunciation,
described Chu places and named Chu things.”(书楚语，作楚声，纪楚地，名楚物。) One
of the main themes of his works is his great anxiety about dangers and troubles
Chu met with and his strong aspirations for building a powerful Chu state though
they are indirectly expressed.
? The verses of
Poetry of the South(楚辞) are freer than those of The Book of
Songs. It is not fixed to four characters per line, and the character “xi”(兮) is
often put in the middle or the end of some lines such as Qu Yuan’s sentence like
“The journey is long,/ I’ll search up and down.(路漫漫其修远兮，吾将上下而求索。)”.
? Qu Yuan created a new literary era. His new form and his use of positive
romanticism have exerted a lasting influence on Chinese literature and been
imitated or admired by many writers from the Han Dynasty onward.
? Song Yu(宋玉), among many writers after Qu Yuan, was another important author
of the genre. His Nine Arguments(九辩) shows that he closely followed the
tradition of Qu Yuan.
? The Book of Songs and Poetry of the South are regarded as the two peaks of
China’s earliest literary history.
? The theme of Chinese literature follows the two main lines: realism and
romanticism. The Book of Songs is the fountainhead of realism and Poetry of the
of romanticism. Later Chinese literature was extended and developed South
based on these two main lines.
II Prose in the Pre-Qin Period
? Prose of this period can be dated back as early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties,
but the prosperous era was the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States
Period. Most of the prose can be classified as either philosophy or
history—historical prose and philosophical prose..
? As far as the historical prose is concerned the representative ones are The Book
(书经/尚书), (春秋), (国语Discourses Spring and Autumn AnnalsGuo Yuof History
of the States), (左传Zuo Zhuan) and Zuo’s CommentaryIntrigues of the Warring
? , though stretching over a period of 17 centuries from 2255 The Book of History
to 628 B.C., is not a continuous history of early China, but disconnected,
individual official papers of diverse kinds: deliberations at court, memorials to
the throne, records of political events and policies, royal edicts and orders,
orations, etc. these fragments constitute the most ancient collection of Chinese
prose writing. This book has exerted a great and uninterrupted influence upon
the mind of the Chinese people and upon literary style, for, on the one hand, it is
one of the major Confucian classics for thousands of years; on the other hand, its
concise style and its brevity is quite appealing to the Chinese literati, some pieces
being written so compactly that only 20 or 30 characters are used. The
documents, no doubt, were primarily produced for practical and political purposes,
yet they were written with a great number of rhetorical devices, which
strengthened its literary charm, such as prairie fire, headdrope and net. Many
expressions have become Chinese idioms or set phrases.
? Guo Yu, dealing with events from the reign of King Mu(穆王) of the early Western
Zhou to the year of 453 B.C., divides its material up among eight states: Zhou, Lu,
Qi, Jin, Zheng, Chu, Wu, and Yue. Not intendted as an exhaustive history the
book contains selected events mainly described in the form of speech and
dialogue. The book tries to emphasize eloquent rhetoric and imagination, and
some passages are of considrable beauty and evocative power in fictionalized
speeches or dialogues, which has produced some impact upon Chinese prose
? Spring and Autumn Annals is the earliest chronicle(编年史) in China with concise
and meticulous language.
? Zuo’s Commentary, said to have been written by Zuo Qiu-ming(左丘明), a
contemporary of Kong Zi or a little earlier, and also called The Spring and Autumn
Annals of Mr Zuo(左氏春秋), is not only the first comprehensive historical
account of the major political, social and military events of the Spring and
Autumn Period, but also the first widely imitated prose model. It is outstanding,
as a literary work, for its succinct and implicit style, its strong ability to describe
a complicated event in an orderly, economical, and lively manner, such as his vivid
recounting of several great battles: Cao Gui on War(曹刿论战), The Battle between Jin and Chu at Cheng-pu(晋楚城濮之战), and Jin Defeats Qin’s Army at Xiao(晋败秦师于崤). Zuo is also good at portraying in detail characters through
direct speech and action to make an unforgetable impression on readers. So the
book has always been ranked as one of the most important works in Chinese
Intrigues of the Warring States is a collection of historical narratives,
fictionalized stories, and persuasive speeches that reflect the important events
of politics, military and diplomacy between states in the Warring States Period.
A book of 33 sections, the Intrigues, like Guo Yu, is organized in chronological
order around 12 states: the Eastern Zhou, the Western Zhou, Qin, Qi, Chu, Zhao,
Wei, Han, Yan, Song, Wei and Zhongshan, ranging from 453 to 209 B.C. through
lively and complicated stories, the book fully depicts the political thought of
“strategy comes first” and the intelligence and intrigues of the strategists(纵横
家). Many of the stories are skillfully, ironically, and humorously written; some
are in a relatively straightforward way; some use fables to reveal deep life
philosophy. So even today they are still instructive and beneficial to people and
many are often included by editors in anthologies of ancient prose for their
literary quality, for example, Zou Ji Exhorts King of Qi to Accept Reprimand(邹
忌讽齐王纳谏), Chu Long Persuads Empress Dowager Zhao(触龙说赵太后), The
Beautiful Girl’s Nose is Cut Off(美人劓鼻), and Adding Feet to a Snake while Drawing It(画蛇添足).
? During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period, Chinese society
was undergoing radical changes, and various schools of thought, such as the
Confucian School, Moist School, Taoist School, and Legalist School, all strived to
put their ideas into practice by writing books and expounding their theories.
Some famous pieces of philosophical prose are:
? Among the prose written by philosophers, The Analects of Kong Zi(论语The
Analects of Confucius) certainly comes first. The book, which is the Bible of
Confucianism, consists of Kong’s sayings and speeches which express his
viewpoints of politics, his ideas of education, his understanding of ethics and his
principle of morality in the simple, lively, and straightforward spoken language of
that time. Many of his famous sayings have become proverbs that have been
appreciated by one generation after another.
? ? The Book of Master Meng(孟子Mencius) is a collection of speeches and
conversations of Meng Ke(孟轲), the second prominent Confucian master and
expositor. Compared with The Analects, The Book of Master Meng is longer and
more careful in collecting and editing. Many entries are grouped together in the
same chapter on the basis of subject matter or of locale. The recording is also
much more extensive and elaborate. Meng Zi was especially fond of using
parables, allegories and legends to illustrate and advance his argument, such as A
Man of Qi Has a Wife and a Concubine(齐人有一妻一妾) and Helping the Shoots Grow by Pulling Them Upward(拔苗助长). He also took delight in the use of
picturesque language to make his expressions concret and memorable, for
example, “leaping over the North Sea with Tai Mountain held in one’s arm pit.”(挟
太山以超北海) and “climbing up a tree in search of fish.”(缘木求鱼) So Meng’s book had an immense influence on Chinese literature, especially on prose.
? Written by Zhuang Zhou(庄周) and his disciples, The Book of Master Zhuang (庄
子Zhuang Zi) is one of the masterpieces in Chinese prose history. In lively,
sometimes paradoxical language, Zhuang gave free play to his imagination and
thought, without following any particular school or committing himself to any line.
With sharp insight and acute observation, he widely used anecdotes, allegories,
analogy, fables, and satires to reveal profound truth in some respects of life,
though some of his philosophical ideas were quite passive, for example, the fables
In the North Ocean There Is a Fish(北冥有鱼), Autumn Floods(秋水) and the
anecdote Cook Ding Carves Oxen(庖丁解牛). Even stones, rivers, seas, frogs, wind,
and shadows could speak and argue wisely. So his style is vigorous and unique,
even monumental according to some scholars. The Book occupies an honoralbe
place and wield a great influence on later prose creation.
? In addition to , the superlative compactness in The Book of Master Zhuang
language and the mixture of prosaic and poetic form in style of The Book of
(老子Lao Zi or Dao De Jing道德经), and the forceful logic, the plain Master Lao
and smooth style, vivid metaphors, and full and sound reasoning of The Book of
(墨子Mo Zi) also set good examples and offered fine techniques in Master Mo
prose writing for later writers.
? By the time of Xun Kuang(荀况),prose writing was somewhat different. In The
(荀子),for instance, most of the pieces are mature prose with Book of Master Xun
a complete structure, which marks the replacement of the dialogue and
conversation form as in some of the books mentioned above. His compositions,
with clear central idea, great unity and coherence, and tight arguments, are
penetrating and convincing. His On Heaven(天论) and Exhortation to Learning(劝
学) are good examples.
? Han Fei(韩非) is another rare master of ancient Chinese prose style. His
masterpieces, such as Difficulties in Persuasion(说难), Five Vermins(五蠹)，and
Solitary Vexation(孤愤), are plain, compact, forceful and incisive, though fables
and anecdotes are used.
? All these works above became sources and models for later literature, both
spoken and written.
? From this we can clearly see that the prose in the Pre-Qin period underwent
some changes in style and genres. After the development of hundreds of years, a
fairly uniform prose style was eventually established, which paved the way for
the Han prose.
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