Afro-Asian Literature: China | LET Reviewer

Objectives

  1. Identify outstanding writers and their major works in Afro-Asian literature
  2. Be familiar with the literary history, philosophy, religious beliefs and culture of the Afro-Asian nations
  3. Interpret the significance and meaning of selected literary pieces
  4. Point out the universal themes, issues, and subject matter that dominate Afro-Asian literature

Brief History

Chinese literature reflects the political and social history of China and the impact of powerful religions that came from within and outside the country. Its tradition goes back thousands of years and has often been inspired by philosophical questions about the meaning of life, how to live ethically in society, and how to live in spiritual harmony with the natural order of the universe.

  1. Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.). People practiced a religion based on the belief that nature was inhabited by many powerful gods and spirits. Among the significant advances of this period were bronze working, decimal system, a twelve-month calendar and a system of writing consisting of 3,000 characters.
  2. Chou Dynasty (1100 B.C. – 221 B.C.). The longest of all dynasties and throughout most of this period China suffered from severe political disunity and upheaval. This era was also known as the Hundred Schools period because of the many competing philosophers and teachers. Among the most influential include Lao Tzu, the proponent of Taoism, and Confucius, the founder of Confucianism.
  3. Ch’in Dynasty (221 B.C. – 207 B.C.). This is where China saw unification and the strengthening of the central government. Roads connecting all parts of the empire were built and the existing walls on the northern borders were connected to form the Great Wall of China.
  4. Han Dynasty (207 B.C. – A.D. 220) One of the most glorious eras of Chinese history. This period was marked by the introduction of Buddhism from India.
  5. T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618 – 960) The Golden Age of Chinese civilization. Fine arts and literature flourished in this period. Among the technological advances of this time were the invention of gun powder and block printing.
  6. Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960 – 1279). This period was characterized by delicacy and refinement although inferior in literary arts but great in learning. The practice of Neo-Confucianism proliferated.

Philosophy and Religion

Chinese literature and all of the Chinese culture have been profoundly influenced by three great schools of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Chinese religions are based on the perception of life as a process of continual change in which opposing forces, such as heaven and earth or light and dark, balance one another. These opposites are symbolized by the Yin and Yang. Yin, the passive and feminine force, counterbalances Yang, the active and masculine force, each contains a ‘seed’ of the other, as represented in the traditional yin-yang symbol.

  • Confucianism provides the Chinese with both a moral order and an order for the universe. It is not a religion but it makes individuals aware of their place in the world and the behavior appropriate to it. It also provides a political and social philosophy.

    Confucian ethics is humanist. The following are Confucian tenets:
    1. Jen or human heartednesses are qualities or forms of behavior that set men above the rest of the lie on earth. Also known as ren, it is the measure of individual character and such, is the goal of self-cultivation.
    2. li refers to a ritual, custom, propriety, and manner. A person of li is a good person.

Philosophical Works

  1. The Analects (Lun Yu) is one of the four Confucian texts. The sayings range from brief statements to more extended dialogues between Confucius and his students. The Analects instructs on moderation in all things through moral education, the building of harmonious family life and the development of virtues such as loyalty, obedience and a sense of justice.
  2. The Tao-Te-Ching (Classic of the Way of Power) is believed to have been written between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C. It presents a way of life intended to restore harmony and tranquillity to a kingdom racked by widespread disorders.
  3. Chuang Tzu is the philosophical work of Lao Tzu’s most important disciple, Chuan Tzu. Written in a witty, imaginative style, this book consists of fables and anecdotes that teach the Taoist philosophy and questioned the principles of Confucianism.

Literary Selections

  1. The Book of Songs (Shih Ching), compiled around the 6th century B.C. is the oldest collection of Chinese poetry. This collection consists of 305 poems, many of which were originally folk songs, focusing on such themes as farming, love, and war.
  2. The Book of Changes (I Ching) is one of the Five Classics of Confucian philosophy and has been primarily used for divination.
  3. Record of a Journey to the West is the foremost Chinese comic novel written about 1500-82 by the long-anonymous Wu Chengen. The novel is based on the actual 7th-century pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) to India in search of sacred texts.
  4. Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel by Cao Zhan thought to be semi-autobiographical and generally considered to be the greatest of all Chinese novels. It details the decline of the Jia family including 30 main characters and more than 400 minor ones. The major focus is on young Baoyu, the gifted but obstinate heir of the clan.
  5. The Injustice Done to Tou Ngo a play by Guan Han-Cheng, a Yuan dramatist, tells the story of the poisoning of Old Chang by his own son but the conviction of Tou Ngo for the crime. The element of the fantastic is employed in the appearance of Tou Ngo as a ghost defending herself in the trial and the falling of the snow in midsummer which were the curse that Tou Ngo cast upon her death. The truth is revealed in the end the tragic heroine is vindicated.

Major Writers

  • Chuang Tzu (4th century B.C.) was the most important early interpreter of the philosophy of Taoism. In his stories, he appears as a quirky character who cares little for either public approval or material possessions.
  • Lieh Tzu (4th century B.C.) was a Taoist teacher who had many philosophical differences with his forebears Lao-Tzu and Chuan Tzu. He argued that the sequence of causes predetermines everything that happens, including one’s choice of action.
  • Lui An (172 – 122 B.C.). Taoist scholar, the grandson of the founder of the Han dynasty. His royal title was the Prince of Haui-nan. Together with philosophers and under his patronage, he produced a collection of essays on metaphysics, cosmology, politics, and conduct. 
  • Ssu-ma Ch’ien (145 – 122 B.C.) was the greatest of China’s grand historians who dedicated himself to completing the first history of China the Records of the Historian. His work covers almost three thousand years of Chinese history in more than half a million written characters etched onto bamboo tablets.
  • Po Chu-I (772 – 846). He wrote many poems speaking bitterly against the social and economic problems that were plaguing China.
  • Li Ch’ing-chao (A.D. 1084 – 1151) is regarded as China’s greatest woman poet and was also one of the most liberated women of her day. Many of her poems composed in the tz’u form celebrate her happy marriage or express her loneliness when her husband was away.
  • Chou-Shu-jen (1881 – 1936) has been called the Father of the modern Chinese short story because of his introduction of Western techniques. He is also known as Lu Hsun whose stories deal with themes of social concern, the problems of the poor, women and intellectuals.
  • Mao Tun is the pen name of Shen Yen-ping who is an exponent of revolutionary realism. He is the author of a half-dozen novels, of which Midnight (1933) is considered to be his masterpiece.