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China has a wealth of classical literature, both poetry and prose, dating from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 BCE- 221 BCE) and including the Classics attributed to Confucius. Among the most important classics in Chinese literature is the I Ching or Yi Jing (Book of Changes), a manual of divination based on eight trigrams attributed to the mythical emperor Fu Xi. (By Confucius' time these eight trigrams had been multiplied to sixty-four hexagrams.) The I Ching is still used by adherents of folk religion. The Shijing (Classic of Poetry) is made up of 305 poems divided into 160 folk songs; 74 minor festal songs, traditionally sung at court festivities; 31 major festal songs, sung at more solemn court ceremonies; and 40 hymns and eulogies, sung at sacrifices to gods and ancestral spirits of the royal house. The Shujing (Classic of History or Classic of Documents) is a collection of documents and speeches alleged to have been written by rulers and officials of the early Zhou period and before. It contains the best examples of early Chinese prose. The Liji (Record of Rites), a restoration of the original Lijing (Classic of Rites), lost in the third century BCE, describes ancient rites and court ceremonies. The Chun Qiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) is a historical record of the principality of Lu, Confucius' native state, from 722 BCE to 479 BCE. It is a log of concise entries probably compiled by Confucius himself. The Lunyu (Analects of Confucius) is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples.
Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi- legendary Qu Yuan (c. 340 BCE- 278 BCE) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century BCE). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE- CE 220), this
form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism.
Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty (618- 907). The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai (701- 762) and Du Fu (712- 770). Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society.
Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi (772- 846), whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time.
Subsequent writers of classical poetry lived under the shadow of their great Tang predecessors, and although there were many fine poets in subsequent dynasties, none reached the level of this period. As the classical style of poetry became more stultified, a more flexible poetic medium, the ci, arrived on the scene. The ci, a poetic form based on the tunes of popular songs, some of Central Asian origin, was developed to its fullest by the poets of the Song dynasty (960- 1279).
As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, the san qu, a freer form, based on new popular songs, developed. The use of san qu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.
The proponents of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the Warring States Period and Spring and Autumn periods made important contributions to Chinese prose style. The writings of Mo Zi (Mo Di, 470 BCE- 391 BCE), Mencius (Meng Zi; 372 BCE- 289 BCE), and Zhuang Zi (369 BCE-286 BCE) contain well-reasoned, carefully developed discourses and show a marked improvement in organization and style over what went before. Mo Zi is known for extensively and effectively using methodological reasoning in his polemic prose. Mencius contributed elegant diction and, along with Zhuang Zi, is known for his extensive use of comparisons, anecdotes, and allegories. By the third century BCE, these writers had developed a simple, concise prose noted for its economy of words, which served as a model of literary form for over 2,000 years.
The Tang period also saw a rejection of the ornate, artificial style of prose developed in the previous period and the emergence of a simple, direct, and forceful prose based on Han and pre-Han writing. The primary proponent of this neoclassical style of prose, which heavily influenced prose writing for the next 800 years, was Han Yu (768-824), a master essayist and strong advocate of a return
to Confucian orthodoxy.
Vernacular fiction became popular after the fourteenth century, although it was never esteemed in court circles. Covering a broader range of subject matter and longer and less highly structured than literary fiction, vernacular fiction includes a number of masterpieces. The greatest is the eighteenth- century domestic novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). A semi- autobiographical work by a scion of a declining gentry family, Hong Lou Meng has been acknowledged by students of Chinese fiction to be the masterwork of its type.