The oldest written inscriptions appear on shells and bones dating from about the 14th century BC. However, the classical period of Chinese Literature begins in the 6th century BC. This period encompasses the work of Confucius, Mencius, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. This period culminated with the compilation of the Confucian classics. The principles of Confucianism are contained within the Five Classics, which originated before the time of Confucius, and the Four Books, which include the sayings of Confucius, Mencius, and their followers. Confucian treatises became the standard literature upon which education was based until the early 20th century. Confucian scholars, therefore, shaped the succeeding developments in poetry, prose and music. The impact of Confucianism on Chinese society was not just in literary and educational developments, but it was a code of ethics with great social and religious implications. Until the 1950's, Confucianism had a dominant influence on Chinese culture as a whole.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) the Romantic and Realistic schools of poetry were established. The Historical Memoirs of Ssu-ma Ch'ien was written in about the 1st century BC, and provided the pattern for all dynastic histories compiled in the 2000 years following it. Under the Han rulers, the writing of history became one of the main responsibilities of the government. At this time, mastery of the Confucian classics became the requirement for any appointment to official posts.
From the 3rd to the 7th century, China was divided into warring states, yet culture continued to flourish. During this time Buddhism spread from India, poetry and prose thrived and printing was invented.
The greatest Chinese poetry was written during the T'ang dynasty (618-907), which was, in general, a period of peace. The most famous poets during this period were Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu. Prose also prospered at this time with a trend toward simple, straightforward writing as opposed to the artificial prose which had developed prior to this. Popular fiction evolved at this time and storytelling experienced a revival.
Under the Sung rulers (960-1279) literature, philosophy and the arts flourished, despite periods of foreign pressure. The Sung and Yuan periods saw the true emergence of drama as an art form. While the rudiments of drama had existed for centuries, it was not until this time that this form truly developed. The growth of drama and popular fiction during these dynasties is attributed to the establishment of large urban centers and the spread of literacy to the merchant classes.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials