Ancient China: A Heritage of Words

The most precious possession of the Chinese people is their language. Through the ages it acquired a vast and flexible vocabulary and grew mature with usage. It is to this language and to the subtle and perceptive men who developed it that Chinese literature owes its greatness.

The classical language-the language in which, until recent times, all literature was written-differs from any of the modern spoken dialects. Basically the characters used in this written language have not changed since the time of Confucius even though the spoken sounds have been greatly modified over the centuries. Thus it is possible for the modern Chinese to read the great works of antiquity classic histories, venerated documents and several forms of exquisite poetry-pronouncing them as modern Chinese.

Little is known about the speech of the first Hua men. The pictographs that appear on the Shang oracle bones, the earliest known evidence of Chinese writing, give few clues as to how the words representing the objects were pronounced. The language spoken in the classical age-from the Seventh to Third Centuries B.C.-is much less obscure.  The sounds of the spoken language of that distant age are now beginning to be learned through advanced linguistic techniques, such as the analysis of rhyme in ancient writings.

From what is known of the pronunciation of Chinese since classical times, it is evident that there has been a constant trend toward simplification, chiefly by the elimination of complex consonant sounds.The speech of Confucius was full of words that might have sounded like khmad and slog sounds that would be quite alien to the speech of his modern descendants. “Liu Che,” the modern version of the name of the great Han emperor, was “Lyog D’yat” in his own time. By medieval times, Chinese pronunciation was much closer to that of today: Emperor Li Lung-chi and the minister-gardener Li Te-yir called themselves something like Li Lyung-ki and Li Tek-yu. The phonetic simplification that has gone on since their day is suggested by a list of words used in the written or classical language of medieval times.

All are pronounced  hsieh in the official spoken language of today: ghai (apparatus); ghaai (crab); ghep (associate); ghet (stiff-necked); hyap (rib); hyat (pause); sep (reconcile); set (detritus); sya (slight); syet (diffuse); zya (slant). Such a radical simplification of sounds might have led to ambiguity if Chinese had remained monosyllabic-one syllable for each word. But modern Chinese is not monosyllabic-most of these old words, if they survive at all, remain only as the syllabic building blocks of longer words of two or more syllables. They have lost their ancient independence and live on, eroded both in sound and meaning, but retaining their old written symbols. They are now only fragments like our “am phi” (as in amphibian and amphitheater), “duce” (as in produce and induce) or “tele” (as in telegraph and telephone). Examples are the old word zya (slant), which survives as the syllable hsieh in such words as hsieh-tu (gradient), and the old word ghep (associate), which lives on as the syllable hsieh in such words as hsieh-yueh (alliance).

Chinese has from the first been written with a unique script which is called logographic. It employs special written symbols, or logograms, each representing a word in the language. It can be compared only to such archaic writing systems as those of the ancient Surnerians, Babylonians and Egyptians, all now long since superseded by simpler and more flexible systems, such as the alphabets used to write English or Greek.

The earliest of the logograrns were apparently pictographic. In the inscriptions on the Shang ora­cle bones, the sign for the word meaning “horse” is recognizable as a drawing of the animal. We can hardly detect this origin, however, in the cursive form for horse that has been used since the late classical age, when it became simply an arbitrary sign for the word.

A later variation on the logogram that found its way into the written language is the rebus. A rebus is a pictograph that has been borrowed to represent another word sounding exactly like the first sociate), which lives on as the syllable hsieh in one-as in childhood games with English sentences such words as hsieh-yueh (alliance). That use the picture of an eye to represent “I,” or the picture of a saw to represent the past tense of unique script which is called logographic. It employs special written symbols, or logograrns. It takes time to memorize such a script, but, once learned, it is hard to forget. The little pat- terns of lines soon become indelible mental images of the words they represent.

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The Evolution of a chracter is shown in four drawings. A three-legged pottery jar called “h” (A) was first represented by a pictograph (B). About 1000 B.C. the graph resembled bronze vessles of the time (C); since 200 B.C. it has appeared as in (D).

The contributions of the peculiar script to the continuity and unity of Chinese culture may indeed outweigh its disadvantages in flexibility. The sign for what is now called “Lo,” the name of the historic river, was read as “Glak” by Confucius and as “Lak” by the early T’ang rulers, but the symbol for the name of the river has not changed. The script remains intelligible to speakers of extremely varying dialects: people who cannot understand one another’s speech can read one another’s writing, and all can read the same literature. In contrast, European script is based on the analysis of sounds, and written material can be understood only if the spoken language is understood. If Europeans wrote the word for man, for example, as a stylized stick figure, as the Chinese do, the French could read it as “homme,” the Spanish as “hombre” and the Italians as “uomo.”

The vocabulary of classical Chinese, the old bookman’s language, began to expand very early. More conservative than the colloquial language, it retained many words that had been culled from ancient texts and that would otherwise have been obsolete. By Han times, the classical scribes were founding a great lexicographical tradition, recording linguistic oddities from strange parts of the land, and these words too found their way into the classical language.

The glosses and comments that generations of scholars had made on the classics-poems, treatises, histories-which were preserved along with the classics, constituted another rich treasury of words and images for the imaginative use of literate men. Thus, clinging on to the old while admitting the new, classical Chinese developed an enormous and diversified vocabulary in which the most refined distinctions of meaning and the most subtle variations in color, tone and feeling could be expressed.

The Chinese style of calligraphy changed gradually as new techniques were developed. Until about the Second Century B.C., Chinese writing was usually incised on hard surfaces. The inscriptions on the bones and shells of the Shang oracle archives were followed by those cast on the surfaces of the ritual bronzes of Shang and Chou. Characters incised on narrow slips of wood or bamboo that were bound up with thongs were the usual scrolls of the age of Confucius.  By Han times, the brush came into use and characters were written in carbon-black ink on silk scrolls.

By the Second Century A.D., after paper had been invented, scrolls were made by gluing sheets of paper together, end to end, in imitation of the silk scrolls.The paper scroll then became the standard book during the age of division and the early medieval period. The court calligraphers of T’ang, copying from carefully collated texts, made uniform versions of all kinds of instructive books. They used the finest papers from the palace factory, tinted delicately in lemon-yellow, sulfur-yellow or slate-blue, then rolled it on cylinders of ivory or sandalwood that were tipped with knobs of jade, amber or rock crystal.

In the Ninth Century, Buddhist texts began to appear in a new form: accordion-folded manuscripts. At first, printed matter was limited primarily to Buddhist and Taoist religious tracts; later the government took advantage of the printing process to disseminate the Confucian classics. By late medieval times, books were printed on one side of separate sheets of very thin paper, two pages per sheet. Each sheet was then folded in the center so that the printed side remained outside and the blank sides were back to back. By the next century, such manuscripts were not only folded but also stitched along the edge of one set of folds to make real books.

As the result of the invention of block printing, the making of scrolls and books was greatly facilitated. In the finished book the folds were at the right, as in the accordion-folded manuscript, and the cut edges were stitched together. This process made possible wide dissemination of historical, literary and religious works heavily edited. As late as mid-Han times, as Wang Chung reports, the best hope of literary men had been employment as collators in the office of the royal astrologer or of the royal liturgist.

As the result of the invention of block printing, the making of scrolls and books was greatly facilitated. In the finished book the folds were at the right, as in the accordion-folded manuscript, and the cut edges were stitched together. This process made possible wide dissemination of historical, literary and religious works heavily edited. As late as mid-Han times, as Wang Chung reports, the best hope of literary men had been employment as collators in the office of the royal astrologer or of the royal liturgist.

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, the number of poems not devoted to the glorification of the monarchy increased wonderfully, but some of the old censorious attitude remained. In 833 A.D., the T’ang emperor, a well-bred, literate, musical young man, proposed to establish a new academic degree to be called “Gentlemen Learned in Poetry.” His adviser dissuaded him: “The poets of today are superficial and paltry-in nothing gainful to good order,” he told the emperor. The adviser’s opinion was behind the times. Some of the greatest of Chinese poets were writing then, and the impractical professors and poetic dreamers were generally being accorded recognition.

The ranks of learned men had been greatly expanded in the early medieval period by the system of government examinations that made it possible for men from outside the aristocracy-even for some not born in the old Middle Kingdom-to hold high office and thus be accepted into the elite. To pass the examinations and make their way into high positions, the candidates had to be familiar with the classical books-religious, ceremonial and political-and their orthodox interpretations. This small body of texts was regarded as the basis of all civilized life, and an important part of literary composition consisted of writing interpretations of the canons or works influenced by them.

Some of the texts that the cultured T’ang gentlemen had to become familiar with have survived. A few contain fragments of writings that, though written as early as the Ninth or Tenth Century B.C., exhibit real literary merit.



The oldest Chinese text done on silk shows a calendar naming each month-as well as astronomical signs and paintings of trees and antlered gods. The silk manuscript dates from around 500 B.C.

Most  revered were the purported histories of ancient times. Among these are parts of a mixed collection, the Shu Ching, “Canon of Writings,” which is commonly known in the West as the “Classic of History.”
Orthodox critics in China long regarded these texts as the actual decrees and pronouncements of early Chou kings, but modern scholarship has disclosed that the accounts are not historical hut legendary and ritualistic. They are probably thoroughly revised librettos for archaic religious dramas -similar to the miracle plays of medieval Europe in which actors represented deified kings or humanized gods of the glorious past.

Other hallowed classics of varying content and age included dull chronicles, exciting anecdotes, models of noble behavior and primitive divination lore. In the interpretation accepted by the medieval Chinese, these works were revelations of the vanished world of Confucius and his forerunners. The picture they gave was honorable but doubtful, as the Greece of Pericles and Plato was revealed to the men of the Renaissance, full of wonder and glory, but in many respects a Fairy-tale world.

The oldest canonical history books were the annals called “Springs and Autumns.” These were hallowed in the belief-probably unfounded-that they had been compiled and annotated by Confucius, and they were accepted as classics of Chou scholarship despite their threadbare, primitive style.

But historiography was one of the great arts of the Chinese and the medieval student also had access to some excellent documents in that field. Among these were the so-called “Dynastic Histories,” whose chief flaw was the partiality they showed for persons and ideas favored in official Confucian circles. The first such history was written by Szu-rna Ch’ien, a genius of the Second Century B.C. who had been a palace scribe at the court of Emperor Liu Ch’e. His pioneering work was the prototype of many succeeding dynastic histories, which were increasingly subject to official control and the pressure of courtiers and court lobbies.

Related to the histories were the anthologies of “administrative prose” -memorials, manifestos, edicts, addresses, memoranda, petitions-which were read not only as examples of meritorious intellectual and practical compositions but for their literary value. These held an honored position in Chinese literature quite different from the status of most such documents in European culture.

Like other classics, these administrative documents were emulated by the practicing medieval writers, sometimes in works dealing with bizarre themes. Han Yii, the very paragon of the official T’ang writer, composed a memorial to the throne on the subject of government preparations to receive a religious relic-one of the Buddha’s bones. Though widely admired for its literary quality, it still offended many important people by its tactless attack on a sacred belief. Equally famous was Han Yu’s fulmination against the crocodiles of Chao-chou, written as an official address to the reptiles in his role as priestly magistrate.

Important changes in the ancient traditions in literature developed in the age of division, between the Third and Seventh Centuries A.D., when new ways of treating nature began to appear. These were partly inspired by Taoist and Buddhist tenets and by the natural beauty of the subtropical south, which was settled at this time by intellectuals escaping the unrest in the north.

Liu Tsung-yiian, a protege of Han Yu who was in exile in the far south, was the first writer of outstanding talent to use the exotic scenery there as his theme. His description of a high peak near his place of banishment began:

This mountain rises in a knotted cluster in the midst of blurred blue. Galloping clouds, running straight up and reaching out ten thousands of miles, coil round this wild retreat. From its head pour great torrents, and all the other hills come to attend its levee- their aspect like that of stars showing reverence [to the pole star], in deceptive images of grey-green and halcyon-blue, strung in damask designs, interlaced in embroideries. I ndeed it appears that Heaven has assembled its choicest blooms in this place.

Other types of prose that survive from T’ang times are fables, fairy tales and romances, indications of uneasiness with rigid Confucian orthodoxy, that often reveal the other-worldly influence of Taoism. They related things somehow believable and incredible at the same time. Telling of travel backwards in time, of visits to improbable ghostly worlds, and of the splendors and wonders of distant places, they played the same role in medieval Chinese life that science fiction does in our own.

Despite the excellence and variety of Chinese prose, it is Chinese poetry that has had the greatest worldwide appeal.The oldest surviving Chinese poetry, some of it dating from the Tenth or Ninth Century B.C., is found in another “Confucian” classic, the Shih Ching, known as the “Book of Odes.” This is a medley of ritual hymns, paeans to great warlords, wedding chants and folk poetry -altered over the centuries, no doubt, by critics and court poets. All of this poetry, whether secular or ritual, had been, by T’ang times, forced into the mold of Confucian morality to serve as pious lessons to the Chinese students. These lessons would probably have bewildered the ancient poets, who wrote their verses to celebrate the mysteries of antiquity, the excitement of courtship or the glory of famous princes. But they had become models for medieval poets, and few writers failed to learn these archaic and sometimes badly interpreted lyrics by heart and to echo them in their own works.

A similar destiny awaited the ancient collection of poetry now called the Ch’u Tz’u-a mass of fervent, ecstatic, sometimes extravagant verse that comes down to us, for the most part from the end of the Chou period, as an extraordinary example of beautiful writing, entirely alien to the so-called classic tradition.

 The Ch’u Tz’u poems were mainly celebrations of the voyage of the soul to supernatural worlds, guidebooks to unseen paradises and projections of shamanistic fancy. But the anthology was accepted as a kind of minor classic, after it had been adapted to majority belief by scores of official editors and interpreters. By Han times, many of the Ch’u T’z’u poems were interpreted as political satires and guides to ethics.

The words of these classics became the building blocks for later poetry and fortunately some poets knew how to use them well. Their form was also followed in medieval times: from the Shih Ching came the symmetrical lyric, or shih, and from the Ch’u Tz’u the descriptive rhapsody, or fu.

The ancient shih followed a distinct rhythmic form: the lines were rhymed couplets composed of four, five or seven words each. After Han times another peculiarity was added to this basic structure-the words in every line had their parallels in the following line. In the example that follows, “evening” and “spring,” both words for natural time periods, are paralleled in sense and function. “River” matches “Bowers,” “Bat” goes with ” full,”  with “just,” “moving” with “opened,” and so on, pair by pair:

Evening river-flat, not moving;

Spring flowers-full, just opened. Drifting waves go off, carrying moon, Tidal waves come in-girded with stars.

 There are trees, which, having luxuriated quickly, are the first to topple,

And there are creatures which, having pro- liferated speedily, are suddenly worn out.

The poem, which rhymes in the original Chinese, is a vision of the mouth of  the Yangtze River, seen under the full moon, with the ocean tide rising, just as the stars begin to appear in the darkening east.

Though the shih continued to be influenced by ancient models, it was also constantly being refreshed by folk poetry and popular songs. It revealed a personal and intimate view of the world internal and intense.

Fu, a  less symmetrical form of poetry was usually devoted to a single topic, which it celebrated in the most florid and rich vo­cabulary possible. Though the form was applied to such subjects as elephants, walled cities and the textile industry, the poem was seldom prosaic. This is illustrated in the following lines by the Seventh Century poet Tsui Tun-Ii in which he tells why he planted pine seedlings in the mountains:

We set out peach and plum to flower early;

We plant elm and willow for easy shade;

The Mongol Oak,

split for faggots, thrives all the more;

The Tree of Heaven, pruned for fuel, comes back to life.

But all of these

Will break and snap, as aftermath of flying snow-

Will be consumed to the heart by a spell of severe frost.

Take the pine on the other hand:

Its trunk resists wind and thunder, Its roots split cliff and rock …

How then indeed can such as this be compared with the mediocre stock of  the mass of trees?

The fu tended to become a virtuoso piece, offered by a court poet on imperial command, to celebrate some splendid event. Detached from its emotional and mystical origins, the fu became more and more a courtly verbal game. The style was never given up, though few of the later writers ever handled it as well as the earliest masters had.

A third poetic form was the tz’u, a product of the decaying society of the late Tang. It was based on the popular songs-many of which were pseudoexotic or of foreign origin-sung by female entertainers in the cafes of the capital city. Dazzled young litterateurs learned to sing these songs, memorized the tunes and set new words to them.

Verses in this new form of poetry tended to be romantic, nostalgic, bittersweet:

The place I saw her late evening sky-

Under the thorny t’ung in front of the Terrace of Viet;

In the darkness, turning pupils deeply fixed with meaning,

She dropped a pair of kingfisher ornaments,

Mounted on elephant,

turned her back on me -went ahead over the water.

Regardless of form, Chinese poetry tended to reflect those themes that were of paramount importance to the people: personal relationships, nostalgia for the past and reverence for nature.

The greatest theme of Chinese poetry was human relationships. The love of friends, of spouse, of children-often the unhappy side of personal attachments-is a recurrent theme. Sad poems about partings, loneliness, homesickness, journeys in strange places and cruel environments numbered in the thousands. They demonstrate why the ancient punishment of exile was regarded as so severe. A poem from the brush of the Tang poet Tsen Shen, a man familiar with life in provincial military headquarters and harsh garrisons, tells of the feelings of Chinese guests at a party in the town of Wine Springs on the Central Asian frontier:

The Grand Protector of Wine Springs, expert at the sword dance,

Set out the wine in his high hall-his drums beat in the night.

Just one song on the barbarian pipe rent our bowels-

We seated visitors gazed at each other, our tears like rain.

Love of friends and family is a more popular theme in Chinese poetry than romantic love, but, despite a widespread notion to the contrary, Chinese poets did write about their feelings for women.

As time went on, they expressed themselves quite directly and emotionally-sometimes even sensually. This was especially true in the late Tang period, an age when a number of great writers were known for their complicated love affairs. From this same period there are even love poems written by women-court ladies, Taoist “nuns” and, especially, courtesans.

The transience of life and the evanescence of all human attachments, the second most popular theme of Chinese poetry, was closely related to the first. It permitted nostalgia for the past, and a kind of reminiscent romanticism became as popular a theme with early medieval Chinese poets as romantic love has been with Western poets.

These dreams of the wonderful times of old supplied Chinese writers with colorful images all too often stereotypes and cliches. For the embroidery of their verses. For every Daphnis and Chloe, every Caesar and Brutus available to the European poet, there were counterparts in Chinese tradition, to be alluded to in a thousand intricate ways. All personages and events recorded in historical books or living in oral legend were subjects for literary allusion. The poets foraged these rich fields voraciously.

The melancholy that had infected the poems of antiquity became intensified during the declining decades of Tang, when all beautiful things seemed illusory, all human values decaying. This attitude was reinforced by the Buddhist concept of the vanity of appearances in the light of eternity. Both are exemplified in a poem by Szu-K’ung Shu, written in the Eighth Century, about an abandoned monastery in Ch’ang-an:

By the yellow leaves-a temple from an earlier reign;

No monks are there-the cold basilica stands open.

Where the pool shows fair, a turtle comes out and suns itself;

Where the pines make a shade, a crane fl.ies out and around.

On old fl.agstones, the steles are crossed with grass;

In shadowed galleries, the pictures are patched with moss.

Even the Palace of Contemplation is spent and melted away.

This world of dust still wants more of our grief.

The third great theme of Chinese poetry was nature and it was seldom absent, even in poems emphasizing other moods.

In the very oldest verses, nature is portrayed chiefly as the medium through which the purposes of the gods-benevolent or terrifying-are made clear. This treatment of the natural world survived for centuries in good conservative contexts-ritual pronouncements, prayers and panegyrics, royal eulogies. Out of this kind of symbolism came the common attitude of the classical age that nature and living things are only worth noticing as symbols of ideas and emotions. Writers used nature to set the mood or tone of a poem or exploited it in complex allegories.



After the migration of the gentry southward during the barbarian occupation of the northlands literate intellectuals began to regard nature as a fit topic in its own right. The verbal resources of the old urban, practical, political past began to be transmuted into a language suitable to this fresher, lovelier world. A new kind of nature poetry came into being along with the new age of gardens. Nevertheless, the new natural world was never entirely divested of its supernatural significance; down into medieval times, Chinese poetry continued to represent the glories of nature as semblances of the divine world.

The best lyrics written during the age of division adopt this mystical view of existence. They show nature not as a pretty environment for the recreation of aristocrats, nor as the barren retreat of idlers, nor as the ominous world interpreted by diviners and medicine-men-although all of these ways of looking at nature remained alive. Rather, the best postclassical writers saw the non urban landscape as a physical model or foretaste of paradise and its infinite suburbs. Walking in meadow and forest, they were inspired to anticipate free-and-easy wandering beyond the high seas and among the stars. Refreshing themselves under the trees, they contemplated the transcendental life promised by Taoism.

Literature expressing this great hope was a protest against the unstable and often bloody life of an era when uncouth nomads were planting alfalfa for their herds where once there had been fields of wheat, millet and barley, when the tame acceptance of brutality and irreverence might, it seemed, come to dominate Chinese life. Nature offered both escape and a new kind of design.

The presence of the divine world persisted, however faintly, in some post-classical Chinese poetry, although it was essentially a secular art. Taoist and Buddhist ideas, usually subdued or disguised, are common in the literature of the Tang period, when both Taoist and Buddhist other worldliness was accepted by much of established society as a possible way of understanding man’s destiny. But the tendency to express supernatural longing by symbolism, allusiveness and indirection encouraged superficiality-a sliding away from sincerity into mere elegance and polish. Some “Taoist” poems of the Tang period were mainly devices for giving acceptable form to erotic dreams of slender, white-armed nymphs in flowered palace courtyards. So Taoist poetry came to resemble court poetry.

All Chinese poetry, whatever the form and whatever the theme, sought to instruct, to improve, to liberate. But the straightforward didactic poetry so familiar in the West was not in the Chinese style; multiple meanings and indirect references were preferred. Chinese poets hoped to express, through the magic of words, their feelings about the problems of ordinary living, the delights of the imagination, and the passionate longing of man for truth-all at one time.

The spread of the Chinese language-and hence of the influence of Chinese literature-coincided with the spread of Chinese political dominance. The neighbors immediately south of the old Middle Kingdom speaking monosyllabic languages related to Chinese, were easy to absorb. The southern expansion did not stop until it reached the border of Champa, where people spoke a Malayan language. The neighbors immediately north, ancestors of the modern Turks, Mongols and Manchus, spoke polysyllabic languages and absorbed little of the Chinese language or the Chinese civilization.

The Japanese, the Koreans and the Vietnamese never adopted the Chinese language, but, as their culture expanded in medieval times, they began to draw heavily on the treasury of Chinese words and Chinese thought. The Vietnamese-and even some speakers of polysyllabic languages-also adapted the Chinese script. To them the language and literature of classical China were what those of classical Greece and Rome have been to Europe and those of Arabia to the Near East-an inexhaustible well of words and ideas.

The Poetry of the Land

Each time that I look at a fine landscape:

I raise my voice and recite a stanza of poetry.

The Ninth Century Chinese poet Po Chu-i, who wrote these lines, might have been speaking for Chinese poets through the ages. Nowhere have men been so inspired by the grandeur of their native land; nowhere has the land so perfectly lent itself to poetic description.

In the mountains of China’s southwest, tumultuous rivers race through deep gorges. Along the Pacific coast, slower, wider rivers meander through a broad delta where placid lakes yield a rich harvest of fish. In the drier country to the north, fields of grain terrace steep hillsides. Lying across China’s northern borders is the Gobi Desert, a bone-dry wasteland, and beyond it stretch the gray and dusty plains of the Mongolian steppes. The splendor of this variegated terrain has stimulated Chinese poets so powerfully that the description of landscape is a nearly universal element in Chinese poetry. It is the theme of the simple, graceful lines written by Po Chii-i in the Ninth Century A.D. and of the verse of Szu-ma Hsiang-ju in the Second Century B.C., poets who evoke curiously timeless landscapes. The photographs on these pages were taken in this century; the poetry that accompanies them was written before the Tenth Century A.D., yet is as apt today as it was then and as it undoubtedly will be 1,000 years from now.


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