China is the only country in the world with a literature written in one language for more than 3,000 consecutive years. It is the use of characters, not letters as in Western languages that is most important in the Chinese language. The characters stand for things or ideas and so, unlike groups of letters, they cannot and need never be sounded. Thus Chinese could be read by people in all parts of the country in spite of gradual changes in pronunciation, the emergence of regional and local dialects, and modification of the characters.
Chinese literature is characterized by a long tradition of realism. The “Book of Poems”, compiled two thousand and five hundred years ago, was the earliest realistic literature of China.
The “Book of Poems” was an anthology of the poems and songs appearing between the early Zhou Dynasty and the middle of the Spring-Autumn Period; collected around the sixth century B.C. Altogether the anthology contained three hundred and five poems. In the light of the rhythms, the anthology was divided into three sections: the Feng section (the section of ballads), the “Ya” section (the section of festival songs), and the “Song” section (the section of praises). The “Feng” poems were the native ballads of the various states. The “Ya” poems were music pieces in the territory of the Zhou Kings. The “Song” poems were eulogies to ghosts and deities and to meritorious deeds, often sung along with dances. This book has rich contents and knowledge, and aesthetic values in various aspects.
Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). 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.
Modern Chinese literature motivated the social revolution in late Qing Dynasty. In 1915 Youth Magazine (later, New Youth) was founded by Ch'en Tu-hsiu (1879-1942), who soon became a founder of the Chinese Communist party. The Ch'ing Dynasty was overthrown in the Chinese Revolution of 1911-12.
In a strict sense, the Chinese novels (particular the long ones) arose rather late. Initially there were myths and legends. Then in the Wei-Jin Southern-Northern Dynasties period there were tales of the supernatural. Then in the Tang Dynasty there were tales of the marvelous. Only in the Song Dynasty did earliest novels in the colloquial language started to appear in China. In the Ming and Qin Dynasties, when the feudal economy was well developed and rudimentary capitalist production started, and when the townspeople class came into being, did the novels flourish and form a mighty current in literature. The novels were a lively and free literary form. The language of the novels was simple and easy to understand, well appreciated by the populace.