China has long had a great penchant and respect for literature in all its guises. Beginning with the Book of Songs, that dates between 800-600 B.C., Chinese literature has blossomed throughout the passing dynasties. And Chinese scholars made every effort to preserve the literature of each period. The knowledge of literature and Chinese philosophy became a requirement for even the most median civil service job. Candidates were also judged on their calligraphy. In addition, they were expected to write an essay of note. Those individuals that passed the examinations gained respect even if they came from the most humble villages.
Confucius was the philosopher that established moral and behavioral standards for Chinese life for centuries to come. His life is described by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, the Grand Historian of China, whose writings have been translated by Burton Watson in an excellent 2 vol. edition, published by Columbia University Press. According to Ch’ien, Confucius lived from 551-479 B.C. Thus, he was one of the earliest seminal religious and philosophical thinkers. Unlike other religious doctrines, Confucianism was humanist, emphasizing human relationships and not immortality or mystical spirits. Perhaps, Confucius’s most famous statement is “the measure of man is man”. How curious that the Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras, says the same thing. But what was unique in Confucius was that he didn’t distinguish between politics and ethics. As Lin Yutang states in his book, The Wisdom of Confucius, “… Confucianism stood for a rationalized social order through the ethical approach, based on personal cultivation. It aimed at political order by laying the basis for it in a moral order and it sought political harmony by trying to achieve the moral harmony in man himself.” Confucius was quite concerned with filial piety and proper ritual to accompany certain rites and ceremonies. Music was important, and calm, harmonious music reflected the calm, harmonious nature of man and the political state in which he/she lived. In China, Confucianism held sway for over 2500 years and still has its adherents, while adjusting to other cultural trends.
If you plan to read Chinese literature, however, and you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese culture, you will need more than an understanding of Confucianism to see you through. I recommend that you purchase a book on Chinese mythology(especially critical for Wu Cheng-en’s long Buddhist allegory, The Journey to the West), a book on Chinese history such as the recent China: A History by John Keay, and the indispensible guide to Chinese thinking, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan. With the proper guides at your disposal, you should be ready for a preliminary investigation into Chinese literature.
The Chinese wrote in every possible genre, while truly excelling in poetry, which reached its peak during the T’ang Dynasty(618 A.D.-906 A.D.). But I would like to concentrate on the novel. To start with, there are six novels that the Chinese consider classics. They are: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Lo Kuan-chung(ca. 1330-1400), The Water Margin by Lo Kuan-chung(authorship is still a matter of debate), Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en(ca. 1506-1582), Chin P’ing Mei author unknown(probably because of its many pornographic passages), The Scholars by Wu Ching-tzu(1701-1754) and the most famous Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Tsueh-ch’in(1715-1763).
Note: For those readers who want to learn more about the Chinese classic novels, they can do no better than to read C.T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel.
What I would like to do is focus on the last novel which I will call The Story of the Stone after David Hawkes. In it we see the rise and fall of the Jia family and the illumination of various characters as they play their different roles in a creative tapestry. We will take a closer look at this special stone and understand better the separation and intermingling of two different worlds.