Literature of Ancient China | Definition, Characteristics & Facts

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Ancient Chinese literature has a long history that dates back thousands of years. It consists of novels, historical accounts, religious texts, and collections of poetry. Following is a list and discussion of some of the classic Chinese literary masterpieces.

Five Classics and Four Books

The Four Books and Five Classics were possibly the most important literary works in the history of Ancient China. They described the tenets and principles of Confucianism. It was crucial to be familiar with these works in order to pass the civil service tests.

Four Books

The core ideas of Confucianism are outlined in the book Great Learning (by Confucius and Zeng Zi).

The Doctrine of Mean by Zisi outlines the “Way” that people must live, emphasizing education and teaching as a way of life.

The Analects are a collection of Confucius’ speeches and conversations that were recorded by his followers.

Mencius is a collection of writings by the Confucian philosopher Mencius, including conversations and narratives.

5 Classics

Classic of Poetry – A collection of 305 poems from the Classic of Poetry, which was written between the 11th and the 7th century BC.

Book of Documents – Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, among others, are reported to have produced a number of very old documents that are included in the Book of Documents collection.

The Book of Rites is a collection of books that outline proper conduct and ceremonial ceremonies, among other topics.

I Ching – The Book of Changes is another name for the I Ching. People used this book of divination to make predictions about the future.

Spring and Autumn Annals – The State of Lu’s history is chronicled in the historical work Spring and Autumn Annals. Confucius was born in this country.

Four outstanding classic novels

These books are regarded as the best and most significant novels from pre-modern China. The Ming and Qing dynasties were when they were written. Their tales are widely read in China and have been recounted numerous times in Chinese opera, motion pictures, and contemporary literature.

Water Margin (Shi Nai’an) – This book, Water Margin (Shi Nai’an), is also known as The Outlaws of the Marsh. It depicts the tale of 108 outlaws who band together to do good during the Song Dynasty.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Luo Guanzhong) – Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a romanticized account of the Three Kingdoms that features historical figures like Liu Bei and Cao Cao. Historical occurrences like the Battle of Red Cliffs are also a part of it.

ourney to the West (Wu Cheng’en) – Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en: In this tale, a Buddhist monk journeys to India in search of a collection of holy texts.

Dream of the Red Chamber (Cao Xueqin) – The story of the rise and collapse of a Chinese family during the Qing Dynasty is told in the intricate book Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin.

Education and History

Records of the Grand Historian (Sima Qian) – Sima Qian, the author of Records of the Grand Historian, penned this history text in the Han Dynasty, roughly 109 BC. It is regarded as one of the best histories of all time and provided thorough explanations of China’s past. In China, it is known as Shiji.

Bamboo Annals – An early history of Ancient China recorded before 296 BC is the Bamboo Annals.

Kangxi Dictionary – The Kangxi Dictionary was created on the emperor’s orders and released in 1716. It contains around 47,000 Chinese characters.


In ancient China, poetry played a significant role in daily life. Poetry was regarded as a prominent art form and was written and read by all educated people.

Classic of Poetry (Shijing) – The Five Classics of Confucianism include the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), a compilation of poetry. The Shijing and the Book of Songs are other names for it.

Songs of the South (Chu ci) – Songs of the South (Chu ci) is a collection of early Chinese poetry composed primarily of works by Qu Yuan and Song Yu, two poets from the state of Chu in the south.

Nineteen Old Poems – The collection of 19 old poetry, Nineteen Old poetry, was put together in the Han Dynasty. Later poets of dynasties were greatly influenced by this poetry.

Facts and information about ancient Chinese literature

Chinese technologies like moveable type, paper, and woodblock printing enabled Chinese literature become widely read throughout the Chinese Empire.

Around 260 AD, a group of fabled poets known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove ran into problems for their critical poetry of the Jin Dynasty rulers.

Around 500 BC, Sun Tzu penned The Art of War, one of the most renowned military works ever.