1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature

(Part 42)


Chinese Literature

Having thus attempted to trace the growth of the written Chinese character from its first creation as a hieroglyphic to its final development in the more modern ideophonetic form, and also the rules which govern the position of these characters in a sentence, our object will now be to show the use which Chinese authors have made of the characters and of the grammar to which they are subservient. It was obviously necessary to begin with the language, before dealing with the literature, since some of the leading characteristics of the literature are, as is the case in every tongue, plainly traceable tot he structure of the language. The words of a sentence are as a piece of clay in the hands of a potter. If they be soft and pliable, that is to say, if they be capable of inflections and of syntactical motion, they may be moulded to express with varying vigour and force the highest fancies and noblest thoughts of an able writer in all the changing beauty of poetic diction or of rhetorical eloquence. But if on the other hand they be destitute of inflexion, and be cramped by inexorable laws of position, which cannot for a moment be departed from, without a sacrifice of sense, the result must be that the literature of which they are the component parts will partake to some extent of their hard unyielding nature.

If we turn for a moment to the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, we find that some of the finest effects have been produced by the power which the inflexional nature of those languages gave of transposing the position of words in a sentence, so as to give vigour and grace to the rhythm. To prove the truth of this we have only to take some striking passage, and compare it in the original with a plain straightforward translation in prose. The idea is the same in both, but how, differently it appeals to the imagination of the reader. The gun gem is there, but it has lost the advantage of its setting. It must now be judged by the prosaic rule of its intrinsic value, with no softening surroundings to add grace and brilliancey to its natural beauty.

But the effective weapon which as thus placed in the hands of the poets and authors of ancient Greece and Rome has been completely denied to Chinese writers. As has been explained, the language is absolutely without inflexion, and the grammar consists so entirely of syntax, that no word can be moved out of its determined position in a sentence, without either changing its value or rendering it meaningless. Thus the literature has lost much of the variety and elegance which belongs by nature to that of the polysyllabic languages. And we might go beyond this and say that the lack of that power of expression which is given by syntactical motion has been accompanied by a blighting influence on the imaginations of Chinese authors. Other causes, to which reference will presently be made, are also to some extent responsible for this result ;but in our review of the various branches of Chinese literature, we shall find that those which are most dependent for their successful development on the powers of imagination are those which least repay attention, and that the more excellent are those which contain simple narrations of facts, or consist of the arguments of the philosopher or of the man of science.

But notwithstanding this the Chinese are eminently a literary, in the sense of a reading, people. The system of making competitive examinations the only royal road to posts of honour and emolument, and the law which throws these open to everybody who chooses to compete, have caused a wider diffusion of book learning among the Chinese than is probably to be found among any other people. As to the date when the literature first took its rise, it is impossible to speak with any certainty. The vicissitudes which attended the early manuscripts and books which were collected by private individuals and in the imperial libraries have been such as to render the preservation of any ancient record a matter of wonder. Constant references are found in books to works which are said to have existed at early dates, but of many of these the titles are all that remain to us now.

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