Two distinct traditions exist in Chinese literature: the literary and the vernacular, or colloquial. The latter can be traced back more than a thousand years before the Christian era and has existed almost continuously until modern times. Consisting originally of poetry and later of drama and fiction, it grew to include histories and popular stories and tales, as well. Folk, or vernacular, literature was long considered beneath the notice of members of the scholar-official class, who were the arbiters of literary taste. Their own polished and highly stylized writings set the standards for the orthodox literary tradition that began about 2000 years ago. Not until the 20th century did colloquial literature gain the support and esteem of the intellectual class.
Chinese literature may be divided into three major historical periods that roughly correspond to those of Western literary history: the classical period, from the 6th century BC through the 2nd century AD; the medieval period, from the 3rd century to the late 12th century; and the modern period, from the 13th century to the present.
II CLASSICAL PERIOD
The oldest examples of Chinese writing are inscriptions on bones and tortoise-shells, dating probably from the 14th century BC. The inscriptions represent divinations performed for the kings of the Shang dynasty (1766?-1027?BC), the earliest confirmed dynasty. Although not literature in the strictest sense, they represent the earliest specimens of Chinese script, which became the vehicle for all subsequent Chinese literature.
The classical period in Chinese literature corresponds to the same period in Greek and Roman literature. The formative stages took place during the 6th to the 4th century BC, at the time of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1027?-256 BC). This period encompassed the work of Confucius (Kongfuzi, or K'ung Fu-tzu), Mencius (Mengzi, or Meng-tzu), Laozi (Lao-tzu), Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu ), and many other great Chinese philosophers. It...