China has a rich literary tradition. Unfortunately — barring many years of intensive study — much of it is inaccessible to western readers. Many of the most important Chinese classics are available in translation, but much of the Chinese literary heritage (particularly its poetry) is untranslatable, although scholars persevere.
The essential point to bear in mind when discussing Chinese literature is that prior to the 20th century there were two literary traditions: the classical and the vernacular. The classical tradition was equivalent of a Chinese literary canon. The classical canon, largely Confucian in nature, consisted of a core of texts written in ancient Chinese that had to be mastered thoroughly by all aspirants to the Chinese civil service, and was the backbone of the Chinese education system—it was nearly indecipherable to the masses. The vernacular tradition arose in the Ming Dynasty and consisted largely of prose epics written for entertainment.
For western readers it is the vernacular texts, precursors of the contemporary Chinese novel and short story that are probably of more interest. Most of them are available in translation and provide a fascinating insight into life of China centuries past.
Perhaps the four most famous early novels are: Outlaw of the Marsh(水浒传), also translated as Rebels of the Marah; The Romance of Three Kingdoms (三国演义); A Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), also translated as A Dream of Red Mansions; The Journey to the West (西游记).
Another classic is the Jin Ping Mei(金瓶梅), a racy story about a wealthy Chinese man and his six wives—It was banned in China, but available elsewhere in English. The I Ching (易经),or The Book of Changes, is used to predict the future, but is regarded by the Chinese as an ancient source of wisdom. The Art of War(孙子兵法)by Sun Tzu was studied by Mao Zedong and is still required reading for modern military strategists in the west.
By the early 19th century, western novels had begun to appear in Chinese translations in increasing numbers, Chinese intellectuals began to look at their own literary traditions more critically, in particular the classical one, which was markedly different in form from the Chinese Spoken Language. Calls for a national literature based on vernacular Chinese rather than the stultifying classical language grew in intensity.
The first of the major Chinese writers to write in colloquial Chinese as understood by the masses was Lu Xun (1881——1936), and for this reason he is regarded by many as "the father of modern Chinese literature." Most of his works were short stories that looked critically at the Chinese inability to drag its nation into the 20th century. His first set of short stories was entitled ‘Call to Arms’ and included his most famous tale ‘The True Story of Ah Q’. His second collection was entitled ‘Wandering’, and his last collection was called ‘Old Tales Retold’.
Lao She (1899 - 1966), another important early novelist, also produced an allegorical work in ‘Cat City’, but is famous most of all for ‘The Rickshaw Boy’, a book that has been translated many times into English. It is a social critique of the living conditions of rickshaw drivers in Beijing.
Wang Meng was born in Beijing in 1934 and his writings have touched on all sorts of sensitive topics including reform, elections, family, politics, corruption and technology. He was labeled a “rightist” in 1957 because one of his short stories, “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department”, mildly criticized bureaucracy. In 1963 he was forced to move to a rural Xinjiang where he spent the next 16 years. His “rightist” label was officially removed in 1979 and he was allowed to take up writing again. He was given the prestigious job of Minister of Culture in 1986. Wang Meng has authored a number of excellent stories including “The Butterfly and Kitty”.
Ba Jin is the pen name of Li Feigan who was born in 1904. He studied in Paris and translated many French works into Chinese, but became well-known for his own novels that he produced in the 1930s and 1940s. He was brutally persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, but managed to survive. His best-known works include Family, Spring, Autumn, Garden of Repose and Bitter Cold Nights.
Shen Congwen (1902 — 88) lived in Hunan Province and his fiction reflects the lifestyle in that region. More than 20 of his best stories have been gathered into the book Imperfect Paradise, published in English in America.
The work of another writer, Wang Shuo, still awaits translation into English, but this must only be a matter of time. Much of his work has been adapted for film and he is popular with the younger generation. For the authorities, however, his stories about disaffected urban youth, gambling, prostitution and confidence tricksters are considered a bad influence.