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date: 10 April 2021

Chinese Literary Theoryfree

  • Shunqing CaoShunqing CaoDepartment of Chinese Language and Literature, Sichuan University


Chinese literary theory has established its own comprehensive theoretical systems with various schools, and it plays a significant role in world literary theories. Although each phase demonstrates different features, Chinese literary theory basically centers on the debate of practicability and literariness, two views of literary theory, which leads to two development pathways of Chinese literary theory: one is practical, based on political and moral edification, and another is literary, based on emotional expression. The two pathways are neither independent nor irrelevant; instead, they mingle as well as confront one another, and from polarization to integration they constitute Chinese literary theory.

“Poetry Expresses Aspirations”: The Origin of Two Views of Chinese Literary Theory and Their Inherent Contradiction

Long before Plato, Chinese people in the pre-Qin era (Paleolithic period to 221 BC) came up with the poetic concept that “poetry expresses aspirations,” which has had a far-reaching influence. The Chronology of Emperor Yao (Yaodian) in Book of History (Shangshu) explicitly puts forward the idea that “poetry expresses aspirations,”1 which became “the pioneering principle of Chinese poetics” for subsequent dynasties and had a profound effect on the development of Chinese literary theory.2 In the Axial Age of human civilization, Laozi, Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and other Chinese philosophers, who were the contemporaries of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, proposed numerous ideas of literary theory, including “the greatest sound is silence and the greatest image is invisible” comes from Laozi, while poetry’s four social functions (Xing, Guan, Qun, Yuan)3 comes from Confucius. All the pre-Qin philosophers basically agree with the view that “poetry expresses aspirations.”

The reference to aspiration (Zhi, “‎”) expresses “responses to the material environment,”4 and it also encapsulates political edification, summed up as “poetry can inspire the imagination; poetry can reflect social phenomenon; poetry can help people fit in group; poetry can be an allegorical advice for feudal emperors.”5 Until the advent of the Han Dynasty, the concept of “poetry expresses aspirations” was further enriched. Influenced by the pre-Qin artistic view, the preface to Mao Poetry (毛诗‎) further discusses literature’s nature and function, acknowledging the significance of emotional expression to the genesis of literature and arguing that “poetry is the manifestation of human aspiration. What exists inside mind is aspiration, and when it is articulated, it is called poetry.”6

However, “poetry expresses aspirations” in the preface to Mao Poetry requires the poetry to be “motivated by emotions and restrained by feudal ethics,” which seems contradictory.7 Yet “poetry expresses aspirations” advocates using ethics to guide human emotions, emphasizing literature’s edifying and moral regulatory function. Specifically, it believes that literature can be applied to “regulate conjugal relations, facilitate filial piety, strengthen ethics and improve customs.”8 In other words, the genesis of literature is the expression of emotions, but the expression cannot be arbitrary in the context of Confucianism; thus the ultimate purpose is literary edification. This suggests that from the very beginning the tradition of “poetry expresses aspirations” alludes to both the practical application of poetic ethics and literary value, which together form an internal tension in literary theory featuring both contradiction and integration.

The two views of literary theory intertwine and clash at different times. The law of “ban from other philosophies, and venerate Confucianism only” establishes the orthodox status of Confucian doctrine in the Han Dynasty, which leads to literature and art taking Confucianism as the highest principle. It also regards edification as the goal of literature. Although “poetry expresses aspirations” results from Confucianism’s practical view of literature and art, its internal contradiction makes the literary criticism of the Han Dynasty paradoxical, which is mainly reflected in Han litterateurs’ comments on Qu Yuan’s works.

Attitudes toward the literary works of Qu Yuan(屈原)‎ (340 bc–278 bc)have changed repeatedly from approval to denial to approval again.9 The litterateur Liu An (179 bc–122 bc) and the historian Sima Qian (145 bc–?) of the Western Han Dynasty viewed Qu Yuan’s works by the Confucian standard of “prohibition against lewdness and disorder.”10 The litterateur and historian Ban Gu (32 ce–92 ce) of the Eastern Han Dynasty criticized Qu Yuan for his “showing off talent and publicizing self, and jumping into the river with resentment.”11 His criticism is also based on the ethical function of oppression of emotion. Wang Yi, a litterateur of the Eastern Han Dynasty, argues that “the authors of The Book of Songs are straightforward and earnest, but Qu Yuan is euphemistic and tender. Lisao (离骚‎)12 constructs itself according the Confucius classics.”13 He acknowledges Qu Yuan’s creation from the perspective of Confucianism. These contradictory comments, as Guo Shaoyu’s statement, “are actually related to the debate of two trends of thoughts in temporal literature and art.”14

Even though the general literary atmosphere in the Han Dynasty was heavily influenced by Confucianism, which underlines “Poetic Education,” the intrinsic paradox of the concept “poetry expresses aspirations” does not therefore completely overshadow the claim for literariness. On the one hand, the practical view of literary theory seems to prevail, but what it criticizes always concerns emotional expression, which means the tradition of emotional expression never disappears; on the other hand, some litterateurs of the Han Dynasty paid attention to the significance and necessity of emotional expression in the genesis of literature. For example, Sima Qian, who approves of Qu Yuan’s Lisao, puts forth the idea of “venting resentment by writing” (发愤著书‎), which is important in the history of Chinese literary theory.

The idea of venting resentment by writing refers to litterateurs’ expressions of grief and indignation about the sufferings of life. Sima Qian believes that “The Book of Songs is basically created by Master Sages for venting resentment.”15 Guo Shaoyu argues that the view of “venting resentment by writing” to some degree is progressive, and “the more indignant they are at the darkness of reality, the more incisive the thoughts in their works are.”16 Essentially, “venting resentment by writing” is actually the authentic reflection of the internal contradiction existing in “poetry expresses aspirations”: poetry is used to deliver poets’ emotions as well as to criticize reality. Similarly, although Ban Gu criticizes Qu Yuan’s creation with the view of Confucianism Poetic Education, he points out that Yue Fu Poetry (乐府诗‎) “is motivated by poets’ sorrow and happiness, and created for current affairs.”17 The two opposite views of literary theory originating from the intrinsic contradiction of “poetry expresses aspirations” are always colliding. What is beneath the practical view of literature and art is another view based on literariness.

The Awakening of Chinese Literary Theory

In Wei-Jin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220 ce–589 ce), the orthodox status of Confucianism faltered and Chinese literary theory gradually got rid of the shackles of Poetic Education. There was a self-conscious turn from political practicability to aesthetics and literariness.

Cao Pi (187 ce–226 ce), a politician and litterateur of the Three Kingdom Period, advocates that “Poetry and Fu pursue beauty,”18 which underscores the beauty of literary language and focuses on literary aesthetics itself. He also says, “Wen19 is dominated by Chi,20 and there are clear and turbid two types of Chi which cannot be gained forcefully,” discussing the issues of literary style and writers’ aptitude. Based on the view that “Wen shares the same nature but differs in specific representations,” he summarizes Chinese literary genres as consisting of “four categories and eight genres,”(四科八体‎) namely “Zou (‎) and Yi (‎) should be elegant, Shu (‎) and Lun (‎) should be logical, Ming (‎) and Lei (‎) value plainness, Poetry and Fu (‎) pursue beauty.”21 These are all closely related to literary ontology and literariness, which have nothing to do with politics, ethics, edification, or other utilitarian factors. Therefore, Lu Xun, a litterateur in early 20th-century China, believes that “from the perspective of modern literature, Cao Pi lives in a time of literary self-consciousness, or a time of art for art’s sake.”22 Although Lu Xun’s comparison of Cao Pi’s “Poetry and Fu pursue beauty” to Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” is overstated, Cao’s literary opinions indeed started a new era in the history of Chinese literature, leading literature to return to literature and its literariness from the political or moral cultivation tool. Nevertheless, Cao Pi does not completely break away from the practical view of literary theory; he treats literature’s practicability rightly while expounding on literariness, as he claims that “Wen is an immortal event and a great career concerning ruling the country.”23

Compared with Cao Pi, who takes both of the two standpoints into consideration, the litterateur and calligrapher in the Western Jin Dynasty Lu Ji (261 ce–303 ce) lays more stress on lyricism and aesthetics. In Wen Fu (文赋‎), Lu Ji clearly admits that literature is the result of emotional expression. The claim that “poetry originates from emotions and therefore it is gorgeous and appealing”24 recognizes the significance of emotional expression to the genesis of literature, and it points out the causality between emotional expression and literary works. This is a step farther than the pre-Qin and Han Dynasties’ idea, which pays more attention to human emotion. It is an important manifestation of literary self-consciousness of the Wei–Jin Dynasties. “Poetry originates from emotions” instead of “poetry expresses aspirations” actually releases the expression of emotion from the restraint of feudal ethics.

Wen Fu: The Beginning of the Division of Chinese Literary Theory

Lu Ji discusses a series of issues concerning literature itself in Wen Fu, which is an important ancient Chinese work on the theory of artistic imagination and artistic conception, such as literary creation, literary ontology, inspiration and imagination, the relation between content and form, the classification of genres, and so on.

For example, Lu Ji writes, “writers stand long time in the middle of the universe, observing everything … They sigh for the passage of time with the change of four seasons, and they witness the rise and fall of things, having a myriad of thoughts in mind.”25 This emphasizes the accumulation of knowledge, artistic quality, and the sensibility of the physical world that a writer needs. He describes the void and quiet condition of creation and the burst of inspiration: “When the writing starts, nothing outside disturbs them; they are fully devoted into thinking and searching. The mind travels to the farthest and highest.”26 By stating that “the diction is deliberately selected and the arguments are logically arranged,”27 Lu Ji explains the wording and phrasing of literary creation. By saying that “the genres vary greatly, and there is no unified standard for physical world. Things change constantly, so it is hard to depict them precisely,”28 he points out the distinction of genres. By pointing out that “poetry originates from emotions and therefore it is gorgeous and appealing; Fu elaborates the features of things and therefore it should be clear and fluent,”29 he states that poets arbitrarily express emotions.

Even so, Lu Ji never abandons Confucius’s practical view of literary theory. When it comes to the function of literature, he claims that “literature sets the rules for later generations, and descendants can learn from the ancient through it. It saves the civil and military traditions from collapse, and spreads morality and virtues so that they will not vanish.”30 However, he appreciates literariness more. As Ji Yun (1724–1805), a politician and litterateur during the Qing Dynasty, says, “expressing of emotions does not have to be restricted by ethics. This is misled by Lu Pingyuan’s (Lu Ji) ‘Poetry originates from emotions’.”31 He criticizes Lu Ji’s abandoning of the aspiration but advocating emotion, which also indicates the far-reaching influence of Lu Ji’s literary theory.

In reality, Chinese literary theory formally and vividly develops two distinct pathways from Lu Ji’s Wen Fu: ethical poetics centering on edification and aesthetic poetics on literariness. Wen Fu, as “the first integrated and systematic work of literary theories in the history of Chinese literary criticism,”32 works as a link between the past and the future. It inherits the literary self-consciousness in Cao Pi’s “Lun Wen” of Dian Lun and prepares for the comprehensive system of Liu Xie’s The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons in the Liang Dynasty. As Zhang Xuecheng, a historian in the Qing Dynasty, comments, “Liu Xie discusses the literary mind on the base of Lu Ji’s theory.”33 Liu Xie, after criticizing Wen Fu for being “ingenious but incoherent and chaotic,”34 further investigates what Lu Ji describes in Wen Fu and discusses it systematically in The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons.

The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons: A Middle Course Between Two Development Pathways

Deeply influenced by Wen Fu, Liu Xie adopts an eclectic attitude toward the two views of literary theory. In The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons, he advocates the practicability of literature and talks about literariness widely. Liu Xie straightforwardly states that his purpose in writing is to “Shu De Jian Yan” (树德建言‎)35 at the very beginning of the section “Xu Zhi,” (序志‎) the preface to The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons. The so-called Shu De Jian Yan is the typical artistic and literary thought of Confucian practicability. For example, Zuo Zhuan records, “the highest goal of life is to build up a moral example for others, then it is to make contributions to your country, and the last is to write statements. These are the careers that will never be obliterated which are called the immortal.”36 “Shu De” means cultivating morality and “Jian Yan” refers to creating opuses for descendants, which function as an educational method of literature. “De” and “Yan” are interdependent; as Confucius says, “the man with De must have Yan.”37 It is clear that Liu Xie’s creation of The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons conforms to the Confucian assertion of pursuing immortal morality and creating monumental statements. In the section “Zong Jing” (宗经‎) in The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons, Liu Xie argues that the literary creation should follow the canonical form of Confucianism, which is supposed to meet such a standard: “the emotion is sincere but not freak, the style is fresh but not intricate, the narrative is reliable but not absurd, the argument is direct but not roundabout, the genre is compact but not monotonous, the language is ornate but not frivolous.”38 Edification is its only purpose.

Moreover, Liu Xie inherits the tradition of “poetry expresses aspirations,” believing that “Shi (poetry) equals to Chi (regulation). Shi is used to regulate people’s mind and emotion, which corresponds to Wuxie (uprightness) as the summary of The Book of Songs.”39 Liu Xie expresses this view clearly in the section “Yuan Tao” (原道‎). From the relationship of “Wen” (‎) and “Tao” (‎ in Chinese generally refers to the law of everything in the world), he demonstrates the rationality and legitimacy of literature, claiming that “Tao is written down into Wen by Master Sages, and sages illuminate Tao by Wen.”40 Here “Wen” refers not only to articles specifically but also literature in general. This lays the foundation for the practical view of Chinese art and literature that is characterized as “literature for conveying Tao” and “literature as the carrier of Tao.”

Liu Xie consciously identified two development pathways of Chinese literary theory in The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons. His view of “Lun Wen Xu Bi” is actually the theory of genres, which includes the boundary of two aspects of literary theory. “Bi” means prose, while “Wen” refers to verse, focusing on the meter and highlighting literariness. As Xiao Yi of the Southern Dynasties says, “genre like Zhang (‎) and Zou (‎) … is generally called Bi. Chanting poetry and lingering over the melancholy are called Wen.”41 In other words, “Wen” underscores the lyricism of literature, and “Bi” highlights narratives and reasoning. Liu Xie considers that literature should start from Tao of nature, and writers should regard Confucian sages as their teachers, valuing the practicability of literature. Meanwhile, Liu Xie frequently discusses issues concerning literature itself, such as genres in the section “Ding Shi” (定势‎); prosody and rhythm in the section “Sheng Lv” (声律‎); rhetorical skills in the section “Zhang Ju” (章句‎), “Li Ci”(丽辞‎), “Bi Xing” (比兴‎), and “Kua Shi”(夸饰‎); and literary imagination in the section “Shen Si” (神思‎).

In the section “Shen Si,” Liu Xie writes, “the writer’s spiritual activity is emancipated during conception … the magic of conception is the interaction between the spirt and material world.”42 He expounds on the relationship between imagination and language, laying emphasis on erratic inspiration and imagination. Liu Xie also discusses the relationship between emotions and nature. In the section “Wu Se” he points out that “emotions change according to nature, and language is motivated by emotions,” which is similar to Zhong Rong’s “natural things are affected by the climate, and people’s emotions and temperaments are influenced by natural things, which manifests by dancing and singing.”43 Lastly, Liu Xie also demonstrates literary appreciation and aesthetics. In the section “Zhi Yin,” he writes, “the article starts by the writer’s strong emotions, and the reader will be affected when they read it. Even though the emotion in writings may be secret, it shall appear if you seek for its origin.”44 And in the section “Qing Cai” he writes, “emotions are the longitude of writings, and language is the latitude of argumentation. The latitude will be accurate when the longitude is precisely set, and the language will be coherent when the argumentation is clearly made. This is the essence of writing.”45 He proposes “writing for emotion expressing” and opposes “forging emotions for writing,” thus further discussing the relationship between literature’s content and form.

Faced with China’s two views of literary theory, Liu Xie brings forward the view of “Lun Wen Xu Bi,” stressing literariness. Likewise, Zhang Xuecheng of the Qing Dynasty further defines the boundary between prose and verse. In his view, “Wen” is based on a moral framework, rites, and music as well as articles; it includes rhetoric, and finally is directed to the ethical practicability of literature. And its fundamental significance lies in “the form corresponds with content. Theory and practice are combined together.”46 This is just as Confucius says: “It will be vulgar when the content overweighs the form; it will be fustian when the form overweighs the content. The harmony of content and form makes a man moral integrity.”47 This is also as Lu Ji says: “The content is like the trunk of a tree and the form is branches and leaves. Once the trunk is erect, the branches and leaves will be lush.”48 As Liu Xie writes, “the form attaches to the content,” “the content need a decent form,” “form does not overweigh the content, and abundant references do not submerge thoughts and emotions.”49 By contrast, “Shi” is directed to literature itself. Zhang Xuecheng further divides Chinese Shihua (诗话‎), the term used to review poems in ancient China, into two schools: one is the review of poetry based on the belles-lettres view in Zhong Rong’s Shi Pin; another is Liu Xie’s view of prose in The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons aiming at seeking Tao and following the example of the classics. He argues that “Shi Pin to poetry criticism and The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons to prose criticism are specialized masterpieces. They are the pioneers of Chinese poetics.”50 Zhong Rong pursues the natural expression of emotions. He not only opposes using allusions in poetry but also criticizes the trend of metaphysics influenced by Taoism, especially the Eastern Jin Dynasty’s literature for being obsessed with Taoism and therefore neglecting literariness, resulting in a literary environment “as boringly plain as discussion on morality.”51 Zhong Rong thus puts forward the “theory of Ziwei,” directly referring to the aesthetic taste and implied meaning of literature. By contrast, Liu Xie is eclectic: he takes both practicality and literariness into consideration.

Liu Xie’s contemporary, Xiao Tong (501 ce–531 ce), compiled Wen Xuan, which is based on the difference between these two views. It is the first literary collection in the history of Chinese literature. Xiao Tong states his criteria of selection explicitly in the preface. One is “literature-oriented”: he believes only genuine literary works should be included, rather than didactic histories or chronicles. The works of Laozi, Zhuangzi, Guanzi, and Mencius basically “aim at spreading ideology, not literature-oriented,” so they are not included. The other is “writing after mature consideration, which appears in beautiful language.”52 It pays attention to incisive artistic conception as well as literary language.

Xiao Tong also discusses the distinctions between genres in the preface of Wen Xuan. He argues that different genres have different functions, but all of them can be delightful literary works because of their elegant and polished compositions. This suggests that Xiao Tong takes form and language as the standards for his anthology. Literariness, for him, is related to the form instead of practicality. Even so, the practical view of literary theory is all along with Xiao Tong. In the preface of Tao Yuanming’s Collection, he first commends Tao’s poetry: “His writings are extraordinary, the language and diction are excellent, surpassing other works.” After noting the aesthetic value of his poems, he points out that the purpose of compiling this collection is to “improve ethos,” that Tao’s “discussions on current events are thought-provoking, and his expression of aspiration is broad-minded and sincere. In addition to his constancy and persistence, he abides by Tao and keeps integrity. He is not shamed of living by farming, and he does not deem poverty as a disaster. If he was not a sage without unshaken faith, how could he be like this?”53 He wants to educate people with Tao Yuanming and his virtues represented in works. It is not hard to see that although Xiao Tong emphasizes literary conception and language, he is still working in the tradition of Confucianism’s Poetic Education.

Comparatively speaking, Xiao Tong’s brother, the Emperor Yuan of the Liang Dynasty, Xiao Yi (508 ce–555 ce), raises the question “what is literature.” In the section “Li Yan” of Jin Lou Zi he writes, “chanting poetry and lingering over the melancholy are called Wen” and “to approach to Wen … the sensation and soul should be moved and blended.”54 In brief, literature underlines the expression of emotions, the ornateness of language, rhetoric and figures of speech, prosody and rhythm and tension; it is supposed to be able to strike a chord with readers and it should possess aesthetic value. This suggests that Xiao Yi attaches more importance to aesthetic features and literariness.

The Concept of “Literature Is for Conveying Tao” and Lyrical Literary View in the Tang and Song Dynasties

During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the formidable movement of literature revivalism is launched, but it still does not fully limit Chinese literature theories to a single Confucian view of Poetic Education. It marches forward with the entanglement of practicality and literariness throughout. Revivalism refers to the advocacy of going back to the Qin and Han Dynasties, when art for politics’ sake and art for ethics’ sake prevail. It holds high the banner of “literature is for conveying Tao,” criticizing the proposition of emotional expression and blind pursuit of ornate language in Wei-Jin Southern and Northern Dynasties.55

The Ancient-Style Prose Movement, led by Han Yu, and the New Yue Fu Poetry Movement, led by Bai Juyi, successively put the political and ethical functions of literature in first place again. For example, Han Yu (768 ce–824 ce), a litterateur and politician in the Tang Dynasty, explicitly expresses that literary achievement is defined by the writer’s moral accomplishment. “The man with benevolence and righteousness has gorgeous and moderate language,”56 he says. More importantly, Han Yu raises the idea of “literature is for spreading Tao,” and he believes that the man of moral integrity “thinks by the principle of Tao and acts according to certain rules, carries out Tao when he is appointed, teaches his students about Tao when not being appointed, and uses ‘Wen’ to pass Tao on to later generations.”57 In Han Yu’s view, “Wen” is no more than a medium of spreading Tao, which is similar to statements such as “Tao resorts to writings to manifest itself”58 by Li Han of the Tang Dynasty and “literature is to illuminate Tao”59 by the litterateur Liu Zongyuan (773 ce–819 ce) of the Tang Dynasty. Nevertheless, the literature movement in the Tang Dynasty does not completely separate the practical view of Chinese literary theory from the view of literariness. Even Han Yu, the representative of that movement, advocates the utility of “Wen” to preach, but he does not abandon the lyricism and literariness of literature, as he claims that “when things are not calm, they make sounds … The same with expressing. People sing to express feelings, people cry because of cherished memories.”60 This coincides with Sima Qian’s literary view of “venting resentment by writing,” as they both emphasize the emotional expression of literature.

Bai Juyi (772 ce–846 ce), a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty and a leading advocate of the New Yue Fu Movement, pays more attention to the practical function of literature. Bai Juyi puts forward the idea that “articles wrote for the needs of era while poems for current events,” indicating that literature should serve the current political climate, criticize current affairs, and “relieve the sufferings of the people and make up for the lack of current politics.”61 Therefore, Bai Juyi criticizes literati such as Su Wu, Li Ling, and Qu Yuan, arguing that “their poems are full of hesitation, depression, and nothing else,” that although Tao Yuanming’s poems are in the classical style, they are “more indulgent in the countryside,” and that the poetry of Liang’s and Chen’s period is nothing more than superficially writing about spring flowers, snow, and the moon. As for Bai Juyi, although The Book of Songs is not lacking in chanting of flowers and snow, such chanting is not for the sake of chanting but to achieve the goal of satire. In that case, Bai Juyi admits the essence of literature lies in the expression of emotion, yet he regards literature as entirely a tool of political, ethical, and moral cultivation, and he deems literary creation as “for the feudal emperor, the subject, people, things, and current affairs, rather than for literature,”62 which covers the literature itself.

The two developmental lines of Chinese literary theory are always intertwined. Even in the context of the retro movement in the Tang and Song Dynasties, the lyrical view that focuses on literariness is still alive and well. In terms of the Tang Dynasty, there are actually two views of poetry: one attaches importance to the realistic content and social significance of poetry, similar to Han Yu and Bai Juyi as mentioned earlier; the other develops from Jiao Ran’s Poetic Form up to Twenty Four Categories of Poems (二十四诗品‎) of Sikong Tu (837ce-907ce), both of which pay attention to the art of poetry itself.63

Jiao Ran (c. 720 cec. 803 ce), a famous monk poet in the Tang Dynasty, focuses especially on the essence and literariness of poetry. In Poetic Form, Jiao Ran discusses the essence, form, conception, imagination, rhythm, and rhetoric of poetry, touching on the creation theory, ontology, and aesthetics of literature. For example, when talking about the purpose of poetry, Jiao Ran thinks that poetry should be “true to emotion … regardless of gorgeous words, but to be natural,” in order to “get its sublime status.”64 In other words, Jiao Ran’s poetry of “sublime status” pays attention to the natural expression of emotion with artistic imagination, and it achieves proper rhetoric, and harmonious voice and rhythm, so as to reach the highest realm of poetry in Jiao Ran’s mind—“only to see affections but no words.”65 Although Jiao Ran has mentioned the role of poetic education, he does not limit this educational role to the political and ethical principles advocated by Confucianism, but rather focuses on poetry, hoping that the later generation can learn the creation of poetry through the “Poetic Form.” In reality, Jiao Ran does realize his poetic education. Many thoughts in “Poetic Form” have influenced later literary views, such as Sikong Tu’s Twenty Four Categories of Poetry, Yan Yu’s Canglang Shihua, and Wang Guowei’s Poetic Remarks on the Human World.

Although Sikong Tu, at the end of Tang Dynasty, prioritized the allegorical function of poetry in “Discussing Poems and Literary Works with Li Sheng,” pointing directly to the political, ethical, and moral functions of poetry, whether in “Discussing Poems and Literary Works with Li Sheng” or Twenty Four Categories of Poetry, he does not point to any political or ethical function of poetry. Instead he discusses the essence, aesthetics, artistic expression, and style of poetry. Jiao Ran says “only to see affections but no words,” while Sikong Tu straightforwardly points to “achieving the literary aroma and implied meaning beyond words.”66 Sikong Tu believes that the highest level of poetry lays in its infinite charm and meaning, not in language, form, or external images. Sikong Tu further puts forward the aesthetic concept of “aftertaste beyond words” (韵外之致‎) and “infinite meaning beyond image” (味外之旨‎),67 the poetic realm of “imagery beyond image, realm beyond scene” (象外之象,景外之景‎), emphasizing the artistic conception and lasting appeal beyond language and form. This is just as “there is an end to the words but not to their meaning,”68 and “to blend the scene with the artistic conception harmoniously,”69 says Sikong Tu. What Sikong Tu highlights is that the poem should achieve the artistic realm of blending subjectivity with objectivity, which echoes the meaning of “world” conveyed in Western phenomenology. The word “world” in phenomenology refers to the fusion of subjective meaning and objective situation. “The ‘world’ of literary work is not an objective reality, but what in German is called Lebenswelt, reality as actually organized and experienced by an individual subject.”70 As Wang Guowei, a famous scholar in modern China, claims, “the realm of Ci is the most important factor. … The realm is divided into the realm that is created and the realm that is written, which is the division of the ideal and the realism.”71 In Wang Guowei’s view, to achieve realm means to portray “pictorial scenery and true feelings,” which is not the pure objective material world, nor the subjective inner world, but the high unity of the two.

In the Song Dynasty the literature revivalism movement continues, advocating passing or carrying “Wen” by Tao. Ouyang Xiu (1007 ce–1072 ce), for example, argues that “although it is impossible to reach the high level of the sage’s writing, it is generally not difficult to write if one reach the Tao,”72 emphasizing the political and religious ethics of literature. Although Han Yu’s ideas on literature and art already implied the idea of carrying Tao by “Wen,” it was Zhou Dunyi (1017 ce–1073 ce), a philosopher and writer of the Northern Song Dynasty, who introduced it as a view of Chinese literary theory, pointing out that “literature is the carrier of Tao, just as carriage is the carrier of man. No matter how well decorated the wheels and handrails are, it won’t be helpful if the carriage doesn’t carry people.”73 Thus the core of “literature as the carrier of Tao” is to underline the practicability of literature rather than its rhetoric.

However, the view of “literature as the carrier of Tao” goes hand in hand with the view that advocates literariness in this literary movement. Zhou Dunyi of the Northern Song Dynasty advocates that literature should carry Tao, while Yan Yu, a poet in the Southern Song Dynasty, opposes this proposition. Yan Yu believes that poetry “has nothing to do with the study of classics or abstract reasoning,” but it is meant to “express emotion,” focusing on the literariness. Yan Yu further expands Jiao Ran’s view about realm and Sikong Tu’s standpoint of “infinite meaning beyond language” in Canglang Shihua. With the help of Buddhism and Zen, he proposes that “the approach to Zen is enlightenment, so does poetry.”74 Yan Yu especially advocates the poetry of the prosperous Tang Dynasty because these poems “focus on the taste of artistic conception … no trace to be found. Therefore, their poetry is exquisite and penetrating, which is hard to grasp directly. It is like the sound in the air, the color of the appearance, the moon in the water, the image in the mirror, with endless meanings.”75 Yan Yu believes that the aesthetic essence of poetry lays in enlightenment, which stresses “no reasoning” and “no words” and pursues the realm beyond language.

Toward Liberation

In the Ming Dynasty, although the trend of literature revivalism did not subside, with the development of the civil economy Chinese literary theory moved toward liberation. A group of literati emerged who directly criticized Confucian orthodoxy and literature movements in the Tang and Song Dynasties. The most representative is Li Zhi (1527 ce–1602 ce), a litterateur and thinker. In “Childlike Innocence” (童心说‎) Li Zhi criticizes the Confucian classics full of benevolence and morality, and advocates that literature should express the true emotion.

The so-called childlike innocence refers to “the pure heart of a newborn baby” if translated literally. When it is used in literary creation, it means that literature should have genuine feelings; otherwise it is fake literature, as Li Zhi claims that the “poet is the one with childlike innocence. If it is impossible to be innocent, it is impossible to be true. The one with childlike innocence would absolutely stays away from fake emotion but pursues the true emotion. In a word, the childlike innocence is the original true heart.”76 True feeling should be the basis of literary creation and should be the essential factor of literature. How does Li Zhi come to discuss it as the key point of the poem? In fact, it has to do with the literary environment of the time. The ideological trend of literary liberation in the Ming Dynasty directly attacks the orthodox thought of Confucianism, holding that the Confucian classics such as Six Classics, The Analects of Confucius, and Mencius are false doctrines rather than the ultimate theory of eternity. And those who lose their childlike innocence, often because of learning too much truth, are blind to the expression of true feelings in literary creation. Therefore, Li Zhi states that “all the best literature in the world is out of childlike innocence.”77 Just as Tang Xianzu (1550 ce–1616 ce), a dramatist and litterateur in the Ming Dynasty, says, “main contents of any literature include artistic conception, aesthetic taste, verve and diction,”78 focusing on the emotional expression of the true feelings and the beauty of the form of literary works. By the efforts of Li Zhi and Tang Xianzu, the essence of literature has returned to the expression of emotion as well as the aesthetics and literariness of literature.

By reviving the literary thought of “literature as the carrier of Tao,” while criticizing the functional literary view and advocating the literariness of literature, the literary thought in the Ming Dynasty further develops. The emphasis on literariness is becoming more and more obvious, which gives rise to the flourishing poetic theory of the Qing Dynasty. For example, Wang Shizhen (1634 ce–1711 ce), a poet and writer of the early Qing Dynasty, put forward the theory of “Shen Yun”(神韵‎, which can be translated as “romantic charm”), while Yuan Mu (1716 ce–1798 ce), a poet of the Qing Dynasty, put forward the theory of “Xing Ling” (性灵‎, which can be translated as “natural disposition and anima”), emphasizing the aesthetic value and experience of literature itself, which has nothing to do with the function of political ethics.

Chinese literary theory has differentiated the internal contradiction of “poetry expresses aspirations” into two distinct developmental lines, which gradually become integrated in the process of entanglement and confrontation. For example, Ye Xie (1627 ce–1703 ce), a poetry theorist in the Qing Dynasty, following Sikong Tu’s idea of “aesthetic taste beyond words” and Yan Yu’s idea of “there’s an end to the words, but not to their meaning” in his Yuan Shi, emphasizes the concept of artistic conception beyond the content and form of literature. He proposes that “the best status of poetry locates in its innumerable implications and subtle thinking.”79

Nevertheless, Ye Xie starts out with a clear idea that the origin of the poem is not simply the stirring and expression of emotions but “the breadth of mind.” The so-called breadth of mind is nothing more than the poet’s reception of and concern for the surrounding environment and social current events, which embodies the social role of poetry. Based on this, Ye Xie thinks highly of Du Fu (712 ce–770 ce), one of the greatest poets in the Tang Dynasty, and believes that the reason why Du Fu can be called a poet of the ages is that “his poems concerns about the circumstances and affairs he encounters, and the people he meet; thus his poems are to think about the emperor, worry about the disaster, mourn the time, miss friends, respect the ancients, and cherish the way far away, triggering the emotion like joy, melancholy, separation and reunion.”80 In other words, the essence of poetry is not only to express emotions, but also to be in line with social events. Ye Xie further proposes that there are three principles of poetry: poetry for reason, for affairs, and for emotions. In fact, Ye Xie’s poetic theory emphasizes not only the rational value of literature, but also the aesthetic value, which gradually integrates the two lines of development of Chinese literary theory.

The internal contradiction contained in “poetry expresses aspirations” gradually diverges, which promotes the vigorous development of Chinese literary theory under the development of the dual-track approach of advocating utility and literariness. The two lines show different characteristics in the successive dynasties: the two are at odds with each other, or they run counter to each other, or they criticize each other, or they break the opposition toward integration, which together constitute Chinese literary theory. In modern times, with the introduction of Western literary theories to the East, a large number of Western literary theories flooded into China, changing the Chinese concepts of “history” and “literature,”81 not only interrupting the “theoretical tradition of poetic discourse”82 in Chinese literary theory, but also forcing the traditional ethical poetic concept of “literature as the carrier of Tao” to give way to Western literary theories. As a result, the two development pathways of Chinese literary theory no longer exist.

Chinese Literary Theory in Modern and Contemporary China

However, this does not mean there is no literary theory in modern China. Chinese scholars employed Western literary theories to interpret Chinese literary theories, giving birth to various innovative viewpoints in Chinese and Western comparative poetics. Wang Guowei used Schopenhauer’s theory of desire and tragedy to construct his own interpretation system of Chinese and Western comparative poetics. For instance, in “General Survey of Life and Fine Arts,” the opening chapter of his essay “On Dream of the Red Chamber,” he states, “what is the essence of life? Desire.”83 This is actually a variation of Schopenhauer’s theory of “the will to live.” In addition, Wang Guowei also borrows from Schopenhauer’s theories in writing “Study on Human Hobbies” and argues that “the root of the human heart is actually the desire for life.” He considers the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber to be “a tragedy from the beginning to the end” and says that “it is contrary to the cultural spirit of our country.” Although there are misreadings in Wang Guowei’s interpretation of Chinese literature from Schopenhauer’s perspective, his literary criticism based on the comparison of Chinese and Western poetics prompted the modern transformation of ancient Chinese literary theory. His Poetic Remarks on the Human World is representative of the dialogue and fusion between Chinese and Western poetics. Similarly, Liu Ruoyu, a Chinese American expert on Chinese literature studies, conducts research on Chinese literature and literary criticism through integrating Chinese and Western poetics from the Chinese and Western cross-cultural perspective. For example, in his book Chinese Theories of Literature, Liu Ruoyu reinterprets and reconstructs the theoretical system of Chinese literature, that is, Metaphysical Theories, Deterministic and Expressive Theories, Technical Theories, Aesthetic Theories, and Pragmatic Theories, by using Abrams’s theory of the Four Elements of literature. In this way, his studies promoted the modern transformation and overseas dissemination of ancient Chinese literary theory.

When it comes to Chinese literary theory, we usually think of ancient Chinese literary theory. And this is not surprising. Ancient Chinese literary theory has indeed created a large number of brilliant chapters in the history of Chinese literary theory, laying the foundation for the discourse system of Chinese literary theory. A major turning point in the history of Chinese literary theory was reached when entering modern times due to historical reasons, that is, interpreting Chinese literature through Western literary theories and the complete Westernization of Chinese theory. Some Chinese scholars use Western literary theories to explain Chinese literary theories, producing many innovative views of comparative poetics between China and the West, such as Wang Guowei’s Poetic Remarks on the Human World; other Chinese scholars use Western literary theories (such as romanticism and realism) to explain Chinese literature. Modern and contemporary Chinese literary study is full of structuralism, modernism, postmodernism, and other Western literary theories, resulting in the “aphasia”84 of Chinese literary theory.

This has attracted widespread attention among contemporary scholars and even caused scholars to question the concept of “Chinese literary theory” itself: either they think that Chinese literary theory is actually ancient Chinese literary theory, while Chinese modern literary theory should be the Chinese Western literary theory or the Sinicization of Western literary theory; or they regard Chinese literary theory as Chinese modern and contemporary literary theory. Therefore, some important propositions have been put forward in the Chinese academia, such as the “aphasia” of Chinese literary theory and the reconstruction of the discourse system of Chinese literary theory.85

Based on these discussions, contemporary Chinese scholars are committed to proposing their own theories and actively constructing the discourse system of Chinese literary theory. Li Zehou, a well-known philosopher in contemporary China, rather than generalizing the traditional aesthetic concepts, established his own aesthetic system starting from the concept of the “humanization of nature” and focusing on the form of beauty. In this way, he answered the questions “what is aesthetics, what is beauty, what is aesthetic feeling, and what is art”. His essay “The Stratification of Form and Primitive Sedimentation” from Four Essays on Aesthetics was collected in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. He is the first Chinese scholar to have his work included in the anthology.

The famous contemporary Chinese literary theorist Qian Zhongwen put forward the theory of “literary aesthetic ideology,” which was taken as “the iconic achievement and consensus in literary theory studies in the 1980s.”86 Tong Qingbing, another important contemporary Chinese literary theorist, also holds this view and believes that “ideology” is a general attribute of literature. Through reflecting on traditional Chinese views on the essence of literature, he put forward the theory of “aesthetic characteristics of literary essence,” pointing out that the essence of literature is aesthetics, thereby redefining the essence of literature.87 Nie Zhenzhao, a well-known contemporary Chinese scholar of literary studies, creatively developed “Ethical Literary Criticism” based on the existing literary studies in China and thus became the founder of Chinese “Ethical Literary Criticism.” It is undoubtedly a positive response made by contemporary Chinese scholars through constructing the discourse system of Chinese literary theory in the context of Chinese literature studies.

In response to the aforementioned “aphasia” of Chinese literary theory, Cao Shunqing proposes cross-civilizational study of comparative literature, which is different from the French school’s influence study and the American school’s parallel study. Cross-civilization study is also based on the status quo of international comparative literature studies and the theoretical characteristics of the Chinese comparative literature school, Huntington’s theory of the “Clash of Civilizations,” and Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” Cao Shunqing believes that cross-civilization study is “the essential academic paradigm of Chinese comparative literature studies in the new century” and the “most basic theoretical feature and practice guideline” for Chinese comparative literature studies.88 In fact, “cross-civilization study” emphasizes cultural heterogeneity, heterogeneous dialogue, and mutual learning. Based on this, Cao Shunqing further develops the heterogeneity research of the Chinese school of comparative literature. Through pinpointing the deficiencies of influence study and parallel study, Cao Shunqing proposes the theory of “variation study of Comparative Literature” and published the book The Variation Theory of Comparative Literature in English in 2013. The variation theory of comparative literature is “the study on variations of the literary phenomena of different countries with or without factual contact as well as the comparative study on the heterogeneity and variability of different literary expressions in the same subject area so as to achieve the goal of exploring the patterns of intrinsic differences and variability.”89 Distinct from influence study and parallel study’s concentration on seeking similarities, variation theory focuses on the cooperabilitity of heterogeneity. Variation studies have been classified into five types at different levels, namely, cross-national variation, cross-language variation, cross-cultural variation, cross-civilization variation, and literary domestic appropriation. From the paradigm of this theory, it can be seen that the variation theory of comparative literature follows the cross-civilization dialogue and mutual learning, respects the heterogeneity of different civilizations, and incorporates heterogeneity into the category of comparability. Cesar Dominguez, member of the European Academy of Sciences and the Jean Monnet Chair Professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, and Haun Saussy, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, in their book Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications, remark that “another important contribution in the direction of an imperative comparative literature—at least as procedure—is Cao Shunqing’s 2013 The Variation Theory of Comparative Literature.”90 Bernard Franco, Head of Comparative Literature at Sorbonne University, believes that “Cette hypothèse esquisse une nouvelle orientation et montre la multiplicité des passerelles possibles que la littérature comparée établit entre domaines linguistiques et culturels différents.”91


In a word, Chinese literary theory has gradually moved out of the discussion around functional theory and aesthetic theory from ancient times to the present. After decades of interaction with Western literary theory, it has actively constructed a modern Chinese literary theory system. With the development of contemporary Chinese literary theory, the two traditional lines of its development have been more or less disconnected, and replaced by the contradiction of its own development in the context of globalization. And this contradiction is embodied in how Western literary theories are treated. Some Chinese scholars advocate using Western literary theories as a reference to explain ancient Chinese literary theory in depth and striving for the modern transformation of ancient Chinese literary theory via integrating Eastern and Western theories. Others criticize the utilization of Western literary theories to explain Chinese literature and literary theory, advocating for a return to the study of ancient literary theory in the history of Chinese literature and culture and calling for the reconstruction of the discourse system of Chinese literary theory by activating the ancient literary theory of China.

Discussion of the Literature

In research on Chinese literary theory, Guo Shaoyu’s Selected Chinese Literary Theories of Past Dynasties (中国历代文论选‎, 2001) and many domestic writings on the history of Chinese literary criticism,92 such as works by Zhu Dongrun (朱东润‎), Wang Yunxi (王运熙‎), Zhang Shaokang (张少康‎), and Cai Zhongxiang (蔡钟翔‎), have shown solid academic foundations. In terms of research on the discourse system of Chinese literary theory, some significant works have been published in China, such as Chen Liangyun’s Chinese Poetics System (中国诗学体系论‎, 1992),93 Li Siqu’s Chinese Poetics Discourse (中国诗学话语‎, 1999),94 and Cao Shunqing’s Discourse of Ancient Chinese Literary Theory (中国古代文论话语‎, 2001).95 Monographs on traditional Chinese aesthetics include Li Zehou’s The Process of Beauty (美的历程‎, 1981)96 and Chinese Aesthetics (华夏美学‎, 2008),97 the five-volume History of Chinese Aesthetics (中国美学史‎, 1999)98 edited by Li Zehou and Liu Gangji, Ye Lang’s History of Chinese Aesthetics (中国美学史大纲‎, 1996),99 Zeng Zuyin’s Category of Ancient Chinese Aesthetics (中国古代美学范畴‎, 1987),100 Zhu Zhirong’s A Brief History of Chinese Aesthetics (中国美学简史‎, 2007),101 Qi Zhixiang’s three-volume General History of Chinese Aesthetics (中国美学通史‎, 2008),102 and the eight-volume General History of Chinese Aesthetics (中国美学通史‎, 2014) edited by Ye Lang.103 Overseas, Chinese American scholar James Liu’s Chinese Theories of Literature (1975) is the first special studies that foreign academic circles have paid attention to on the Chinese literary theory system.104 The American Sinologist Stephen Owen’s Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (2003) is also a landmark achievement in this field,105 which has not only translated representative works of Chinese literary theory such as The Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons (文心雕龙‎), Shi Pin (诗品‎), and Canglang Shihua (沧浪诗话‎), but also shows a new vision of two-way interpretation, mutual learning, and mutual understanding between China and the West.

In addition to the reflection and summary of historical experience, many scholars have also tried to reconstruct academic concepts and methods to present a new approach to the study of ancient literary theory. The representative studies of Chinese literary theory include Lu Haiming’s The Modern Thinking of Literary Theory (古代文论的现代思考‎, 1988) as the pioneering work,106 Li Siqu’s Chinese Poetics Discourse (中国诗学话语‎, 1999),107 and Cao Shunqing’s Chinese and Western Comparative Poetics (中西比较诗学‎, 1988),108 Discourse of Chinese Ancient Literary Theory (中国古代文论话语‎, 2001),109 History of Chinese and Western Comparative Poetics (中西比较诗学史‎, 2008),110 and History of Chinese and Foreign Literary Theory (中外文论史‎, 2012).111 All these studies explore the ancient Chinese poetics system on the one hand, while tracing the different origins of Chinese and Western literary theories based on different social backgrounds, psychological characteristics, and historical traditions on the other hand.

In the article “Aphasia of Literary Theory and Cultural Morbidity” (“文论失语症与文化病态”‎),112 published in 1996, Cao Shunqing argues that Chinese modern and contemporary literary theories basically borrow a whole set of Western discourses, which causes the “aphasia” of literary theory expression, communication, and interpretation. Based on this view, Cao Shunqing further proposes the construction of the discourse of Chinese literary theory, inspiring wide discussion and response from the academic community. Today, how to build a discourse system of philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics has become one of the most important research topics in China. This article has tried to sort out and analyze the development route of Chinese literary theory from a historical perspective, which will be a solid foundation for the discourse construction of Chinese literary theory.

Further Reading

  • Cao, Shunqing. Translation and Exegesis of Literary Theory in Han Dynasty. Beijing: Beijing Publishing House, 1988.
  • Cao, Shunqing. “Aphasia of Literary Theory and Cultural Morbidity.” Wenyi Zhengming 2 (1996): 50–58.
  • Cao, Shunqing, ed. Anthology of Oriental Literary Theory. Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 1996.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2004.
  • Guo, Shaoyu, ed. Anthology of Chinese Literary Theory in Different Generations, Vols. 1–3. Shanghai: Shanghai Classics Publishing House, 2001.
  • Li, Jianzhong. “‘What to Say’ and ‘How to Say’ of Chinese Literary Theory.” Yangtze River Academic 1 (2006): 100–117.
  • Liu, Xie, and Fan Wenlan. The Exegesis for Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons. Beijing: People’s Literature Publishing House, 1958.
  • Lu, Xun. Complete Works of Lu Xun, Vol. 3. Shanghai: People’s Literature Publishing House, 1973.
  • Niu, Yueming. “What Is ‘Chinese Literary Theory’.” Literary Review 4 (2008).
  • Ruan, Yuan. Thirteen Classics Exegesis. Shanghai: Shanghai Classics Publishing House, 1997.
  • Wang, Zhenyuan, and Wu Guoping. History of Literary Criticism in Qing Dynasty. Shanghai: Shanghai Classics Publishing House, 1995.
  • Wu, Han. “The Turn of Classical Poetics to the Modern—Starting from the Writings About The Book of Songs in Late Qing Dynasty’s Histories of Chinese Literature.” Literature & Art Studies 10 (2016): 54–64.
  • Yang, Bojun. Translation and Exegesis of the Analects of Confucius. Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 1958.
  • Zhang, Xuecheng. Collation and Annotation of Wen Shi Tong Yi. Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 1985.
  • Zhu, Liyuan, ed. Dictionary of Aesthetics (rev. ed.). Shanghai: Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, 2014.
  • Zhu, Ziqing. Analysis on poetry expresses aspirations. Shanghai: Shanghai Kaiming Bookstore, 1947.