Written literature has a history of more than three thousand years in China. As early as 1500 bc people wrote on pieces of bone and tortoise shell, or made inscriptions on bronze vessels. Later, strips of bamboo were bound together and inscribed in vertical lines, serving as the first kind of ‘books’. Important documents were carved on stone tablets and sometimes silk was used as a precious writing material. The invention of paper occurred some time before the first century of our time and writing paper became widespread after 100 ad. Regular paper production and printing developed gradually during the first millennium. Until the 20th century, however, reading and writing was reserved for the privileged that could afford to let their sons study. The written and printed word was accessible mainly to the educated elite, the class of official-scholars, and to a lesser degree, the urban society of merchants, shopkeepers and clerks. The great majority of peasants, craftsmen, and women from all classes, were illiterate or semi-literate. The prestige of written literature was so much the more elevated.
Official documents, philosophy, history and poetry were all written in a kind of Latin, i.e. the literary style called ‘classical Chinese’ (wenyan), based on the language used by the philosophers and historians from the first three or four centuries bc. This style was the authoritative literary style for two thousand years until the reform period around 1900. It was considered the proper style for people of good taste, a sign of loftiness and elegance (ya). The local orally performed genres were not highly esteemed and seldom found worthy of mention. They belonged to folklore and were considered simple and vulgar (su).
From the period of the Tang dynasty (618-906) a secondary written style gradually developed, incorporating phrases taken from the spoken language of North China. This literary style was later known as ‘vernacular Chinese’ (baihua). During the following dynasties, it became the vehicle of most fiction genres. Its grammar and lexicon were closer to the daily spoken language, and therefore it was highly suited to render dialogue in a lively fashion.
The whole genre of fiction (xiaoshuo) was, however, despised by the authorities and the privileged from a very early time. In spite of the deprecatory attitude towards fiction in general, and vernacular fiction (baihua xiaoshuo) in particular, consumption of such works was widespread, not least among the well-educated highbrow class, who edited, authored, commented, and published them. During the 1910s the New Culture Movement furthered the usage of the vernacular style as the new official and educational written language. At the same time, a new literature in modern vernacular was promoted, and the old vernacular fiction was re-evaluated and transferred to the highest pinnacle of the Chinese literary canon.
Next: The status of oral literature in traditional China