An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Literature of the Jin Period

Oct 31, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The literary culture of the literate officials: poetry and rhyming prose

The literati that retired from governmental offices engaged in contests of painting, calligraphy and writing poems. It was the first great time of producing a new kind of bucolic poetry, describing the way of natural life. The most famous poets of this period were Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (Tao Qian 陶潛), Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 and Yan Yanzhi 謝靈運. Poetic style became so trendy that even prosa writings used rhythm and parallelism (pianwen 駢文), making prosaic literature very overloaded and unreadable. Anthologies and catalogues of different kinds of literature are a treasure of the vast ocean of writings that already existed: the anthology Yutai xinyong 玉臺新詠 "New poems from the Jade Terrace" collects poems from the Han Dynasty until the Liang Dynasty. Xiao Tong 蕭通, called Prince Zhaoming 昭明太子 of the Liang Dynasty collected hundreds of writings and systematized them in different categories, presented in the anthology Wenxuan 文選 "Selected Literature".
Poetry was of important means for every period of Chinese history. At the end of Han Dynasty, rhapsodies (fu 賦 ) or prose-poetry were the most common type of poems. We find the Seven Masters of the Jian'an Period (Jian'an qizi 建安七子: Kong Rong 孔融, Chen Lin 陳琳, Ruan Yu 阮瑀, Xu Gan 徐幹, Ying Yang 應瑒, Liu Zhen 劉楨, and Wang Can 王粲), later Cao Cao 曹操 and his sons Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wei Wendi 魏文帝) and Cao Zhi 曹植. Among the Western Jin poets, we find the "Two Heroes of the Taikang Period" (Taikang zhi ying 太康之英): Lu Ji 陸機, and Pan Yue 潘岳, further Liu Kun 劉琨 and Guo Pu 郭璞, and one of the most famous poets of China, Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (also called Tao Qian 陶潛). Among the few Northern Dynasties poets and prose writers, Yu Xin 廋信 shall be mentioned.

Literature critcs

But writers did not only produce books. From the Three Kingdoms period on, writers began to analyze and to systematize books, styles and writings of the old. The first literature critic of the time of division was Cao Pi's 曹丕 Dianlun 典論 "Discussing the norms for literature" (the most important chapter being Lunwen 論文 "Discussing literature"), followed by Zhong Rong's 鍾嶸 Shipin 詩品, a literature critic of poetry, Lu Ji's 陸機 literature essays Wenfu 文賦 "(About) Prose and Rhapodies", Zhi Yu's 摯虞 Wenzhang Liubie Lun 文章流別論,and Liu Xie's 劉勰 great Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍 "The heart of literature and carving dragons", a book that constructs a systematic of all literature at that time and criticized the old writers for good and bad.

Geography and tales

And for the first time in Chinese literature history, books were written about geography and local history or "story", the so-called difangzhi 地方志: We find in the north Li Daoyuan's 酈道元 Shuijingzhu 水經注; and Yang Xuanzhi's 楊衒之 Luoyang Qielanji 洛陽伽藍記, a description of Luoyang's monasteries. A further style of interest during the time of division were the reports of strange tales and foreign regions and countries, called guaizhi 怪志 or guaiji 怪記: Zhang Hua's 張華 Bowuzhi 博物志, a kind of micro-encyclopaedia; Guo Pu's 郭璞 commentary on the Shanhaijing 山海經; Gan Bao's 干寶 Soushenji 搜神記;Wang Fu's 王浮 Shenyiji 神異記; Ge Hong's 葛洪 Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳; Wang Jia's 王嘉 Shiyiji 拾遺記; and many more.