Chinese literature, among the world's oldest and greatest, Chinese literary works can be traced back almost 3,000 years. Literature was not considered a separate art form and all cultured people were expected to write with style. As a result, literary topics include history, politics, philosophy, religion, and science.
Historically, government service was the most prestigious vocation in China and most government appointments were made on the basis of an examination which tested the ability to compose both poetry and prose.
Much of Chinese literature deals with moral lessons or the expression of political philosophy. Two early works were The Book of Songs, a collection of poems, and The Book of Documents, a prose work. Together with Spring and Autumn Annals, the Book of Changes and the Book of Rites, they form the Five Classics as the basis for Confucianism and the ideals of duty, moderation, proper conduct and public service.
Taoism, founded by the Laozi during the 300's B.C., was partly a reaction to Confucianism. In contrast to the Confucians, Taoists avoided social obligations and lived simple lives close to nature. The Classics of the Way and the Virtue and The Zhuangzi are the two literary masterpieces of Taoist thought. The T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618–907) was the era of four great masters of poetry: Wang Wei, Li Bo, Du Fu and Bo Juyi. Wang Wei's four line poems describe nature. Li Bo wrote of his dreams, fantasies and his love of wine. Du Fu surpassed all others in his range of writing styles and subject matter. Some of his earliest works deal with his disappointment over failing a government service examination. Bo Juyi used satire to protest against numerous government policies.
Both drama and fiction evolved as important forms of Chinese literature in the 1200s. Two famous plays, The Western Chamber, by Wang Shifu, and Injustice to Tou O, by Guan Hanqing, were written in this period. Tang Xianzu, one of the greatest Chinese playwrights, wrote Peony Pavillion, his most notable work, around 1600. Luo Guanzhong wrote in a style resembling the novels of Western writers. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he describes a power struggle among 3 rival states in the A.D. 100 and 200s. In The Journey to the West, also called Monkey, Wu Cheng'en uses allegory to relate the adventures of a Buddhist monk on a pilgrimage to India. Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin in the 1700, describes the decline of an aristocratic family. It is perhaps the greatest Chinese novel.
By the 1800, the Chinese had been exposed to Western culture and this influence was evident in the works of Chinese authors in the 1900. With the coming to power of the Communists in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, literature changed and was directed towards peasants, soldiers and workers. Today, the poems and sayings of Mao Zedong are the most widely read writings in China.