The Columbia History of Chinese Literature

The Columbia History of Chinese Literature

The Columbia History of Chinese Literature

The Columbia History of Chinese Literature

Synopsis

Comprehensive yet portable, this account of the development of Chinese literature from the very beginning up to the present brings the riches of this august literary tradition into focus for the general reader. Organized chronologically with thematic chapters interspersed, the fifty-five original chapters by leading specialists cover all genres and periods of poetry, prose, fiction, and drama. A special feature of The Columbia History of Chinese Literature is the focus on such subjects as popular culture, the impact of religion upon literature, the role of women, and relationships with non-Sinitic languages and peoples.

Excerpt

From the Sui dynasty (581–618) onward, the chief aspiration of highly literate young men in China was to pass the chin-shih (Presented Scholar or Metropolitan Graduate) examination. With this degree came power, prestige, and privilege. The chin-shih degree was conferred upon successful candidates in the top level of the civil service recruitment examinations, and it qualified them for office in the imperial bureaucracy. Often the only biographical datum available about a historical personage is the year that he passed the chin-shih examination.

Why was this particular degree so coveted in China? The most straightforward answer to this question is that it certified that the holder of the degree possessed superlative skill in reading and writing Literary Sinitic (i.e., Classical Chinese). This was not a test of one's political acumen or practical knowledge. Rather, it emphasized above all else the candidate's talent in literary composition or fine writing (wen-chang). This was truly a docteur ès lettres. Even the lesser hsiu-ts'ai (Cultivated Talent or Licentiate) degree, which qualified one to participate in the provincial examinations, was much sought after, and there are countless sad tales of old men with white, disheveled hair taking (and failing) the hsiu-ts'ai examinations over and over again for most of their adult lives.

Another highly popular and very competitive examination was known as ming-ching (Elucidating the Classics). Local authorities would nominate candidates to participate in the regular civil service recruitment system. However, whereas the chin-shih examination emphasized literary composition, the mingching required a greater command of the classics.

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