Chinese classical literature (漢文学)

Chinese classical literature is a general term for the works written in Chinese (classical Chinese) and the study of these classics.

Originally the term referred to works written in Chinese by people other than the Chinese (the Han people), such as Japanese people, and the studies concerning these works. However, due to the vernacular language movement in China after the Xinhai Revolution and the introduction of simplified Chinese characters, a distinction between classical and modern Chinese arose. Therefore, the works written in classical Chinese by Chinese people (the Han people) before the Xinhai Revolution are sometimes called 'Chinese classical literature' to distinguish them from the (contemporary) Chinese literature written in modern Chinese.

In this section, the explanation will focus mainly on the former Chinese classical literature by the original definition. See the section of Chinese literature for further information about the latter.

General remarks

Originally, there were no characters in Japan. (It is an established theory that what are called ancient Japanese characters are a pretense made by posterity), therefore Chinese characters were introduced from China. At that time, the first task was to learn Chinese. Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan), which was compiled as an authentic history of the Imperial court, was written in orthodox Chinese, which illustrates that Japanese society was in the process of adopting written Chinese. Not only prose but also poetry was attempted to be written, and "Kaifuso" (Fond Recollections of Poetry) contained works which had been written since the seventh century.

After this, Chinese poetry and prose were made in Japan, and this trend reached its peak during the following three periods: In the ninth century, when SUGAWARA no Michizane was alive, the 15th century when (Literally, Five Mountain Literature) flourished mainly in Zen temples, and the 18th century when Confucianism became widely known to samurai, also known as the period of Chazan KAN.

Around the time of the Meiji Restoration, when many western books were imported, many vocabularies which had Chinese origin were adopted as they were translated, so there was a time when Chinese poetry became popular. An example of a famous poet who wrote in Chinese around this time is Kainan MORI. However, after the late Taisho period, this practice declined rapidly, and composition of Chinese poetry and prose was done by only a limited number of people with refined taste.

In the 1960's, Hideo FUJIKAWA, a scholar of German literature, Shinichiro NAKAMURA, a novelist, and others began to reevaluate the Chinese poetry and prose from the Edo period. Since this time, the tradition of Chinese literature in Japan has been reevaluated and the research has continued to advance; a series of books titled "Compendium of Japanese Classic Literature" has been published since the 1980's by Iwanami Shoten, which came to include many works belonging to the genre of Chinese literature, including a second volume on the Meiji period.