Each of the three major cultural areas in East Asia have strong literary traditions, and harbor some of the world’s greatest literature. China’s vast literary heritage includes 40,000 poems that exist from the Tang dynasty alone; The Tale of Genji, from 7th century Japan is considered by some scholars to be the world’s first novel. The Korean vernacular story about the heroine Chun-hyang was recently made into an internationally acclaimed film.

The categories used to describe traditional literary works and their social use and position is somewhat different in East Asia than in other literary traditions. In the European tradition, poetry, epic, and drama – and in more recent centuries -- romance, novel, and short story are familiar categories.

Korean yangban official

Korean yangban official reading, late 19th century

Up until the late 19th and early 20th century, however, major literary accomplishment in East Asia (regardless of culture), has centered on poetic traditions. Since the Tang dynasty, upper class males were expected to memorize and compose classical poetry as part of the civil examination system in China and Korea. Love letters written in verse were exchanged between men and women of the imperial court in Hei’an Japan. In all three cultures, knowledge of the poetic tradition and the ability to compose poems at banquets, on outings in a scenic garden or mountain pavilion, or other social gatherings was expected, and served as a mark of cultivation.

There was also a lively interplay between the orally performed songs of entertainers and the literary tradition. In some instances literary men in China imitated the verses of professional female entertainers or wrote material for the women to sing. Similar situations existed in Korea and Japan. In many instances, it was normal to read literary texts out loud– especially poetry -- or to recite them from memory.

Long works of prose fiction were also popular in East Asia, especially after the widespread introduction of mass-produced books by the 16th century. Many of these works were written in a vernacular language that was much closer to daily speech than the refined classical language used in much of the poetry. Shorter tales were also popular. Urban people were especially interested in fiction as a form of entertainment and many stories feature unusual (or even weird) plots and colorful characters that include common townspeople, as well as the occasional ghost, goblin, monster, or shape-shifting fox-fairy. Some stories seem to have been adapted from oral performances of storytellers, and in many instances stories appear in several genres including written fiction, oral storytelling, and dramas (which were also printed, as well as performed).

A very popular form of literature that spread throughout all of East Asia was prosimetric narrative. Prosimetric means the combination of poetry and prose in storytelling, whether in oral storytelling sessions or in print. The prosimetric form may be traced to Buddhist sermons preserved from the seventh centrury AD (or earlier). Over 20,000 prosimetric manuscripts in eight languages were found in the caves in the Silk Road city of Dunhuang, China early in the 20th century. Many manuscripts concerned Buddhist tales from India, while a number were also fictional entertainment. Over the centuries, prosimetric forms of various types appeared all over East Asia. Some of the longest works of Chinese literature (many written by women) are a type of prosimetric fiction. The Korean story about Chun-hyang, mentioned above, is also in prosimetric form.

King Gesar

King Gesar

Epic poems that date back hundreds of years are found among some of the ethnic minority peoples of western China. A number of written versions of these extremely long oral poems (some scholars say, the longest ever recorded) have been published over the last few decades. They include the story of King Gesar (in both Tibetan and Mongol versions) and the story of Janggar, a Mongol hero, and Manass, a Kirghiz hero. Shorter narrative poems about the creation of the sky and earth are common among many minority groups in southwest China. Since the late 19th and early 20th century, the influence of Western literature has been felt strongly in East Asia. Although classical poetry is still written, and certain aspects of traditional fiction carry on in today’s literature, Western-inspired novels, short stories, poetry (free verse, in particular), and drama, have become mainstream mediums of literary expression, alongside vibrant film industries.

Literature of China


As noted earlier, poetry was the major genre of creative literature throughout most of Chinese history. The earliest Chinese poetry is a collection of oral poetry called the Book of Odes (sometimes called the Book of Songs, or Shijing, in Chinese) from the Zhou dynasty (1100-221 BC). The Odes is comprised of over 300 songs that were collected among the rural folk and then polished by scholars of the royal court. Themes include songs of love, nature, longing, and ritual. The rulers felt that by collecting and examining the folk songs of the people, they would have a better idea of who they were ruling. This early collection of poetry is traditionally attributed to Confucius, but its real origin is unknown. Here are two pieces from the collection, "Plop fall the plums" and "Lies a dead deer on yonder plain". Both of them are about love.

Other early works include the Elegies of Chu (Chu ci), written and compiled by China’s first known poet, Qu Yuan. Some of the poems are quite mystical, dealing with the realm of the supernatural. Many legends surround Qu Yuan, and he is remembered at a special festival held in late spring. Known as the Dragonboat Festival (Duanwu), legend says that rice cakes are thrown into the rivers at this time so that the fish will not eat the body of Qu Yuan, who committed an honorable suicide after his advice to a corrupt ruler was ignored.

The Dragonboat Festival

The Dragonboat Festival

During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) folksongs were again collected and compiled by a special government music bureau (yuefu). A number of these yuefu songs still survive. At this time a popular literary form was the fu, which were long prosimetric rhapsodies with excessive imagery.

Hua Mulan

A painting on silk, "Hua Mulan goes to war"

A ballad about the woman warrior Hua Mulan, who dresses as a soldier in order to take the place of the sick father in the army, dates to the fragmented era between the fall of the Han and the rise of the Sui dynasty in the late 6th century. Mulan eventually becomes a great general when fighting the northern invaders, but later returns home to the life of a more typical woman. Her story was later adapted into many forms of storytelling and opera -- and more recently into a Walt Disney film. Click here for a look at the ballad.

The great Tang dynasty (608-906 AD) was the high point of Chinese poetry. During this time a type of poetry called shi was dominant. Instead of four words per line, as in the Book of Odes, poems had five or seven characters per line and the “regulated verse” had many strict rules about rhymes and parallel images. Since Chinese is a tonal language, it is interesting to note that poems also had special tone schemes as well as rhyme schemes. Because the pronunciation of Chinese and even the sound of the tones have changed over time, it is very difficult to try and reconstruct the sound of Tang dynasty poetry. We do know that much of it was composed to special tunes and was sung or chanted aloud.

Although all scholar-officials were expected to to be able to write poetry, some stood out as poets above all others. Among the great names in the incredibly rich tradition of Tang poetry are: Wang Wei, Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Bai Juyi.

Painting by Wang Wei (portion)

Painting by Wang Wei (portion)

Wang Wei was a painter as well as a poet. He is known for the elements of Buddhism in his nature poetry. His lyrics are often deceptively simple, yet the patterns of images he presents hold much meaning.

Towards the end of the Tang lived Bai Juyi (772-846 AD). Known as a “pastoral poet” because of his natural themes and his interest in country dwelling, Bai’s most famous poem is the “Song of Eternal Sorrow.” The long poem tells of the love between Tang emperor Xuanzong and his beautiful concubine, Yang Guifei. Here is an excerpt from "Song of Eternal Sorrow". This passage tells how sad Xuanzong was after Yang Guifei committed suicide and how much he misses her whenever he sees the places where they once spent time together.

Li Bai

Li Bai drinking

Li Bai is possibly the most beloved Chinese poet of all time, though it is possible that his homeland was on the very borders of western China. Although a true poetic genius, many stories exist of his swashbuckling behavior and his drinking bouts. One legend concerns a visit with the Tang emperor. Li Bai was so drunk he asked that his boots be removed during the audience—and was granted his wish. Another story tells how he died while trying to drunkenly embrace the reflection of the moon in a river. Mixing both Daoist and Buddhist influences in his poems, he had a keen eye for nature and mused over man’s existence and his place in it. Let us read his "Still Night Thoughts" in flash format. The poem is known to most Chinese people. In the process of reading you will gain insight into how Chinese poems exist in Chinese and what they become in translation.

Du Fu

Du Fu

Unlike the wild Li Bai, the voice of Du Fu is serious and contemplative. His poems are strongly Confucian in their concern for society and the fate of the realm. His feelings were deep and personal. One legend tells that upon returning home after an absence of several years, he found that one of his children had starved in the war-torn region. Many Chinese see Li Bai and Dufu as representing two sides of the Chinese spirit. Let's take a look at his poems "Spring View", for a comparison between Li and Du.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), a new form of poetry came into its own. This form, known as lyric verse (ci) followed less strict rules of rhyme and tone than did shi. New music was also composed for the lyrics, and many of them were influenced by the songs performed by professional female entertainers in the pleasure districts of the large urban areas.

Li Qingzhao

Li Qingzhao

Among the most famous authors of this newer form was Su Dongpo, who has a “manly” style of delivery. The most accomplished of the ci poets, however, was Li Qingzhao. Li is also regarded as the most famous woman poet in Chinese literary history. Born into an upper-class family (which were friends with Su Dongpo), she began writing poetry at a young age. Her early poems tend to be sublime and sensual, although the tone of her poems saddens after the early death of husband. This sad feeling is fully reflected in many of her later works. Let us take a look at her "Spring at Wuling". After the Song dynasty, both shi and ci were used for centuries, though they seldom reached the level of Tang and Song times.

Vernacular fiction and drama

Traditional Chinese fiction and drama, which rapidly developed after about the 14th century, were not held in high regard as “literature” by Chinese scholar-officials. Nevertheless, works of fiction and drama were loved by many people (including some scholars) as sources of entertainment and escape. Some of the works, such as Dream of the Red Chamber, are far more than entertainment, and offer detailed glimpses into the lifestyles, values, and patterns of social interaction of China in the late imperial period. Besides being entertaining, these popular works were expected to have at least some pretense of a “didactic” moral message – much like those in primetime American television show that must come to a just end for all concerned. Authors of most of the works are not known, and even the most famous novel-length stories and dramas are often the product of several hands, with changes and additions appearing in different versions over time.

The cover-all term for Chinese fiction (both novel-length and short story length) literally means “small talk” (xiaoshuo), reflecting its lower status than classical poetry. Many of the traditional stories were written as if being told by an oral storyteller. They begin with a phrase something like, “It’s said that in such and such a place, in such and such a time, lived a person named ….”, and include many other phrases, small songs or direct questions to the reader that suggest an oral storytelling session in the marketplace or teahouse. Chapters of the longer stories often end, “If you wish to see what happens next, read the next chapter,” just as many storytellers would say, “If you wish to know what happens next, please come tomorrow.”

Another important element of traditional fiction, drama, and professional storytelling is the interest in strange, unusual, or downright weird events. The “strange” (qi), elements of a story might include unusual coincidences, chance meetings and secret romances between gifted young scholars and lovely, talented young ladies, women dressing up as men in order to become officials, foxes changing into alluring and dangerous women, perilous love triangles and scandalous affairs, chance reunions of long lost relatives, snowstorms in summer that reflect heavens will, and so forth.

Stories of the strange began to be written as early as the Tang dynasty. In the 16th century a scholar-official named Feng Menglong collected or wrote many strange stories and published them in several collections. One of the best-known stories is the love intrigue, “The Pearl-sewn Shirt.”

Of the longer prose stories, several are considered as “masterworks” of Chinese fiction. All were written between the 15th and 19th centuries, and all have several variant versions.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Zhuge Liang enacts his battle strategy

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Zhuge Liang enacts his battle strategy

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), was written in classical Chinese, and is often attributed to Luo Guanzhong. The story is based on legends and historical accounts of battles and intrigues between three small kingdoms after the fall of the Han dynasty. Many Chinese operas are based on stories in this great work.

Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihu zhuan) is attributed to Luo Guanzhong and Shi Nai’an. It tells of the exploits and adventures of a band of 114 outlaws who live in a large marsh in northern China. Many of the outlaws were actually good men (like Robin Hood) who went bad because of the corrupt society.

Lin Chong

Lin Chong in front of the Mountain Spirit Temple

Among the outlaws are Wu Song, Lin Chong, and Li Gui, who are beloved figures in Chinese storytelling and opera, as well. In fact, many of the adventures in Outlaws of the Marsh may have derived form oral stories told in the marketplace. The passage, Lin Chong Shelters from the Snowstorm in the Mountain Spirit Temple, which tells how Lin Chong was framed by heartless tyrants and was forced step by step to join the outlaws, has been adapted extensively to storytelling and stage operas.

Golden Lotus (Jin ping mei), is famous for its portrayals of illicit love and sex, though offers fascinatingly detailed portraits of life of the merchant class in Ming dynasty China. Many editions of the work have blacked-out passages, indicating X-rated content. When the book was translated into English in the early 20th century, these passages were translated into Latin.

Journey to the West (Xiyou ji), written by Wu Cheng’en in a mix of prose and poetry, is a beloved Chinese story. It concerns the adventures of the monk Xuan Zang (San Zang) on his way to India in the 6th century to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures. He was accompanied on the way by a big monk named Sandy (Friar Sand), an all-too-human pig named Pigsy (Pig), and the mischievous Monkey King who could transform himself into 500 different beings. On their way, they battle various creatures such as the feared White-Bone Demon and Yellow Robe Monster. The following episode recounts the battle between Monkey King and White-Bone Demon.

Xuan Zang and his followers in the journey to the west

Xuan Zang and his followers in the Journey to the West

The Dream of the Red Chamber

The Dream of the Red Chamber: Jia Baoyu and his cousin Lin Daiyu reading a book together

The most famous of the four masterworks is The Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng), also known as Chronicles of the Stone (Shitou ji), by Cao Xueqin. It concerns the life of Jia Baoyu, a sensitive young man who grows up in an aristocratic household filled with lovely and talented young women. With over 300 characters, it is the most complex story in Chinese fiction. Mixing influences of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, parts of the story seem dreamlike, while others are solid reflections of upper-upper-class life in late imperial China. In the exceprt, Chapter 14, Bao Yu is tested by his father on composition of antithetical couplets to describe the scenes in the Park of Delightful Vision located on the family grounds.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of women wrote long prosimetric works called chantefables (tanci). The most famous author was Chen Duansheng, who began writing what would become a 600,000-word work when she was only 16. The story, called Love Reincarnate (Zai sheng yuan), concerns Meng Lijun, a young women from a rich family in Yunnan province. In order to escape a horrible arranged marriage, the young woman dresses as a young man and runs away from home. Later, she passes all of the imperial examinations and becomes prime-minister. Since the author died before finishing the story, it was finished by another women a number of years later. In the end, the heroine Meng Lijun is discovered by the emperor, but later pardoned and marries with a handsome young man. In the chosen passage here, Meng Lijun, as the prime-minister, was arranged to marry a girl, who turned out to be her former maid. They recognized each other and continued the ruse. Click here to read it.

Peony Pavilion

Peony Pavilion: Du Liniang (right) and Liu Mengmei

Drama became established in the popular culture of China during the Yuan dynasty under Mongol rule (the Mongols loved opera!). By the 15th century southern forms of opera like Kunqu were flourishing, and would later influence the northern form of opera that in the early 19th century became known as Beijing (Peking) opera. Many opera scripts were published and read as literature. One of the most famous authors was Guan Hanqing of the 16th century. Many operas are versions of stories told in fiction and by professional storytellers. Thus, in traditional China, a story might be told or performed in many mediums – and today those mediums have grown to include radio, film, and television. Some opera performances were very long. In 2001, a 200 hour length version of the classic opera “Peony Pavilion” (Mudan ting) was performed in New York city.

Performance of Peony Pavilion in New York

Performance of "Peony Pavilion" in New York

Modern Literature

Modern Chinese literature dates to the revolutionary period of the early twentieth century. Influenced by modern European, Russian, American, and Japanese writings, Chinese intellectuals began experimenting with Western-style short stories, novels, and the new “free verse” poetry. Like the Modernist movement in Western art and literature that began in the late 19th century, Chinese intellectual and popular culture changed rapidly throughout the 1920s and through the war-torn decades of the1930s and 1940s.

A painting of May Fourth Movement

A painting of May Fourth Movement

Lu Xun

Lu Xun

Important writers and poets emerged during the intellectual awakening of the May Fourth Movement that began in 1919. Among the new voices were, the short story writers Lu Xun and Ding Ling, the poets Guo Moro and Bing Xin, the novelists Ba Jin, Mao Dun, Lao She, and the playwrights Cao Yu and Tian Han.

Lu Xun is credited as being a major founder of modern Chinese literature and his works did much to arouse the moral and patriotic feelings of young Chinese in the May Fourth period.



His most famous work, “The True Story of Ah-Q,” concerns a clueless young farmer who rationalized away all of his sufferings brought on by life in an unfair and backward social system. In Ah-Q, Lu Xun presented a character that symbolized China’s reluctance to wake up and confront a rapidly changing world.

After 1949, Mao Zedong’s theories on art and literature held sway for decades on the Chinese mainland, limiting creative growth. Literary activity continued with fewer restraints on the island of Taiwan. Since the 1980s, a number of younger novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights have emerged in both regions. In 2001, Gao Xingjian was the first Chinese citizen to receive the Nobel Prize for literature on his novel Soul Mountain. The novel is set in the mountains of Sichuan Province and describes a man's wanderings through rural and ethnic communities in the area. In recent decades, modern poets and writers have also emerged among many ethnic minority groups in China. Aku Wuwu (Luo Qingchun) is one of the ethnic poets writing in his own language (in his case, the Nuosu dialect of the Yi language spoken in parts of southwest China).

Literature of Korea

The study of Korean literature is a rather new field, dating to the post World War II period. To begin with, the question must be asked, “What is Korean literature?” While the answer might seem simple (“It is the literature written by Koreans!”), there has been some disagreement over the question. This is because traditional Korean literature can be divided into four classes:

1. Literature written in Hanmun: This is the earliest literature written by Koreans. It is written using “Chinese” characters (Hanmun). Hanmun was used by Korean scholar-officials up to the early 20th century. Here is an example of Hansi (Chinese style poem) written in Hanmun by Yi Kyu-bo.

2. Literature written in systems using “Chinese” characters to represent Korean sounds or meanings. That is, instead of using Chinese characters for the meaning, they are used for their sound value to sound out Korean words. The best known was called Idu. This system was in use by about the 7th century, but was never popular. Only a few poems survive. This is a very awkward system, but its development shows that the Koreans were searching for a writing system that reflected the sounds of their language.

King Sejong

King Sejong

3. Hangul: Literature in this category was written after the 1450’s, when King Sejong introduced a new writing system called Hangul, that solved the problem of having an easy to learn writing system that reflected the sounds of Korean language. Similar to an alphabet, the Hangul is considered as a “syllabary,” in that it reflects actual sounds of a language. (English, for instance, would look much different if written in a syllabary rather than an alphabet.)

4. Mixed systems: After the 15th century some literature was written in a mixture of Hanmun (Chinese characters) and Hangul (the Korean syllabary). Most of this literature was popular literature. (The scholars preferred the Hanmun system.)

Most pre-modern works of literature were written in Hanmun. A majority of such writings were poems. For example, the poet scholar Yi Kyu-bo (1168-1241) left behind at least 1,500 poems written in Hanmun. Early creation stories and histories were also written in Hanmun, including the Samguk sagi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk yusa (Accounts of the Three Kingdoms). Although these works were about the Three Kingdoms period (37 BC-668 AD), they were written later in the Koryo dynasty (918-1392 AD) and include myths, legends, and songs.

Some examples of poems written in Idu and similar systems using Chinese characters for sound value have been preserved in such histories. About 25 such poems called hyangga survive from the Shilla period, and about two-dozen poems called kayo from the Koryo period. Among the latter poems is a famous one preserved in the Samguk sagi, "Song of Cho'yong", which is about the seventh son of the Dragon King. Scholars still debate about its meaning. Some say that although the Son of the Dragon King is a supernatural character (the king of dragons is said to have a palace in the sea), they represent actual people. Others say there is some relation to the worship of the smallpox god. Nevertheless, the poem is a glimpse of a society that existed on the Korean peninsula over 1,000 years ago.

Choyongmu court dance

A court dance enacting the Cho'yong story


A 19th-century Korean painting depicting a kisaeng performing a sword dance

Beginning in the late Koryo period, and gaining wide popularity in the Shilla period, was a style of lyric poetry called sijo. Sijo were written in the Hangul syllabary, or in a mixture of Hangul and Chinese characters. About 4,000 sijo survive, most written by yangban officials. Many were written on the theme of loyalty to king and country. About 92, however, were written by female entertainers known as kisaeng (similar to the geisha of Japan and teahouse entertainers in China). Kisaeng were trained to read and compose poetry, play musical instruments, and dance. There was even a special government bureau to oversee the kisaeng, who were allowed more freedom outside the home than normal women. In the traditional Confucian society, however, kisaeng were considered lower-class, since their profession violated social codes of female chastity.

King Sejong

A kisaeng from Pyongyang, Korea (1890) photo by William James Hall

The best-known of the Korean kisaeng poets is Hwang Chini (c.1506-1544 AD), who was born into an upper-class family, but later became a entertainer. One of the many legends about her centers on how she became a kisaeng. According to the story, a young man had somehow fallen in love with young Hwang Chini. Since it was impossible to meet her, he gradually developed "love sickness" and died. One day the young man suddenly took ill and died. As his funeral procession passed Hwang’s manor, it suddenly became so heavy that is could not be carried. Hearing of this, Hwang gave one of her garments to a maid and told her to drape it on the casket. Once covered with Hwang’s garment, the casket grew light and was carried away. But because she had allowed a personal garment to be placed in association with a young man, Hwang had violated the Confucian rules of female chastity. Her options were now limited, as she was ineligible for a proper arranged marriage. She could become a Buddhist nun, choose suicide, or become a female entertainer. Choosing the last option, she became famous for her intelligence and beauty. Her surviving poems are sensitive, sensuous, and sometimes playful. Let us take a look at one of her poems, Blue Stream. The poem is supposedly an actual reply to a well-known young scholar who came to visit the poet in a rural retreat.

Literary works by women appeared in Hangul and mixed systems after the 15th century. Aside from kisaeng poets like Hwang Chini, upper-class women of the king’s court also contributed to women’s literature (amgul). The best examples are diaries written by court women. Titles in this “Palace literature” include Diary of the Year of the Black Ox, 1613 (Kyech’uk ilgi); Life of Queen Inhyon (Inhyon Wanghu chon), by Queen Inhyon; and Records Made in Distress (also translated as Memoirs of a Korean Queen, or Hanjungnok in Korean), by Lady Hong, wife of Crown Prince Sado (who died in 1762).

grain box

Wooden grain box for holding rice, Choson dynasty, Korea

The third text recounts the story of Lady Hong, who was married into the king’s family at age ten. Her diary recalls the kind treatment she received from court ladies until her actual marriage at age 16, the birth of children, epidemics, and her relationship with her husband and the king. In many ways a tragedy, her story exemplifies the Korean literary aesthetic of “han,” or “living with loss.” A major theme is explaining the events leading up to the execution of her insane husband, who was killed by his own father the king. In his plunge into insanity, the crown prince had killed a number of servants for no reason and otherwise behaved badly. The king ordered that he be smothered to death in a large grain box (it was bad luck to shed the blood of royalty). Lady Hong’s father was ordered to supply the box. In order to clear her father’s name in the official accounts, Lady Hong wrote her version of events after she reached age seventy.

A number of popular novels (sosol), similar to Chinese xiaoshuo vernacular fiction, were written between the 16th and 19th centuries. Among these is the Tale of Hong Kiltong, about a band of outlaws similar in some ways to the Chinese Outlaws of the Marsh. An interesting twist is that many of the characters are illegitimate sons in middle or upper-class families. In some cases Korean males had affairs with household servants or took concubines. The resultant children would be raised as part of the family, though their status never equaled that of the “official” children. Sons from such unions were at a social disadvantage in terms of education and position. It is even more interesting that the author of the novel was an illegitimate son himself.



Another important type of literature from the 18th and 19th centuries was the prosimetric form known as p’an-sori. In this form, prose and poetry were intermixed. Both printed texts (in Hangul and mixed systems) and oral performances were available to audiences. Among the most famous stories are The Story of the Faithful Wife, Chun-hyang and The Story of Sim-chong. Both stories are strongly influenced by Neo-Confucian morality and virtues. The Sim-chong story concerns a 15 year old girl who sells herself to a band of sailors as a sacrifice to the sea god in order to restore her blind father’s sight. The Chun-hyang story is the most famous love story in Korea.

Chun-hyang is the 15 year old daughter of a liason between a yangban scholar-official and a kisaeng entertainer. While swinging on a swing in her courtyard one day, she is spied by young Yi Myongyong, a young man in an official’s family. Yi later arranges a secret rendezvous with Chun-hyang and the teens eventually hold a secret marriage – followed by a night of energetic love-making. Soon after, young Yi must leave for the capital to sit for the civil service examinations. Chun-hyang pledges her loyalty to him. While he is away, a new governor is assigned to the province of Namwon.

Wax figures of Chun-hyang and Yi Myongyong

Wax figures of Chun-hyang and Yi Myongyong at the park in Namwon, Korea

Hearing of Chun-hyang’s beauty, he summons her as a kisaeng and concubine. She claims that she is a married woman, and the daughter of a yangban aristocrat. The governor throws her in jail when she refuses to be intimate with him. Meanwhile, Yi passes the examinations and is awarded the position of a civil inspector. Disguised as a poor, failed scholar, he meets with Chun-hyang’s mother and secretly visits Chun-hyang (who is wearing a heavy wooden collar) in prison. The next day Yi crashes the governor’s birthday party and demands to be fed – since he too is an aristocrat by birth. At the banquet, he writes a sijo poem hinting at the greed and abuses perpetrated by local officials at the people’s expense. Suddenly, in rushes a band of imperial troops who scatter the corrupt officials. Changing into his finest robes, Yi reveals himself as an imperial inspector and summons Chun-hyang to him. Chun-hyang refuses to submit to this new official, and repeats her pledge of loyal chastity. With this public declaration, it is obvious to all that Chun-hyang, whose social position is ambiguous because of her mother’s status, is indeed a loyal wife. Finally, the two can officially marry. In a park in Namwon there is still a shrine to Chun-hyang, not far from her home and the splendid pavilion where Yi Myongyong stood when he first saw her on the swing.

Up until the early 20th century, Hanmun was still used by Korean scholar-officials. Beginning in the late 19th century nationalistic feelings against Japanese and other foreign encroachment helped fuel a National Language Movement in which the Hangul syllabary was promoted as being more suitable for modern purposes; it eventually became the mainstream written language. Translated portions of the Bible, Western-style newspapers, and new-style novels (sin sosol) were among the first modern works in Hangul available to a mass market.

After the democracy movement of the 1980s, a lively literary and drama scene has emerged in South Korea today, while North Korean artists still work within strict confines of the government. Short stories and poetry are popular in South Korea, and Korean film has recently taken increasing space on the world stage.

Literature of Japan

The literature of Japan begins with the introduction of Chinese writing by the sixth century AD. Legend says that Prince Shotoku (died in 622 AD), an advocate of Buddhism and Chinese culture, had a scribe from the kingdom of Paekche, on the Korean peninsula. Although Chinese and Japanese are very different languages, written Chinese was the only writing system available to the Japanese. Like the Koreans, Japanese scholars learned classical Chinese and continued using it (with some modifications in meaning and pronunciation) into the twentieth century. Some Japanese still write Chinese-style poems today. About 1800 Chinese-derived characters (kanji) are still used in popular Japanese writing today, mixed with the Japanese phonetic syllabaries developed in the 8th century.

The first literary works are myths and legends recorded in two early prose works from the early 8th century called Kojiki (712 AD) and Nihonshoki (720 AD). The first poetry collection from the mid-8th century is Manyoshu, or Collection of 10,000 Leaves. Themes in the poems included nature, the seasons, and human emotion. In 905 AD, Kokinshu, or Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems was assembled. This collection was written in the new syllabaries (kana) and the kanji characters. The style of poems were known as waka, and used a format with a fixed number of syllables in each line: 5-7-5-7-7.

Lady Murasaki Shikubu

Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the author of Tale of Genji

During the Heian Period (794-1193 AD), the kana syllabary came into common use, and was especially favored by ladies of the court. The world’s first novel, Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu about the year 1,000 AD. The novel centers on the romantic exploits of Genji, a young prince, who has affairs with court ladies, servants, and other women. Great detail is given to the complex dynamics of social etiquette and evocative descriptions of subtle feeling. The main characters often communicate by letter, rather than by direct speech.

Another important work by a woman author is The Pillow Book, by another court lady, Sei Shonagon. More light-hearted than the Tale of Genji, the work consists of essays on court life, personal diaries, and lists of things of interest to the author. These and other works by women give a wonderful picture of life in the refined world of Heian aristocrats.

Tale of Heike

Tale of Heike

The tone and theme of Japanese literature gradually changes as the Japanese abandon their experiment with a Chinese-style government and the feudal system emerges in a sort of Middle Ages. The constant martial strife among competing domains between the 13th and early 17th century left an imprint on literary works such as Tale of Heike (Heike monogatari), written around 1371. Heike recounts battles between the Taira and Minamoto families, and includes many scenes of great beauty in conjunction with death on the battlefield. The dominant aesthetic of many such writings is the melancholic feeling of sabi.

Kamo no Chomei

Kamo no Chomei

A much different work from the period, however, is An Account of My Hut (Hojoki), written by a 13th century hermit, Kano no Chomei. Celebrating reclusive rural life, the work is something like the 19th century American work Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. During this period Zen Buddhism began to have a strong impact on many aspects of Japanese life, especially among the upper-class samurai.

A No play at Itsukushima

A No play at Itsukushima Jinja, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan

Noh play mask

Noh play mask

A form of drama called No (Noh), that had folk origins, embodied many of the teachings of Zen. A playwright named Zeami composed over 100 No plays, and stressed that actors must demonstrate a cultivation of the oneness between mind and body (“empty mind/heart”) when performing the highly stylized, almost “slow motion” Noh dance steps and movements. Noh plays drew on legends and stories from both Japan and China. Let us take a look at one Noh play called "Feathered Mantle" (Hagaromo in Japanese).

During the Tokugawa Period, Japan enjoyed nearly 250 years of relative peace and isolation. As the urban centers and middle-class grew, popular entertainments and literature flourished. While the samurai still enjoyed Noh, new styles of drama with more mass appeal appeared, especially kabuki.

A statue of Bansho

A statue of Banshō, Chusonji, Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, japan

A form of brief, Zen-inspired nature poetry, called haiku, was popularized by poets such as Bashō (1644-94), who wrote a famous poem about a frog jumping into an old pond. In such fleeting and mundane occurrences, the haiku poets sought to capture insight into and appreciation of existence. Click here to take a look at this poem. The structure of the short poems were three 5-7-5 syllabic lines.

During the Tokugawa period popular novels gained great popularity, along with collections of weird tales on ghosts, goblins, and human-eating monsters called oni. Vividly described characters from the merchant class, samurai, and denizens of the “floating world” (pleasure districts) of Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) were depicted in the period novels. Among the authors was Ihara Saikaku (whose real name was probably Togo Hirayama) (1642-93), who wrote The Life of an Amorous Woman.

By the mid-19th century, Western cultural influences began to have an unavoidable impact on Japanese society. Along with selective borrowings in the area of economics, industry, politics, and military technology, the Japanese also opened themselves to works of foreign literature, which once translated into Japanese eventually influenced succeeding generations of Japanese, as well as Chinese and Korean students like Lu Xun of China, who studied in Japan in the early 20th century.

Innovative Japanese writers such as Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), author of Heart (Kokoro) and Futabatei Shimei (1864-1904), author of Drifting Clouds (Ukigumo), were among the new generation of novelists who combined Western and traditional Japanese techniques in the writing of author-centered “I-novels.” In the popular realm, detective stories influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and stories of common people’s struggles in the newly industrialized landscape became popular in the early decades of the 20th century.

1000 yen bill with portrait of Natsume Soseki

The former Japanese 1000 yen bill (from 1984 until 2004) with portrait of Natsume Soseki

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima

In the post-World War II era (1945-present), among the new breed of authors that emerged were a number influenced by the demoralization of Japan’s defeat, post-War Existentialist philosophy, and Absurdist literature in Europe. Foremost among these authors is the ultra-Nationalist Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Mishima drew attention in Japan and the West for probing his darker sides in Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku) (1949) and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) (1956) and his dramatic public suicide in 1970. Abe Kobo (1924-1993) authored the Absurdist novel Woman in the Dunes in 1962, about an entomologist who becomes entrapped in the bizarre world of a woman living inside a huge pit in a shifting sand dune.

Two Nobel laureates in literature emerged in the Post-War era. Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) received the award in 1968. His works include Snow Country (Yuki-guni), the story a middle-aged writer and his relationship with a geisha entertainer past her prime. In 1994, the award went to Oe Kenzabuno (1935-) for works that include Silent Cry (Manen Gannen no Futtobunen) about a writer’s relationship with his brain-damaged child. Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-1984) represented another voice in Japanese letters with her 1967 novel The Doctor’s Wife about an 18th century doctor who develops anesthesia by experimenting on his mother and wife. More recently, the works of Yoshimoto Banana (1965-), whose works include novels on life of young women in modern Japan like Kitchen (1987), that have found foreign audiences in translation. Click here to read an excerpt from Kitchen.