Ming China

Ming Literature


   The Ming period was a time of great ferment and change in Chinese literature. At the top, literature and literary style had become moribund, fossilized by the insistence by the scholars on a rigid style and adherence to the Chinese classics. In the areas, then, of classical Chinese literary forms, such as essays, philosophy, and poetry, all written in Classical Chinese, Chinese literature during the Ming is generally stultified and conservative. The vital and dynamic literary activity, however, occurred at the fringes of literary respectability: in popular literary forms such as drama, the novel, the short story, and a racy and popular verse form called Shih-chu songs.

   The rise of popular literature during the Ming period can be ascribed to several reasons. The economic expansion created a middle class of merchants and even laborers with more money to spare on diversionary activities. Standards of living increased all throughout China, but particularly in the south. Innovations in paper manufacture made paper cheaper, and the Ming period is characterized by the phenomenal growth of printers all throughout the empire. During the entire Ming period, the reigns of the Chia-ching emperor (1522-1566) and the Wan-li emperor (1572-1619) were the most active periods in literary publishing.

The Drama

   The drama had developed in China during the Yüan period. Yüan drama was primarily characterized by simplicity, naturalness, and rigid rules for composition and acting. The Hong-wu emperor was himself very fond of drama; several of his sons wrote dramas and composed music for them. Ming drama, unlike Yüan drama, however, soon became a much more flexible and elaborate medium. All drama was in verse, and the stage was bare of scenery. Actors, however, dressed in magnificent costumes and elaborate makeup. Chinese theater was musical; the actors didn't recite lines, but sung them accompanied by an orchestra. By the end of the Ming, the stage had become one of the most popular pastimes in the country.

The Novel

   The most important literary form invented in the Ming period was the vernacular novel; it was written in vernacular rather than Classical Chinese. As a form it grew out of storytelling and Buddhist preaching; these were the two most popular literary forms during the Southern Sung. The first novels in the Ming were only simple collections of manuscript stories that storytellers collected for their own use. Eventually, however, these stories were collated by more educated literary artists and took the form of long novels. Confucian scholars were divided about the novel; some declared that it was vulgar, while others advocated the development of new literary forms to fit the times. Many scholars felt that there was nothing more to accomplish in standard Chinese letters or philosophy; it was this group of highly literary and educated men who developed the long novel into an art form. Written in plain and common language, the long novel dealt with philosophical, religious and social issues, while remaining humorous and filled with adventure.

   The three most famous Ming novels are Journey to the West (Hsi-yu chi , also called, The Monkey King ), Tale of the Water Margin (Shui-hu chuan ), and The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin-p'ing mei ).

   Journey to the West is perhaps the most read and most famous classic Chinese novel; it was originally a series of oral and written stories and was composed in its final format by the scholar-official, Wu Ch'eng-en (1500?-1582) and published in 1592. It is a supernatural story about gods and demons fighting for supremacy. It is loosely based on a real historical character and his life, the Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang (602-664). He journeyed to India and brought back the Sutra, or Buddhist holy book, and translated it into Chinese on his return to China. The novel, however, introduces a wealth of allegorical and supernatural elements, including fables, legends, popular superstitions and monster stories; the novel is suffused with Confucian and Taoist elements as well.

   The novel has two parts: the first part narrates the early history of the Monkey King spirit, a rebellious spirit born out of a rock. He defies Yu Huang Ta Ti, "The Great Emperor of Jade," that rules heaven, earth, sea, and the underworld. After conquering several areas of creation and fighting with the Heavenly Army, the defiant monkey spirit grows stronger and more clever. Desperate, the Great Emperor of Jade asks Buddha for help. The Buddha then offers to make the Monkey Spirit a disciple and, with a Pig spirit, Pigsy, and a former sea-monster, Sandy, the Buddha begins his journey west to find the sutra. Thus begins the second part which consists of eighty-one dangers encountered by Buddha and his three spirits; these adventures display the powers and hidden abilities of the three spirit disciples.

   Tale of the Water Margin is a loosely connected series of tales about a group of bandits; the stories are loosely based on actual historical events in the Sung dynasty. We have no idea who composed the stories into their final form, but literary scholars believe that the novel had been shaped and re-shaped by scholar-officials for over a century before it was published in the 1580's. Tale of the Water Margin was the most influential and popular novel of the Ming period.

   The Plum in the Golden Vase is a satirical novel set in the Sung period that really concerns Ming society during the Wan-li period (1572-1619). The novel centers around the domestic life of Hsi-men Ch'ing, a corrupt merchant with six wives and concubines who slowly destroys himself with conspicuous consumption, political imbroglios, and sexual escapades. The core of the novel is a critique of the changes that the economic boom of the sixteenth century brought to Ming society; in particular, the novel argues that the economic growth of the late Ming was eroding traditional values. The corruption and spiritual exhaustion of the household of Hsi-men Ch'ing reflects the larger corruption and materiality of late sixteenth century Ming culture.

Shi-chü Songs

   The rise of the vernacular Chinese novel was mirrored by the rise of vernacular, popular poetry. The most popular of these new genres of poetry were the Shih-chü songs. Regarded by the literary classes as vulgar, the Shih-chü songs were indecent, rhyming narratives. Popular in both the South and the North, common people memorized, performed, and listened to them all the time; it is unquestionable that Shih-chü songs were the most dynamic and universal aspects of Chinese popular culture during the Ming. In the late sixteenth century, Shih-chü songs were compiled and published.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-8-97