In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Traditional Prose

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Genres
  • Through the Han Dynasty, 206 bce–220 ce: Classical Prose

Chinese Studies Traditional Prose
William H. Nienhauser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0040


The modern concept of prose as something completely utilitarian does not apply in China, where the basic meaning of wen 文 (Archaic Chinese: miwun), the crucial morpheme common to various terms that approximate the Western concept of “prose,” was “drawn lines” or “fine patterns.” The term closest to our notion of prose as “the ordinary form of written language” is wenzhang 文章, which appeared as early as the 3rd century BCE. However, Chinese prose did not use “ordinary” language, but wenyan 文言, an artificial, written language based on ancient models. Moreover, when a student began to study prose, he noted the figures of speech, imagery, and rhythm of his models. Then he memorized a passage, rehearsed it, and finally recited it for his teacher. Thus, a sense of rhythm comparable to that found in the prose masters of Rome and Greece is found in most Chinese authors and styles. Rhetorical devices were also common both to prose and poetry, and some genres, such as the fu 賦 (prose-poem or rhapsody––not discussed in this bibliography) are hybrids, neither poetry nor prose. Since pre-Qin times (3rd century BCE and earlier), two prose styles were evident: one emphasizing clarity and content, the other focused on euphony and prosody. These two came to be known as pianwen 駢文 (parallel prose) and sanwen 散文 (free prose), the former dominant in the Six Dynasties and Early Tang (4th–late 8th century), and the latter becoming increasingly standard, especially in private writings, in the mid-Tang and Early Song dynasties (9th–11th centuries). Official documents and the civil-service examinations, however, continued to employ parallel prose. In the past century the history of Chinese prose has been influenced by the adherents of the Tongcheng 桐城 school, who compiled most literary anthologies available today. These scholars advocated a type of free prose known as guwen 古文 (ancient-style prose), a laconic style deemphasizing rhythm and rhyme, employing fewer grammatical particles, and emphasizing Confucian morality. The gu 古 (ancient) referred to the prose of certain periods of Antiquity, usually the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, taken as models. This emphasis on guwen essays neglects much of traditional Chinese prose: the two most common types of prose found in the collected works of individuals, for example, are official documents and funerary writings, both written in parallel prose. This approach also slights other major forms of free prose––the philosophical, historical, and fictional.

General Overviews

Margouliès 1949 remains the only general overview in a Western language. The best overall survey is Guo 1986–1999, a three-volume history. Nienhauser 1986 is the starting point for exploring the subject in more detail. The basic distinction in all these studies is between (1) formalized, euphuistic works written in parallel prose (pianwen) and (2) pieces emphasizing clarity and content and adhering to some kind of classical model (guwen). Gaining importance from the Three Kingdoms onward (Liu 1994), and reaching a zenith in the 6th and 7th centuries, pianwen established early a connection to the court: written by courtiers during the Six Dynasties and preserved for posterity in the royally sponsored Wenxuan (Collection of Literature), pianwen gradually lost favor among the literati in the late 8th century but generally remained the style of court documents for centuries thereafter. At the turn of the 9th century, the two greatest Tang prose writers, Han Yu 韓愈 (b. 768–d. 824) and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (b. 773–d. 819), reached maturity and promoted guwen among their students and protégés (Tan 2006 and Guo 1986–1999; see also Tang and Song Dynasties: Return to the Classical Style). Pianwen, in turn, began to be labeled shiwen 時文 (modern prose) in contrast to guwen (ancient-style prose). Pianwen remained the most common style for lyrical pieces and also for examination essays during part of the Song and the Ming (see also Huang 2005 and Tu 1974–1975, cited under Ming-Dynasty Prose, and Deng 1994, cited under Qing-Dynasty Prose). Guwen, on the other hand, became the medium of argumentation employed by reformers and those scholars who emerged from the local elites whose clans were attempting to climb the social ladders of Tang and Song China (Nienhauser 1986). There are exceptions to this generalization, but basically when the literary stage was set up close to the court, pianwen dominated; during periods in which most literary activity took place at some distance beyond the palace walls, guwen was the norm. Many of the genres that employed pianwen were ostensibly practical in nature (elegies, memorials, military dispatches), involved court or religious ritual, and tended toward descriptive passages. Guwen was the medium of expository essays, argumentation, and didactic writings. The best survey of translations from the various genres can be found in Pollard 1990; Owen 1996 provides carefully drawn contexts for the eras the author covers. The Siku quanshu is the best online source for all prose.

  • Guo Yuheng 郭豫衡. Zhongguo sanwen shi (中國散文史). 3 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1986–1999.

    Encyclopedic depiction by Guo Yuheng (b. 1922–d. 2010) of Chinese prose from pre-Qin to early modern period, organized by treatments of the major writers. The standard work.

  • Liu Yan 劉衍, ed. Zhongguo sanwen shigang (中國散文史綱). Changsha, China: Hunan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1994.

    The first two parts of this guide to a history of Chinese prose treat traditional prose through 1911. Some new ideas such as the revolution in prose at the start of the Three Kingdoms, caused by socio-intellectual changes, and a more detailed examination of Qing-dynasty prose than most surveys.

  • Margouliès, Georges. Histoire de la littérature chinoise: Prose. Paris: Payot, 1949.

    The only monograph on the subject in a Western language, this book traces prose from the Chinese classics through Lin Shu 林紓 (b. 1852–d. 1924), including a survey of fu 賦 (prose-poems) and five chapters on the prose of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing eras.

  • Nienhauser, William H., Jr. “Prose.” In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Vol. 1. Edited by William H. Nienhauser Jr., 93–120. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    The best short account available, surveying genres and historical development, with an extensive bibliography including major Western, Japanese, and Chinese sources. The bibliography is updated in Volume 2 of The Indiana Companion (1998).

  • Owen, Stephen, ed. and trans. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1996.

    Although focused on other genres, Owen’s introductions to the several sections on prose (including historical works) and his translations provide an excellent overview for the general reader.

  • Pollard, David E., ed. Special Issue: Classical Prose. Renditions 33–34 (Spring–Autumn 1990).

    Contains translations and short introductions to all eras and most genres of traditional Chinese prose, including David R. Knechtges’s comments and renditions of Han and Six Dynasties parallel prose, Andrew Lo’s selection of examination essays from the Ming, and David Pollard on Qing prose.

  • Siku quanshu 四庫全.

    Compiled in the Qing dynasty, between 1773 and 1782, this is the most comprehensive collection of Chinese texts and scholarship from Antiquity to the 18th century, containing 3,460 works. An essential, searchable source for original texts.

  • Tan Jiajian 譚家健. Zhongguo gudai sanwen shigao (中國古代散文史稿). Chongqing, China: Chongqing chubanshe, 2006.

    An innovative introduction to the scope, genres, periodization, and concepts of traditional prose; also surveys the history of prose through readings arranged under major works and authors in nine chronological chapters; excellent bibliographies of recent Chinese scholarship and appendices on the meaning of sanwen, the evolution of genres, and major anthologies. A good complement to Guo 1986–1999.

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