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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Background
  • Journals
  • Specific Concepts in the Wider Perspective of Aesthetics and the Issue of Technical Terms

Chinese Studies Traditional Criticism
Marie Bizais-Lillig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0116


“Traditional Criticism” is a label that deserves some explanation. By “Traditional China” is meant the linguistic production of pre-imperial and imperial China. During this period, texts which described, commented upon, or established rules of composition were written, published, and transmitted. Nonetheless no realm of literary theory and criticism existed as such until very recently. A similar issue would arise if one was to define literary criticism in the West. Theories such as those which developed in Europe and the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries are essential because they set the tone for this field of study, albeit very late and in a way marginally. As a consequence, the body of texts considered as criticism here includes works of different genres that focus on literature and composition or more loosely deal with these topics. All of them were selected because of their historical importance. Two specificities need to be underlined. The first one is the status of philology. In the West, literary criticism is intimately related to philology. In China, the philological approach is far too broad to be taken into account here. Also, it is more developed as a philosophical than a literary activity. Thus, philology will not appear here. The second is the object of criticism, e.g., literature. Until the Yuan (1273–1368), poetic genres such as fu 賦, shi 詩, and ci 詞 were prominent on the literary scene. Later on, the tradition of composing and commenting upon shi and ci continued. Throughout the period, there is hence a continuous thread of criticism and theory more specifically focused on poetic genres. This will be the object of this bibliography. Criticism dealing with opera/theater and novel are left aside. For those topics, see instead the relevant sections in the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on Traditional Prose, Ming-Qing Fiction, and Traditional Chinese Drama. The first commentaries on poems that may be found in China were supposedly pronounced or written down by masters whose production is generally classified as philosophy. These labels are misleading, especially if we consider that poems, calligraphy, politics, etc., were all part of one behavior: that of an educated man. When, at the end of the Han (206 BCE–220 CE), literature progressively became a field of its own, short texts in different genres (fu or lun) as well as longer texts (anthologies, longer essays, or even treatises) were composed. It is with the Tang (618–907) that the tradition of writing short and scattered accounts on poems emerged. From then, shihua and cihua collections grow thicker. Despite their variety, all these texts develop on common grounds, such as a technical vocabulary which evolves through centuries and still is generally linked to previous uses within literary criticism, to contemporary schools of thought as well as to discourses on other activities like painting and calligraphy.

General Overviews and Background

It is quite exceptional to find an overview on conceptions of literature in books on Chinese classical literature such as Levy 2001, but Liu 1975, a very famous book, is dedicated to the issue. Outside of this general realm, some texts deserve to be mentioned because they shed light on specific (and cultural) aspects of Chinese criticism. It is interesting to look for the origins of a critical glance on literature as Chen 1951 does. It is also essential to understand with Holzman 1998 that although, as Cai 2000 demonstrates, there is no concept of “literature” as such until recent times, the activity of writing changed during the first centuries of our era and that it gave birth to a peripheral activity—e.g., literary criticism and thought—in the 3rd century CE. Still, it would be romantic and devious to consider literature as sharing identity with “L’art pour l’art” at the time: Idema and Haft 1997 shows that it was closely connected with political activities, whereas Martin 1998 provides us with a case study on the topic. This brings us to underline along with Kōzen 1996 the importance of judgment and hierarchy of authors and poems.

  • Cai, Zong-qi. “Wen and the Construction of a Critical System in Wenxin Diaolong.” CLEAR 22 (2000): 1–29.

    One of two articles that Cai dedicated to the conception of literature in Liu Xie’s (b. c. 465–d. c. 521) work. This one focuses on its anachronistic approach to wen 文. It helps understand why modern readers found roots to early Chinese literary criticism very early—sometimes thinking of “literature” in a similarly anachronistic.

  • Chen, Shih-Hsiang. “In Search of the Beginnings of Chinese Literary Criticism.” In Semitic and Oriental Studies: A Volume Presented to William Popper. Edited by Walter J. Fischel, 45–63. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951.

    A very original approach to literary criticism which focuses mainly on two periods: the appearance of the word shi 詩 (poetry) and its association with other concepts during the Zhou dynasty and the new ideas associated with it during the 3rd to 5th centuries.

  • Holzman, Donald. “Literary Criticism in the Early Third Century A.D.” In Chinese Literature in Transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. By Donald Holzman, 113–149. Aldershot, UK, and Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998.

    A chapter first published as an article in Etudes asiatiques (1974) which explains the rise of the concept of literature through texts by the Cao brothers (Cao Pi 曹丕 and Cao Zhi 曹植). Includes translations of fundamental texts on literature.

  • Idema, Wilt, and Lloyd Haft. “The Way and the Government: Truth and Literature.” In A Guide to Chinese Literature. By Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft, 47–60. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies—The University of Michigan, 1997.

    On the relationship between writing, politics, and government.

  • Kōzen, Hiroshi. “Views of Literature in Medieval China: From the Six Dynasties to the T’ang.” Acta Asiatica 70 (1996): 1–19.

    Despite the precise historical framework of its title, this article uses texts of different nature (philosophical texts, fiction, prefaces, literary criticism) and from different periods to show how literature as a field appeared and what were the long-lasting trends of literary criticism that were founded during the Six Dynasties.

  • Levy, Dore J. “Literary Theory and Criticism.” In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Edited by Victor Mair, 916–939. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

    A crystal-clear introduction to the forms of writings in which traditional criticism is embedded as well as to the major trends of literary thought through centuries.

  • Liu, James J. Y. Chinese Theories of Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

    Maybe the only book in a Western language analyzing traditional criticism per se. The perspective is not chronological: Liu presents different aspects of literary thought (metaphysical, deterministic and expressive, technical, aesthetic, pragmatic, interactive and synthetical dimensions). One particular work may include different dimensions of course. A foretaste of the input of Western concepts on the study of Chinese literary thought.

  • Martin, François. “Les joutes poétiques dans la Chine médiévale.” Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident 20 (1998): 87–109.

    DOI: 10.3406/oroc.1998.1057

    Through a series of examples, this article shows what was the status and role of poetic composition at court and also demonstrates that most pieces were lost after a critical glance made a selection among them.

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