The Rise of Literary and Aesthetic Criticism in Asian History 250-600 CE

Chinese Classical Literature and the Social Position of Criticism

In this part of my World History blog I am moving away from early modern history to highlight more examples of how the Rise of the West and Western Civilization are given too much credit for the invention of culture, philosophy, science and so on. Now it is certainly true that Roman literature and history became intertextual by the Augustinian period of the late 1st c. BCE to early 1st c. CE.  This means that history writing and literature were intertwined, written histories took on rhetorical styles just as Ovid’s epic The Aenid, commissioned by the emperor Augustus, referenced Roman historical myths and legends (Conte 1999).  Comparisons of early classical Chinese and Greek literature is also worth considering as introduced in this video lecture by Professor Robert Oxnam and Stephen Owen on the Book of Songs.

Chinese literature provides a number of the earliest works of literary criticism.  A principal example is Liu Xie (Hsieh) The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, written in the early 6th century CE (Hsieh 2015).  Liu Hsieh (465-522 CE) was a Chinese monk and literary critic who wrote from the Ting-lin Monastery in Southern China during the Liang Dynasty (Hsieh, XXXV).  Liu’s preference for classical forms arose from his intensive scholarship of an earlier body of literary criticism produced in the 3rd century Han Dynasty as well as the chronicles of Sima Qian (145-80 BCE) (Department of Asian Art 2000).

Liu Xie (Hsieh) compiled his works on literary criticism during a prosperous period for the Southern Chinese Liang Dynasty.  Some of his writing appeared for the court of  the Emperor Wudi (r. 502–49), who was a scholar and Buddhist and sent an emissary monk Song Yuan to India to collect texts on the origins of Buddhism (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001). More recent studies on Lieu Xie offer appreciations of the depths of literary technique and analysis (Cai 2010).

Indian Literature and Historical Epics

Among the most developed in length of narrative and in chronological literature are the literary epics from the Indian subcontinent.  Sheldon Pollock’s study of the origins and development of Sanskrit literature as both an administrative language and as an ideology is a pioneering work (Pollock 2006). The rise of the Veda and Vedic literature dates to the end of the BCE period and among its successors, is the Mahābharāta historical epic of conquest and battle and the later Rāmāyana literature and other texts based on the Sanskrit language and writing system introduced by the landowning elite and their court society who dominated power (Pollock, 78).

Several studies note that before the codification of laws, the warrior class or caste developed their sense of ideology and ethics from stories and epics (McGrath 2004).

Early and Middle Persian Literature and History

A third source of early literary criticism is found in Western Asia and particularly in Iranian literature where a pre-Islamic secular literature arose in the late Sassanid period that flourished in the interim period of the breakup of the Roman Empire into a Greek dominated Byzantine dynasty and its Western based Latin dynasty and empire.  In around the year 600 CE we find the Kārnāmak-I Artakshēr-I Pāpakān (Book of the Deeds of Aradashir, son of Pāpak (Klíma 1968, 44).  The history informs us of the origins of the Sassanians, for it begins with the story of the son of a common shepherd Sāsān who rises from the ranks of a common soldier to become the future Sassanian king and founder of the Sassanid Dynasty. This early literature is symptomatic of a landlord and pastoral based court society that demands epics of loyalty and a privileged monopoly of knowledge held by the court.

The monopoly of the court begins to change with the rise of the merchant trade tales that surround the court but which through their hero’s adventure encounters a wider swath of society and geography.  In this genre a number of interesting literary forms of lasting value were either derived from India and passed through Iranian storytelling and eventually into the Arabic A Thousand and One Nights and the tales of Sheherezade.  The origin may have come from stories known as Hazār Afsāna (a thousand tales) that tell the story of a vizier and his servant girl (Klíma, 54). A number of other old Persian/Iranian/Sassanid literary works survive only through their translation and adaption into later Arabic literature and chronicles, including the 10th century Iranian poet Firdausi, who came from the dehqan class of Iranian landowners that likely descended from the same class that dominated the Sassanid dynasty.  Firdausi’s classic text the Shāh-nāma thus collects oral histories that date back to the landowning class’ tales and sagas from the Sassanid Dynasty and attempts to provide a dynastic interpretation that was deemed relevant to a 10th century Samanid Muslim dynasty (Dabashi 2012).  Other texts from Central Asia attest to the fusion of Buddhist and Christian Manichean traditions and texts, that include fragmentary epics of the Bodhisatva legend (Klíma 1968).



Cai, Zong-Qi. 2010. “Evolving Practices of Guan and Liu Xie’s Theory of Literary Interpretation.” In Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China, by Yuet-Keung Lo and Alan K. L. Chan, edited by edited by Yuet-Keung Lo, and Alan K. L. Chan, State University of New York Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,, 103-132. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Conte, Gian Biaggio. 1999. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dabashi, Hamid. 2012. The World of Persian Literary Humanism. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Department of Asian Art. 2000. Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.)”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Accessed November 26, 2016. (October 2000).

Hsieh, Liu. 2015. The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. Translated by Vincent Yu-Chung Shih. New York: New York Review of Books.

Klíma, Otakar. 1968. “Avesta, Ancient Persian and Middle Persian.” In History of Iranian Literature, by Jan Rypka, 34-65. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

McGrath, Kevin. 2004. Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahabharata. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2001. China, 500–1000 A.D. October. Accessed November 26, 2016.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Berkeley: University of California Press.




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