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Asian Literature

Over the centuries many encyclopedias have been produced in China. Most of
them are of great length and consist of anthologies of significant literary and
historical texts and biographies, arranged according to various classifications.
The first known Chinese encyclopedia was The Emperor's Mirror (about AD
220), but it has not survived. The first modern encyclopedia was published in
1915. The first multivolume Chinese encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of China,
began publication in 1982 with a volume on astronomy. It was completed in
1993 and includes 74 monographic volumes covering the fields of philosophy,
the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and technology. The illustrated,
signed articles include bibliographies. A yearbook was also begun to
complement the encyclopedia; it includes the latest information on events in
China is the home of the world’s longest continuous tradition of writing.
Perhaps the earliest form of book in Asia was strips of silk or paper, a mixture
of bark and hemp invented by the Chinese in the 2nd century AD. The scholarofficials who wrote the books took great pains to develop distinctive styles of
calligraphy, which was considered a fine art. The earliest Chinese literary
works date from the Western Zhou dynasty (1045?-771 BC). These include the
anonymous Shu jing (Book of History or Book of Documents), a collection of
ancient state documents, and the Shi jing (Book of Poetry or Book of Songs), an
anthology of 305 poems that, according to legend, was compiled and edited by
Chinese philosopher Confucius. These books are part of the group of texts
known collectively as the Five Classics, or Confucian Classics, which have
been revered as guides to moral action and the correct ordering of human
society. After his death Confucius’s disciples collected his sayings in a work
now known as the Lunyu (Lun-yü, Analects), a book in 20 sections. The Lunyu
(Confucian Analects), the Daxue (Great Learning), the Zhongyong (Doctrine
of the Mean), and the Mengzi (Book of Mencius) are the Four Books of
Confucian learning.
From very early times the ability to write poetry was seen as one of the marks
of an educated man. Chinese poetry, often personal and lyrical in tone, reached
a high point during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Major poets of the period
include Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Po), Li Bai and Du Fu (Tu Fu). The typical poem
of the Tang period was written in the shi form, characterized by five- or sevenword lines, with the rhyme usually falling on the even lines. Also during the
Ming period, and for the first time in Chinese history, a great deal of poetry was
written by women. New forms of verse based on the structures of well-known
songs were popular during the Song dynasty.
Du Fu or Tu Fu , Chinese poet, regarded by many as the greatest Chinese poet.
Du Fu's early poetry is marked by lyrical praise of the beauties of the natural
world, but as his own life became more difficult, elements of satire and
expressions of somber feeling about the suffering of humankind entered his
In the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the literature of the past was expressed
in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when writers explored new literary forms
that reflected more closely the spoken forms of the Chinese language. Shortstory writer and essayist Lu Xun was a leading figure of this movement. After
the founding of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the
government ordered that all literature serve the needs of the socialist state. Only
after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 were Chinese writers allowed
more freedom to address topics of personal interest to them and their readers.
Drama first flourished during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), when
plays were often enjoyed as written literature as well as performed on the stage.
The playwright Tang Xianzu and others wrote lengthy dramas, often with
romantic themes.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the short story and the novel developed.
Major works from this period include Sanguozhi yanyi (The Romance of the
Three Kingdoms), a historical novel about wars and warriors; Shui hu zhuan
(All Men Are Brothers, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or Water Margin),
a novel of the adventures of bandit-heroes; Xiyouji (The Journey to the West), a
Buddhist fable; and Jin ping mei (The Golden Lotus or The Plum In the Golden
Vase), a work dealing with daily life in a rich family. Many novels continued to
be written during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the most famous being Hong
lou meng (1792, Dream of the Red Chamber, 1929) by Cao Zhan considered as
China’s greatest novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber details the decline and
fall of an elite family during the Qing dynasty.
Theatrical performances arose out of ancient rituals. During the Yuan dynasty
(1279-1368), known as the classical age of Chinese theater, dramatists created
plays from history, legend, epics, and contemporary events.
Chinese theater today consists chiefly of classical drama from the Yuan
dynasty, Peking Opera, and many types of local theater. Peking Opera combines
spoken dialogue, operatic singing, dancing, and acrobatics. Its subject matter is
derived from legends, historical anecdotes, and well-known novels, and its plots
usually reward goodness and punish evil.
Lu Xun or Lu Hsun (1881-1936), China’s foremost modern writer and
intellectual, whose works have exerted a profound impact on modern Chinese
literature and society. He believed that only through literature could he hope to
reform Chinese society and change the collective soul of his people. Lu Xun
achieved literary fame in 1918 with the short story “Kuangren Riji” (Diary of a
Madman). The story appeared in The New Youth, a journal that initiated the
May Fourth or New Culture Movement. It has been hailed as China’s first
modern story. In addition to his short stories, Lu Xun also produced 16 volumes
of essays; a collection each of personal reminiscences, prose poetry, and
historical tales; about 60 poems in the classical style; half a dozen volumes of
scholarly research, primarily on Chinese fiction; and translations of numerous
works of Russian, Eastern European, and Japanese literature. At least four
editions of his complete works, including his extensive diaries and
correspondence, have been published. English-language collections of his
writing include Lu Xun: Selected Works (four volumes, 1980), The Complete
Stories of Lu Xun (1981), and Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (1990).
Spoken drama in China developed during the early 20th century, as the country
increasingly came into contact with foreign cultures. Playwrights Tian Han and
Cao Yu were among the first to write original Chinese drama, addressing such
issues as class struggle and political oppression. After Japan invaded China in
1937, the theater in China was increasingly used to voice anti-Japanese
In 1949, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, government
control over theater increased. Plays were based upon officially approved
models that dealt with problems of the new society under Communism. Only a
handful of plays were approved for performance during the Cultural Revolution
(1966 to 1976), when the government attempted to remake Chinese society and
culture. All other works and their authors were banned as immoral or counterrevolutionary. After the Cultural Revolution ended, the theater revived in China
with presentations of both Peking Opera and Western-style spoken drama.
dramatist). This poet and dramatist is the author of the two best-known Sanskrit
artistic epics, the Kumarasambhava and the Raghuvamsa.
classical literature of India written in the Sanskrit language It may be divided
into the Vedic period (1500? BC-200 BC), when the Vedic form of Sanskrit was
in use, and the Sanskrit period (200 BC-AD 1100?), when classical Sanskrit had
developed from Vedic. Notwithstanding the chronological continuity of Indian
writings, the spirit of Sanskrit-period literature differs greatly from that of the
Vedic period. The chief distinction between the two is that Vedic literature,
consisting of the Vedas (Veda), Brahmanas, and Upanishads, is essentially
religious, whereas classical Sanskrit literature is, with rare exceptions, secular.
In the Vedas the lyric and legendary forms are in the service of prayer, or
exposition of the ritual; in Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata and the
Ramayana, didactic, lyric, and dramatic forms have been developed far beyond
their earlier state for more purely literary, aesthetic, or moral purposes. In
Sanskrit literature, moreover, with the exception of the Mahabharata and the
Puranas, the authors are generally definite persons, more or less well known,
whereas the writings of the Vedic period go back either to families of poets or
to religious schools.
Sanskrit drama probably dates from the 3rd century AD. The Sanskrit name for
“drama” is nataka, from the root nat, nrit, meaning “to dance,” and it is certain
that dances contributed to the development of the drama. Dancing played a
considerable part in various religious ceremonies; at a later period the worship
of Shiva and Vishnu, and especially of Vishnu's incarnation, the god Krishna,
was accompanied by pantomimic dances. The pantomimes reproduced the
heroic deeds of these gods and were accompanied by songs. Popular
performances of this sort, the yatras, have survived to the present day in the
Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent.
The themes of Indian drama are for the most part those of the heroic legends in
the epics or in historical Indian courts. On the whole, the dramatic themes are
not different from those of the tales and romances in narrative form.
The chief dramatic writer of India is Kalidasa, the author of Shakuntala, master
also of epic and lyric poetry. Around the time of Kalidasa comes the drama
Mrichchhakatika, said to have been written by Shudraka but more probably
composed by Dandin or by some other poet at Shudraka's court. During the 7th
century, the Indian emperor Harsha is reputed to have written three well-known
dramas. The dramas of Bhavabhuti, who is, next to Kalidasa and Dandin, the
most distinguished of the Hindu dramatists, date from the 8th century.
Classical Sanskrit literature may be divided into epic, lyric, didactic, dramatic,
and narrative verses and didactic, dramatic, and narrative prose.
Epic poetry falls into two classes, the freer narrative epic, termed itihasa (“legend”) or purana (“ancient tale”), and the artistic or artificial epic, called kavya
(“poetic product”). The great epic called the Mahabharata is by far the most
important representative of the purana. The beginnings of the artistic style are
seen in the Ramayana (begun 3rd century BC). The finished epic kavya form,
however, was not evolved until the time of Kalidasa, (Indian court poet and
A noteworthy feature of the Sanskrit collections of fables and fairy tales is the
insertion of a number of different stories within the frame of a single narrative,
a style of narration that was borrowed by other Oriental peoples, the most
familiar instance being that of the Arabian Nights. The Panchatantra passed
from a Pahlavi translation of the original Sanskrit into Arabic, Greek, Persian,
Turkish, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, and German and from German into other
European languages. The Hitopadesa, said to have been composed by
Narayana, purports to be an excerpt from the Panchatantra and other books.
The most famous collection of fairy tales is the very extensive
Kathasaritsagara, composed by the Kashmīri poet Somadeva about AD1070.
Major historical events have played a pivotal role in the development of Arabic
literature. The Arab-Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries created a
vast multinational empire in which scholars and writers flourished. The
literature created within this empire surpasses in scope and sophistication the
literature of medieval Europe.
India abounds in all forms of scientific literature, written in tolerably good
Sanskrit even to the present day. The ancient legal books of the Veda continue
in modern poetical Dharmashastras and Smritis, of which the Manu Smriti, or
Laws of Manu, and Yajnavalkya are the most famous examples. Rooted in the
Upanishads are the six Hindu systems of philosophy (Vedanta, Yoga,
Mimamsa, Nyaya, Sankhya, and Vaisheshika) and their abundant writings.
Grammar, etymology, lexicography, prosody, rhetoric, music, and architecture
each have a technical literature of wide scope and importance. The earliest
works of an etymological character are the Vedic glosses of Yaska; later (4th
century BC), but far more important, is the grammar of Panini and his
commentators Katyayana and Patañjali. Mathematics and astronomy were
eagerly cultivated from very early times, the so-called Arabic numerals coming
to the Arabs from India and designated by them as Hindu numerals. Indian
medical science may have begun to develop before the beginning of the
Christian era, for one of its leading authorities, Caraka, was the chief physician
of King Kanishka. The beginnings of Indian medical science reach back to the
writings in the Atharva-Veda.
Medieval Arabic literature encompasses a rich body of poetry and prose. These
works include anecdotes, stories, philosophical essays, theological texts,
biographies, literary criticism, and writings on geography and history as well as
other subjects. This period begins with the rise of Islam and continues until the
influence of the West becomes pronounced.
The literary scene began to come alive again in the 19th century, although many
writers continued to employ older genres. Lebanon’s Nasif al-Yaziji, for
example, composed maqamat in imitation of the medieval form. These
maqamat served as a model for literary experiments by early 20th-century prose
writers such as Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, Ahmad Shawqi, and Hafiz Ibrahim
of Egypt. Shawqi and Ibrahim are also famous for their neoclassical odes.
Arabic poets eventually cut loose from their classical moorings and looked to
more modern forms, such as free verse—poetry with no fixed rhyme or meter.
Iraqi female poet Nazik al-Mala'ika is most closely associated with the
inception of the free-verse movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Modern Arabic
poetry is a complex genre, including prose poems and forms that are
experimental in varying degrees. Poets such as Salah Abd al-Sabbur of Egypt,
Adonis of Syria, and Mahmud Darwish of Palestine have helped ensure that
poetry remains an integral and living part of modern Arabic literature.
Literature written in the Arabic language, from the 6th century to the present.
This literature has its roots in seminomadic societies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Its spread is linked to the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. The influence
of the Arabic language and Arabic culture eventually expanded with Islam
throughout the Middle East, as far east as Afghanistan and as far west as Spain
and northern Africa’s Atlantic coast. Arabic literature today crosses
geographical and national boundaries and includes numerous genres.
The prose tradition as well underwent fundamental transformations in the
modern period. Drama developed as a literary form in its own right, rather than
a form derived from the maqama. The writer most often associated with
contemporary Arabic theater is Tawfiq al-Hakim of Egypt. In his play
Shahrazad (1934; translated 1981), he recast the famous frame story of The
Thousand and One Nights.
traditions for material. A prominent example is the novel al-Zayni Barakat
(1974; translated 1988), by Jamal al-Ghitani, which employs 15th- and 16thcentury texts to create a postmodern narrative. The writer Yusuf al-Qa'id is
another important figure. His three-volume Shakawa al-Misri al-Fasih (The
Complaints of the Eloquent Egyptian, 1981-1985) demonstrates that the textual
tradition a writer mines can hark back a few thousand years, to Egypt’s past
under the pharaohs.
Autobiography also flourished anew in the 20th century. The genre received a
major stimulus from the three-volume al-Ayyam (The Days) by Egyptian social
reformer and intellectual, Taha Husayn. Published across four decades, from
the 1920s to the 1960s, this passionate autobiography is a monument of modern
Arabic prose and to the conquest of a handicap—the author’s blindness. Taha
Husayn’s account details a dramatic life in both Europe and the Middle East.
The autobiography is read by school children in countries from Sudan to Syria
and has been the subject of television and motion-picture productions.
Women living in many countries have become a strong presence in modern
Arabic literature. Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh’s powerful narratives about
the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) include Hikayat Zahra (1980; The Story
of Zahra, 1986). Palestinian Fadwa Tuqan is known for her poetry and
autobiography, notably Rihla Sa'ba, Rihla Jabaliyya (1985; A Mountainous
Journey: An Autobiography, 1990). Perhaps the most vocal and most prominent
woman writer from the Arab world today is feminist physician Nawal El
Saadawi, whose uncompromising and powerful prose has made her as many
enemies as admirers. Her prison memoirs, Mudhakkirati fi Sijn al-Nisa' (1984;
Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1986), are in many ways a testimony to the
interplay of politics and literature in modern Arabic letters.
The first Arabic novel is generally considered to be Zaynab (1913; Zainab,
1989), by Egyptian writer Muhammad Husayn Haykal. The novel, along with
the short story, continued to grow in importance throughout the 20th century.
Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, one of the best-known Arabic novelists of the 20th
century, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. His al-Thulathiyya
(The Cairo Trilogy), which chronicles the travails of an Egyptian family, won
him critical acclaim and, according to some, was the major contribution to his
winning the Nobel Prize. The trilogy is composed of Bayna al-Qasrayn (1956;
Palace Walk, 1990), Qasr al-Shawq (1956; Palace of Desire, 1991), and alSukkariyah (1957, Sugar Street, 1992). Yūsuf Idrīs of Egypt has been the
acknowledged master of the Arabic short story, with his powerful narratives on
sexuality and male-female roles.
On the fast-changing contemporary scene, older literary figures such as Jamal
al-Ghitani and Yusuf al-Qa'id remain major players. Such events as the
migration of teachers and workers to oil-rich states on the Persian Gulf have
given rise to more adventurous texts dealing with the plight of the intellectual
in a type of exile. An eloquent example is the novel Barari al-Humma (1985;
Prairies of Fever, 1993) by Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasr Allah. Today, Arab
writers who live in exile—because of political instability, repression, or other
difficulties in their homeland—continue to write works in Arabic that circulate
both in the Arab world and in Arabic-speaking communities outside the Middle
East and North Africa.
Palestinian writer Emile Habiby is best known for his novel al-Waqa'i' alGhariba fi-Ikhtifa' Sa'id Abi al-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (1974; The Secret Life of
Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, 1982). He uses humor and irony to describe
the plight of Palestinians living in Israel.
Habiby is one of a group of Arabic writers who have moved away from realism
as a literary mode. Many of them have drawn upon centuries-old literary
As renewed Islamic religious fervor spreads across the Arab world, Arabic
literature has begun yet another process of adaptation. Religious-minded writers
now compete with the more secular intellectuals in such genres as poetry, the
novel, and the short story. At the same time, both religious and secular writers
draw on much of the same premodern Arabic literary tradition. Novels by
physician and born-again Muslim Mustafa Mahmud are best-sellers. The prison
memoirs of female Muslim activist Zaynab al-Ghazali, Ayyam min hayati (Days
from My Life, 1977), have had many printings.
people. Both camps influenced each other, and both contributed greatly to
Japanese literary history.
Other distinctive qualities of Japanese literature include sensitivity to the place
of nature in human life, an emphasis on sincerity of expression, and the
uncommon prominence of female writers, as compared with the literary
histories of most cultures.
Scholars customarily divide the general history of Japan into periods based on
shifts in the location of the national capital and changes in governmental
institutions, such as the Heian period (794-1185), the Muromachi period (13331603), and the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). The literary history of Japan can
be broken down according to these same periods. The major dividing line
between the traditional and modern periods of the country is conventionally set
at the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which also signaled a new era of
modernization and contact with the West.
The vitality of the Arabic literary tradition becomes visible as one walks the
streets of Middle Eastern and North African capitals and gazes in bookshop
windows. At the same time, bookstores of London, Paris, and other world
capitals with large Arab populations offer a similar experience. This diversity
underscores the long and powerful history of Arabic literature and demonstrates
its continued role in world culture.
literature of Japan, in written form from at least the 8th century AD to the
present. Japanese literature is one of the oldest and richest national literatures.
Since the late 1800s, Japanese writings have become increasingly familiar
abroad. Genres such as haiku verse, nō drama, and the Japanese novel have had
a substantial impact on literature in many parts of the world.
Japanese literature absorbed new approaches, genres, and concepts.
Indian literary tradition is one of the world’s oldest and richest.
Religion has long exercised a strong influence on Indian writing. The major
religions of the area have been Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam.
Throughout the history of Indian literature, certain religious doctrines have
formed common threads. One such doctrine is karma—the chain of good and
bad actions and their inevitable consequences, which result in the repeated birth
and death of the soul. The mythology of the dominant Hindu religion portrays
the deities Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess (Devi), and others. This mythology has
influenced Indian texts, from ancient epics in the Sanskrit language to medieval
poems in the various languages of different regions to modern works in English.
Another consistent factor in Japanese literature over the centuries has been a
tension between the generally traditionalist values of the elite members of
society and the innovative impulses that have come from the culture of common
The emergence of the popular religions Buddhism and Jainism in the 6th
century BC gave rise to literature in Pali and in the several dialects of Sanskrit
known as Prakrit (meaning “natural language”). Meanwhile, Tamil, a
The literary history of Japan, like the history of the country itself, has been
marked by alternating periods of isolation from the outside world and
engagement with it. During times of greater contact with foreign societies,
Dravidian language, emerged as the most important language in the south. A
recorded literature in Tamil dates from the 1st century AD. Rich literary
traditions have emerged in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, which are
modern languages that developed from Old Tamil and its dialects.
The Vedas were passed from generation to generation by the spoken word, not
by the written word, because Hindus believe that mantras, the utterances of the
Vedic hymns out loud, are sacred cosmic powers embodied in sound. The Vedas
were not written down until long after they were originally composed. Priests
in modern India still recite the Vedas out loud.
Between the 10th and 18th centuries, the medieval dialects of the earlier
languages evolved into the modern languages of India. Eighteen of these
languages now have official status in India, as does English. As the different
tongues evolved, a distinctive literature with particular styles and themes
developed in each tongue. At the same time, Indian literature was influenced by
the Persian language and its literature, which various Muslim conquerors
brought to the Indian subcontinent. Muslims also introduced Islam to India, and
Islamic philosophy and traditions affected Indian literature. After the British
became active in India in the 1700s, English language and writing had a
significant impact on Indian literature.
After the Vedas were compiled, the Hindu priests composed the Brahmanas,
which detail information about rituals. Appended to the Brahmanas are
theological texts known as Aranyakas, and attached to these are the Upanishads.
The Upanishads were composed between the 8th century BC and the 5th century
BC by a group of sages who questioned the usefulness of ritual religion. The
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Upanishad of the Great Forest, 8th century BC?),
an important early Upanishad, consists of dialogues between teachers and their
students about the individual soul’s unity with a divine essence that pervades
the universe. The Upanishads are India’s oldest philosophical treatises and form
the foundational texts of major schools of Hindu philosophy (see Indian
Oral traditions have always been important in Indian literature. Many
storytellers present traditional Indian texts by reciting them, often with
improvisation. Others use song, dance, or drama to tell tales. In both its oral and
written forms, Indian literature has produced great works that have influenced
national and regional literary traditions in other parts of the
The major religious texts of Buddhism were compiled in three collections
known as the Tipitaka (meaning “three baskets”). The Tipitaka, written in the
Pali language, includes the teachings of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
The most important of these texts include the Jatakas (Stories of the Births of
the Buddha), which tell 547 stories of Buddha’s former births. In the tales,
Buddha recounts how he was reborn in the form of animals, human beings, and
nature deities as he worked toward enlightenment and, ultimately, toward
release from the cycle of rebirths. This release is the aspiration of all Buddhists.
The Jatakas and the major narratives and philosophical texts of early Buddhism
eventually spread along with Buddhism to Sri Lanka, China, Japan, and the
countries of Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam.
The sacred Vedas, which are Hindu sacred texts, are the earliest examples of
Indian literature were composed in Old Sanskrit by Aryan poet-seers between
about 1500 BC and about 1000 BC. The Vedas are compilations of two major
literary forms: hymns of praise to nature deities and ritual chants to accompany
Aryan religious rituals. There are four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda,
the Sama-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. Considered divine revelations received
by the poets, the Vedas constitute the fundamental scripture of the Hindu
religion and are used in the sacramental rites of Hinduism.
Vishnu, teaches the warrior Arjuna the right way to act in an ethical crisis.
Arjuna, he says, should follow the guidelines of unselfish action and duty
according to his place in society.
The most celebrated ancient heroic texts of India are the Mahabharata (The
Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty) and the Ramayana (The Way of Rama).
These epics were composed in Sanskrit verse over several centuries and
transmitted orally by bards. They describe how the Aryans established control
over India and depict Aryan-Hindu life in northern India.
India gained independence from Britain in 1947, a year that marks a watershed
in the course of modern Indian literature. Independence forced writers to
grapple with the ideals and realities of being part of a new nation. On one hand,
there was euphoria at the new freedom. On the other hand, as part of
independence, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two separate nations,
India and Pakistan—India dominated by Hindus and Pakistan by Muslims.
During the decades leading up to independence, Hindus and Muslims had
become increasingly divided within India. The partition of the newly
independent country into two nations was accompanied and followed by severe
violence. Partition caused millions of people to be uprooted from their home
territories or to suffer division within their families. Much Indian and Pakistani
fiction after 1947 explores, in one way or another, the effects of partition on
Indian culture. Another ongoing concern is the rapid rate of change that India,
Pakistan, and Bangladesh are experiencing in an era of increased globalization
and of the migration of people from the Indian subcontinent to other parts of
the world, especially Western countries. A significant development in Indian
literature in the mid- and late 20th century was the rise of female writers and
feminist writing.
The written version of the Mahabharata is attributed to the legendary poeteditor Vyasa, but it took shape over several centuries from 400 BC to AD 400.
The epic tells the tale of a dispute between two branches of the Bharata clan
over the right to rule the kingdom. The dispute leads to a great war that involves
all the Aryan clans and nearly results in their total destruction. The poet
Valmiki, who lived around the 3rd century BC, put the Ramayana into form.
This epic tells the story of the hero Rama, prince of Ayodhya and incarnation
of the god Vishnu. Rama willingly accepts exile in the forest to redeem a
promise made by his father. Rama’s wife Sita is then kidnapped, and Rama
rescues her by slaying her abductor, the demon king Ravana.
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana provided the themes for important later
literary works in Indian and Southeast Asian languages. These epics have been
kept alive through various performance forms—from Ramlila plays in the Hindi
language in north India (see Asian Theater) to the Kathakali dance-drama of
Kerala (in south India) to the Wayang puppet plays of the island of Java.
Recently, Hindi versions of both epics were made for Indian television, and the
epics continue to be the most popular traditional literary texts in India.
While many Indian writers continue to write in Indian languages, English is
also an important tongue for Indians and those of Indian origin. Within India,
readers have increasing access to literature in the languages of regions other
than their own. This access is largely due to the efforts of the Indian National
Academy of Letters to promote the translation of contemporary works from
their original language into other Indian languages and into English.
A major reason for the popularity of the epics is that their characters—heroes
and gods in human form—convey the central ethical teachings and cultural
values of Hinduism. These teachings and values are encapsulated in the term
dharma, meaning “that which is right.” In fact, the Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the
Lord), the authoritative text of religious ethics in Hinduism, forms part of the
Mahabharata. In this dramatic dialogue, the god Krishna, incarnation of
Arabian Nights, or The Thousand and One Nights, collection of stories
from Persia, Arabia, India, and Egypt, compiled over hundreds of years. Most
of the stories originated as folk tales, anecdotes, or fables that were passed on
orally. They include the stories of Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sindbad the Sailor,
which have become particularly popular in Western countries. The stories in
Arabian Nights are told by a legendary queen named Scheherazade in a
broader frame story, which starts at the beginning of the collection and gives
a context to the various stories it contains. The frame story begins when the
sultan Schahriar finds that his wife has been unfaithful and orders her
execution. He is so enraged that he resolves to marry a new woman every night
and have her killed at daybreak. Scheherazade agrees to marry Schahriar
despite the decree and crafts a scheme to thwart him. The night after the
wedding, she tells one of the stories to her sister so that the sultan can overhear.
She stops, however, before the story comes to its conclusion, and the sultan
allows her to live another day so that he can hear the end. She continues this
pattern night after night. After 1001 nights, the sultan relents and decides to let
Scheherazade live.
Haiku, Japanese verse form, notable for its compression and suggestiveness.
It consists of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five
syllables.Traditionally and ideally, a haiku presents a pair of contrasting
images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting
observation. Working together, they evoke mood and emotion. The poet does
not comment on the connection but leaves the synthesis of the two images for
the reader to perceive. A haiku by the poet Bashō, considered to have written
the most perfect examples of the form, illustrates this duality:
“Now the swinging bridge
Is quieted with creepers ...
Like our tendrilled life.”
Confucius (551 or 552-479 BC), Chinese philosopher and educator, one of the
most important individuals in Chinese history, and one of the most influential
figures in world history. His name in Chinese is Kongzi (also spelled K’ungtzu). He makes his living as a tutor, teaching and writing about ancient Chinese
traditions. Through these traditions, he instructs China’s rulers on the
importance of moral leadership. His followers compile the Analects, a book of
sayings attributed to the great teacher. Confucianism greatly influences
Chinese theories of state and society.
Kalidasa, who lived in the late 4th century and early 5th century, is considered
India’s preeminent classical poet. His epic poems include Raghuvamsa
(Dynasty of Raghu) and Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger), which is a
beautiful lyric poem about separated lovers. The most famous of Kalidasa’s
works is his poetic drama Shakuntala (also known as Abhijnanashakuntala,
Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection). This drama tells the story of a love
affair between a king and a woodland maiden named Shakuntala. Yet it is more
than that. In this work, the poet transforms a simple tale into a lyrical and
universal drama of the passion, separation, suffering, and reunion of lovers.
Shakuntala had a profound impact on German author Johann Wolfgang
Goethe and on other European writers who encountered it in translation in the
18th century.
Panchatantra, Foremost among the works of fiction in classical Sanskrit is the
(The Five Strategies) by Vishnusharman. This work is a collection of stories
in prose and verse that were composed between the 3rd century BC and the 4th
century AD. The stories, which feature animals as the characters, teach lessons
about human conduct. Two major 7th-century prose romances are Kadambari
by Bana and Dashakumaracharita (The Adventures of the Ten Princes) by
Dandin. The popular work Kathasaritsagara (Ocean to the Rivers of Stories),
by the 11th-century writer Somadeva, is a collection of witty tales in verse
about the love affairs and schemes of merchants, princes, and other
adventurers. The Panchatantra and the Kathasaritsagara both use the
technique of telling stories within the framework of a main story. This
approach, and the technique of using animals as characters, later migrated to
European literature through Arab translators and travelers.