To many Westerners, Chinese literature remains a hidden seam in the rich strata of Chinese culture. As a matter of fact, it is a treasure of a very considerable number of brilliant and profound works as each dynasty, in the long history of China, has passed down its legacy of magnificent events and works. For 3500 years, they have woven a variety of genres and forms encompassing poetry, essays, fiction and drama; each in its own way reflecting the social climate of its day through the high spirit of art. Chinese literature has its own values and tastes, its own reigning cultural tradition and its own critical system of theory.
Chronologically, it can be divided into four main periods: classical literature, contemporary literature, modern literature and present day literature.
Classical literature refers to the earliest period and covers works from three thousands years ago to the late Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), and is a virtually unbroken strand enduring dynastic changes. Written in an ancient form of language that is very different from present day Chinese, it needs to be carefully studied to be understood. Since it was nearly always developed under the reign of centralized and unified government, it is imbued with the thoughts of a culture that embraced slavery and a feudal society. It was steeped in an enclosed environment that hardly had any real links with religion or least of all the literature of foreign cultures.
Contemporary literature embraces the works from the late Qing Dynasty to the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (a patriotic movement against imperialism and feudalism). As the decadent reign of the Qing failed to inspire the minds of people, the literary forms had remained unchanged; till the Opium War in 1840. Then they absorbed the impact of western thoughts as foreigners poured in China and established their colonies. Novels, poetry and other works began to appear with a theme of patriotism and a revelation of social ills.
Modern literature spanned the period from 1919 to the foundation of modern China in 1949 and took on a new vigor, despite the fact that Chinese was in the throws of checkered and complicated times. This period was distinctive as it brought into being a new and revised literary language, form, content and skills allowing it to evolve into an independent and open art available to the whole of society. It attached great attention to people's lives and a future with strong political tendencies. Influenced by the tide of the world literature, it provided wide and amiable communication between writers and readers.
Present day literature is that which has evolved since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. During this time, there was a logjam as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution that lasted for nearly 10 years. That era is now long past and we now have a favorable turn on events and a great number of responsible writers deepen the literary forms and content. Nowadays literature prospers.
The Chinese literature "has not only left a mark of its characteristics and its spirit of blending thought and form", but also is known in the world for their continuity. The Chinese literature surges on like the mighty Yangtze River and gives a lasting artistic charm. It began with primitive legends, and proceeded with the "Book of Poems". The "Songs of the South" , the essays of the Pre-Qin scholars , the "rhyme prose" of the Han Dynasty , the poems and essays in the Wei-Jin period , the Tang poems , the Song poems , the Yuan dramas and the Ming and Qing novels . In the course of several thousand years, one literary form rose and fell; another literary form loomed and submerged, as a series of successive surges of a flowing river, forming a quite resplendent phenomenon in the history of literature in the world.