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The Literature Of The East - Part 1

Updated on December 12, 2011

The literature of the East is older than those of Europe and, of course, far older than those of America. They are almost equally extensive, and certainly have been the most influential in the history of the world.

On them are based all the great existing religions of mankind. The idea of immortality has its origin in the literature of ancient Egypt. Taoism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, the religion of the Parsees, Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism each has a sacred literature, with some part of the East as its birthplace.

Where the literatures of Europe and America excel is in the variety of their subjects and treatments, and the world-wide range of their appeal. They penetrate everywhere because they embrace everything.

The educated Hindu, Japanese, or Chinese, man or woman, reads European literature in proportion to their education. However, with the exception of the Hebrew literature, and in a small degree of the Mohammedan Koran, which is an offshoot of Hebrew literature, most people in the Western world are not very familiar with the literature of the East.

It has been studied most thoroughly by specialists for the it throws on:

  • The growth, change, and spread of languages and ideas.
  • The information they give of the history of religions
  • The glimpses they contain of distant history, early social life, and moral ideas
  • The poetry and in tales, for poetry and tales are natural to all mankind long before they have a written literature. And because the poetry and tales suit the peoples which produce them, they descend through succeeding generations to modern times.
  • The poetry of religion, such as hymns and rules for moral guidance, has been specially passed down by priests, and makes up a large part of the ancient literature.

All these forms of literature are plentiful in the East. They attract all students who are engaged on a history of the mental and spiritual development of mankind. Yet Eastern literatures do not contain many of the great literary masterpieces which make a powerful appeal to the world world.

The outstanding exception is the wonderful literature of the Hebrew people, which has been collected from the ancient records of more than a thousand years, and is now translated into nearly all languages under the general name of the Bible. In fact, the only Eastern writing that attracts widespread interest and is not Hebrew in it's roots, and can be traced to a personal source, is the Koran.

The other important writings that come to us from the East -- important especially for the light they throw on early language and religion -- are of unknown authorship and of great antiquity. They had been long preserved in mankind's memories before being recorded, and have been handled by priests for centuries.

The Chinese Write From Right To Left In Columns

The language of China belongs to the monosyllabic, or one-syllable family. the number of its radical, or root words is made three times as great, however, by a change of accent.

As is natural in so large a country many dialects are spoken in the different provinces, but the chief dialect, Mandarin, is the language of literature and of polite society.

The Chinese language is written from right to left, in vertical columns or in horizontal lines.

First Classics In Chinese Literature

Of the first classics in Chinese literature there are five books:

  • The Book Of Transformation -- containing sixty-four essays on important subjects based on figures and diagrams
  • The Book of History -- which was compiled by Confucius (551-470 B.C.), consisting of conversations between kings and their ministers on politics, history, religion, music and astronomy
  • The Book of Rites -- a set of rules for regulating daily life
  • The Book of Odes -- consisting of national airs, chants and odes
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals -- of bold historical facts

Here is one little four verse poem, which is typical of the odes:

The Absent Husband

I picked and piced the mouse ears,

Nor gained one basket load;

My heart was with my husband:

I flung them on the road.

I climbed yon rugged mountain,

My ponies all broke down;

I filled my golden goblet

Long anxious thought to drown.

I climbed yon lofty ridges,

With my ponies black and bay;

I fillled for me my horn cup

Long torture to allay.

I climbed yon craggy uplands,

My steeds grew weak and ill;

My footmen were exhausted: --

And here I sorrow still!

There are, besides, Four Books, three of which -- the Great Learning, the Just Medium, and the Confucian Analects -- were written by the disciples of Confucius; the fourth one consists of the writings of Mencius, a religious teacher and philosopher whose books breathe a spirit of freedom and independence.:

The Five Classics and Four Books have had a tremendous influence over millions of minds and therein lies their greatest importance.

At the close of the sixth century B.C. it was ordered that various texts should be engraved in wood, printed, and published. Printing reached its full development in the eleventh century, when movable types were invented -- nearly five hundred years before their invention in Europe.

Books on natural philosophy are plentiful. There are some valuable works on Chinese law, agriculture, mechanics and trades. There are many encyclopedias and several dictionaries, composed with great spirit and patience.

A celebrated collection of twenty-one histories forms an unbroken record from the third century B.C. to the middle of the seventeenth century.

A collection of statistics with maps and tables in two hundred and sixty volumes is called:

The General Geography of the Chinese Empire,

The Statues of the Reigning Dynasty

Japan's Written Language Was Adopted From The Chinese

Japan adopted her written characters from China, and thus absorbed much of Chinese civilization and thought. This state of affairs lasted until the seventeenth century, when a revival of ancient Japanese traditions came about.

Japan poetry has not suffered from foreign influence so badly. At some remote time a Japanese maker of songs discovered that a peculiar and very fascinating rhythm is produced by lines containing five syllables and seven syllables alternately.

There are generally five lines to a poem, though this number is not fixed and sometimes runs to thirty or forty; but the alternation of the five and seven syllables must occur.

The smallest example of it is in the haiku, a small complete picture containing three lines, or seventeen syllables in all.

The two great masters of Japanese poetry were Hitomaro and Akahito, both of the early eighth century. Next to them stands Tsurayuki in the tenth century.

Influence Of Japanese Women In Literature

The influence of women in Japanese literature is strong.

From the eighth century onward women were the guardians of the pure Japanese language, the Chinese form being adopted only by men.

To this day the spoken and written language of women in Japan is simpler, softer and purer than that of the men, who use mispronounced Chinese words and employ Chinese characters in writing.

Dark Age Of Japanese Literature

From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century is the so-called Dark Age of Japanese literature, a time when constant warfare darkened the land.  It was not wholly unproductive, as it gave the drama to Japan, which in its early beginnings was a religious dance of a pantomimic nature for which the monks of Buddha composed librettoes.

Costtumes of the utmost magnificence were worn, and mask making became a fine art.  From the somberness of these religious dances, or No, as they are called, the Japanese turned to farce, the Kyogen, or "mad-words," played in the interludes of the No.

From these beginnings Japanese drama has developed into the regular theater.  Though Western civilization has modified it, it has not changed its coloring.

With their ability to absorb and imitate, the Japanese have been greatly influenced by Western literature.


Sanskrit is the ancient language of the Hindus, and the name means "cultivated" or "perfected."

The Aryan, or Indo-European, stock had its ancient home in central Asia. From here some colonies migrated into Europe, and other through the passes of the Himalayas into Inda.

Thus, the languages of Europe and India are merely different forms fo the original Aryan speech. For example:

Father, mother, brother, sister are almost the same, whether spoken on the banks of the Tiber, the Ganges, or the Mississippi.

In India new dialects were grafted upon Sanskrit and at length replaced it altogether, though it continued to be revered as the literary language of the country.

A greater part of Sanskrit literature still remains in manuscript. It is nearly all composed in meter. It includes every form of knowledge except history -- an important lack.

The great works of Sanskrit literature correspond to the great ages of history in India. The first period covers the time when Aryan tribes speaking Sanskrit emigrated into north-western India, where they lived as agricultural and pastoral people.

To this era belong the Vedas, or sacred books. Three of these are most important:

  • Rig-Veda -- containing an account of the settlement of the Aryans in the Punjab and their religion and hymns
  • Yajur-Veda
  • Sana-Veda

Devout Hindus acknowledge no higher authority in religion, custom and law than the Vedas. There is, besides, a whole library of commentaries on the Vedas, regarded as sacred books also.

To the third period belong the formation and development of an artistic and learned literature. Here we have collections of ancient traditions, exposition of the Vedas and works on grammar and science.

In the second period, the people penetrated into the fertile country between the Indus and the Ganges. Their struggles with the original inhabitants are expressed in epic poems, of which the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the most striking and beautiful. The scope of both is greater than that of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Golden Age Of Sanskrit

The final period is the golden age of Sanskrit literature, when under the rule of liberal princes, poetry and drama reached their highest points. The drama is the most interesting branch of Hindu literature.

No nation except the Greek has excelled its achievement. Simple plots, purity of language, prose and verse, comedy, and music unite in Hindu plays. The Messenger Cloud and Sakuntala of Kalidasa, the Hindu Shakespeare, are unsurpassed.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      You really excelled yourself writing this hub. Their litereature are so fascinating. Thank you for the pleasure.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks lilyfly!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I wish I had an entire day to read all these things... good luck in your new business, mine too, is slow to bloom, sending you good thoughts...lilyfly

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Genna East!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Wonderful hub! The haiku has always fascinated me, so I was especially interested in your information about Japanese literature. Eastern literature and art has much to offer, and this hub gives us another peak into its beauty and history.


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