Chinese Literature and Poetry

Literature in China

The Chinese Library is located at the Manchester City Library.  This library was set up in 1986 when Chinese immigrants in Manchester had become an important part of Greater Manchester’s social, economic and cultural life.  It remains the first comprehensive public Chinese library service in the UK and comprises newspapers, fiction and nonfiction for all ages.  

Several mainstream Chinese and British-Chinese novels and books originated from Manchester in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, most notably Helen Tse’s Sweet Mandarin (2007). This memoir is based on the gripping, true story of her family’s dramatic journey from living in China to working in Greater Manchester’s restaurant scene.  The book’s success has led to translations being published in over thirty countries worldwide.  Ged Neary, a Manchester-born man who married into a Chinese family, has published the novel ‘Rice Ticket’, expanding the British-Chinese novel genre in Manchester and the UK.

As well as housing the Chinese Library, Manchester’s Central Library Service has supported smaller projects such as “Dim Sum Little Pieces of Heart”, an anthology of British-Chinese stories published by Commonword in 1997.  


Any remains of early Chinese writing generally fall into the categories of either philosophy or religious writings.  During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), poetry and other creative writing genres became popular.  This could be accredited to the Chinese invention of paper (Jin Dynasty, 265-420 CE) and printing (Tang Dynasty), enabling any literature to be available to the increasingly literate population.  Popular early novels held a moral message and romance and historical themes.  Most such novels were written anonymously and in the vernacular.  

Book Burning in the Qin Dynasty

Between 213 BCE and 206 BCE, a large book-burning programme was implemented by the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE – 210 BCE). Before the book burning, the different regions in what we now know as China were warring, and Emperor Qin unified China for the first time.  His chancellor, Li Si (280 BCE – 208 BCE), advised him that to maintain stability, a China unified in ideals and expression, as well as by political rule, was necessary.  This led to most of the classic philosophical schools, named the Hundred Schools of Thought, that had flourished over the centuries and suddenly became censored.  

The only work from the Hundred Schools of Thought that survived was that of the school of legalism, which taught that men were inherently evil and needed strict laws and regulations to moralise them.  The school of legalism was written by Li and the philosopher Han Fezi (280 BCE – 233 BCE).  The only other schools that were spared were those written by the Qin scholars, such as history and war, medicine, agriculture and prophecy.  These were the only disciplines not deemed to undermine Qin’s legitimacy as Emperor.

The main method of censorship was book burning and executing those who kept, read or used the “Classic of Poetry” or the “Classic of History”, two of the oldest Chinese texts. Individuals who used these texts to study, teach, or for leisure were punished or executed.  

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Book Burning

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a social movement led by Chairman Mao Zedong (also known as Mao Tse-tung, 1893-1976).  After the revolution in 1949 established Communism as the ruling regime, Chairman Mao grew concerned that a new elite class was being established comprised of former landowners and merchants, all of who suffered great economic upsets upon the establishment of Communism.  To curb the development of this class, Mao deemed that all items relating to The Four Olds be destroyed.

In 1966, the Red Army (the Communist army of the People’s Republic of China composed of its youth) was ordered to find and destroy ‘The Four Olds’. These were old customs, old ideas, old culture and old habits.  The residences and workplaces of those groups of people deemed rightist and anti-revolutionist were searched, and any evidence of The Four Olds was destroyed.  This included burning literature and destroying architecture, statues and other fine arts.  The owners of such items were punished, and some scholars who specialised in their study were executed, though it is said that this was against Mao’s command.  

During the 1990s large steps in China were taken to rebuild cultural sites destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  Literature on liberal trends surfaced, for example, texts on feminism such as those by noted scholar Dai Jinhua (1959 – present), a Marxist feminist scholar.

Four Categories

The ancient Chinese organised their literature according to four categories.  This system was called the sibu system and organised literature according to its content.  Its origins are unclear, but its history is vast; it is used to organise the books in the Imperial Library at the beginning of the Later Han period (25-220 CE).  The four categories are Confucian classics; historiography; philosophers and masters of disciplines; anthologies (of any kind, e.g. poetry, letters).

The Manchester Museum at The University of Manchester and Manchester City Archives house the Thomas Bellot Chinese collections, which contain letters, books and manuscripts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including early examples of Chinese calligraphy, illustrated embroidery pattern books and books of Buddhist and Christian content.  Bellot was a naval surgeon from Oldham Street, Manchester, who acquired many items from Hong Kong during his visit at the end of the Opium Wars in 1843. The collection came to the museum after Bellot’s death from yellow fever in 1857.

Other Chinese collections in Manchester are housed at the John Rylands Library. The bulk of the printed books and manuscripts was acquired in 1901 with the purchase of the Crawford collection.  The foundation of Lord Crawford's collection was laid by his purchase en bloc of the library of Pierre Leopold van Alstein in 1863. After that, Crawford made further acquisitions from booksellers in Britain and Continental Europe and via agents in Beijing. The books are dated mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, although 28 items are dated before 1600. They include histories, biographies, ceremonials, dictionaries, grammar books, paintings and calligraphy.

See a selection of watercolours depicting everyday life in China in the John Rylands Library online Image Collection - Luna.

Almost every aspect of Chinese life and culture is represented with the omission of science and technology.  There are roughly 1,000 watercolour paintings, mostly 18th- and 19th-century, included in Crawford manuscripts, displaying many aspects of China and Chinese life.

Other collections include Tibetan and Mo-So manuscripts.

Poetry in Manchester

In Manchester, Chinese poetry is flourishing.  Mr Zhang Guo Qiang is a Chinese-born ex-Communist soldier who, after retiring from the army at sixty in 1990, came to Manchester in 1998 to be with his daughter.  He is an extremely successful poet whose poetry reflects on his experiences in the army as well as his experiences in Manchester. In his collections, he references his experiences of events with community organisations such as Wai Yin and the North West Language School, with whom he works as a consultant, as well as festivals celebrated in Manchester, such as Qingming and New Year. He also marks the celebration of 20 years of friendship between Manchester and her Chinese sister city Wuhan.  Zhang wrote his poetry after he settled in Manchester, with books published in 2002, 2004 and 2008.  All were published in China.  

As well as poetry Mr Zhang had also written an autobiography (2008), describing his experiences of the wars and politics he was involved in whilst fighting for China between 1946 and 1949 when Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic of China and supported Korea against America.  

“Poetry is one of the best ways to get to the heart of any language in a few words.”
~ Jenny Wong, Director MCC


Today, the Manchester Chinese Centre’s hugely successful annual North West Poetry Festival in May has stoked the creative fires of all Manchester and the UK interested in learning about the Chinese arts.  Last year the festival comprised 122 entries, totalling more than 240 participants.  Also participating in the festival was the Royal Northern College of Music, whose performance of ‘The Red Knot’, the true story of the Morecambe Bay tragedy where the incoming tide drowned more than 24 Chinese cockle pickers, presented many different Chinese art forms to a new audience.


The Book of Songs was compiled in the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BCE) and was the first anthology of Chinese poems.  The 305 poems (including folk poems and poems used in ritual sacrifice), favoured by the philosopher and educator Confucius, were collected from the northern Yellow river area.

In the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), Chinese poetry became greatly influenced by the style of the State of Chu, which China’s boundaries had expanded to include during the 4th century BCE.  The State of Chu was more advanced than that of the northern civilisations.  Their poetry, collected in The Songs of Chu, was more lyrical and romantic – not as functional as those in the north. The amalgamation of the two styles evolved into the fu, a poem in rhymed verse flanked by introductory and concluding prose.

During this time, a standardised form of creative writing emerged and flourished.  Emperor Wu (156-87 BCE) established the Yuefu (literal translation – music bureau), a government-managed operation for collecting poetry and songs and establishing guidelines for their writing and performance.  The standard for poetry then became five characters per line, which was believed to create a smoother and more melodious performance.

This evolved into what we recognise as the shi or classical style of poetry.  This style has five or seven characters in a line, with a pause before the last three.  Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the ci style rose in popularity.  This style expressed feelings of desire but addressed a wide range of topics.  The next popularity shift saw the san qu form of poetry, a freer form, take the spotlight.  With the invention of printing in the Tang Dynasty, poetry became much more easily accessible to all China’s rapidly increasing and literate population.



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