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Home Chinese Literature Historical Texts and Encyclopedias
Historical Texts and Encyclopedias
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The Chinese wrote consistent and accurate records at court after the year 841 BC, with the beginning of the Gonghe regency of the Western Zhou Dynasty. The earliest known narrative history of China was the Zuo Zhuan(左传), which was compiled no later than 389 BC, and attributed to the blind 5th century BC historian Zuo Qiuming(左丘明).

The Classic of History is thought to have been compiled as far back as the 6th century BC, and was certainly compiled by 300 BC, the latest date for the writing of the Guodian Chu Slips unearthed in a Hubei tomb in 1993. The Classic of History included early information on geography in the chapter of the Yu Gong(愚公). There was also the Bamboo Annals(编年体) found in 281 AD in the tomb of the King of Wei(魏), who was interred in 296 BC. However, unlike the Zuo Zhuan, the authenticity of the early date of the Bamboo Annals is doubtful. Another early text was the political strategy book of the Zhan Guo Ce(战国策), compiled between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, with partial amounts of the text found amongst the 2nd century BC tomb site at Mawangdui(马王堆). The oldest extant dictionary in China is the Erya, dated to the 3rd century BC, anonymously written but with later commentary by the historian Guo Pu (276–324).

Although court records and other independent records existed beforehand, the definitive work in early Chinese historical writing was the Shiji (史记), written by the Han Dynasty court historian Sima Qian (司马迁145 BC-90 BC). This groundbreaking text laid the foundation for Chinese historiography and the many official Chinese historical texts compiled for each dynasty thereafter. He is often compared to the Greek Herodotus in scope and method, as he covered Chinese history from the mythical Xia Dynasty up until the contemporary reign of Emperor Wu of Han, while pertaining an objective and non-biased standpoint (which is often difficult for the official dynastic histories who used historical works to justify the reign of the current dynasty). His influence was far and wide and impacted the written works of many Chinese historians, including the works of Ban Gu and Ban Zhao in the 1st and 2nd centuries, or even Sima Guang(司马光) in the 11th century with his enormous compilation of the Zizhi Tongjian (资治通鉴) presented to Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1084 AD. The overall scope of the historiographical tradition in China is termed the Twenty-Four Histories, created for each successive Chinese dynasty up until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), is not included.

There were also large encyclopedias produced in China throughout the ages. The Yiwen Leiju encyclopedia was completed by Ouyang Xun in 624 during the Tang Dynasty, with aid from scholars Linghu Defen and Chen Shuda. In the Song Dynasty alone, the compilation of the Four Great Books of Song (10th century - 11th century) begun by Li Fang and finalized by Cefu Yuangui represented a massive undertaking of written material covering a wide range of different subjects. This included the Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (978), the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (983), the Finest Blossoms in the Garden of Literature (986), and the Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau (1013). Although these Song Dynasty Chinese encyclopedias featured millions of written Chinese characters each, their aggregate size paled in comparison to the later Yongle Encyclopedia (永乐大典1408) of the Ming Dynasty, which had a total of 50 million Chinese characters.Yet even this size was trumped with later Qing Dynasty encyclopedias, such as the printed Gujin Tushu Jicheng (古今图书集成1726). This Qing encyclopedic compilation features over 100 million written Chinese characters in over 800,000 pages, printed in 60 different copies using copper-metal Chinese movable type printing. Other great encyclopedic writers and content include the polymath scientist Shen Kuo (沈括1031–1095) and his Dream Pool Essays, the agronomist and inventor Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333) and his Nongshu, and the minor scholar-official Song Yingxing (1587–1666) and his Tiangong Kaiwu(天工开物).


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