Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Centuries of Stories and Still Flourishing
You’ve Reached Sam. I Decided to Live as Me. Crying in H Mart. Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Arsenic and Adobo. Almond.
We see these titles front and center in bookstores and websites. Bookworms are raving about them, your friends are recommending you to read, thousands or millions of copies are being sold worldwide.
These stories and more are everywhere—but they all come from the minds of the same place: Asia.
From Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Asian literature has undeniably gone through wondrous shifts over the centuries. Now we see it flourish into yet another form of contemporary masterpiece as it captures our attention and takes over our hearts through riveting portrayals of life and love, struggles and survival, society and culture, and everything in between.
Asian literature encompasses the literary works from the various parts of the continent: we have texts from Russia in the North; the trio of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean masterpieces from East Asia; Arabian works from the West; masterpieces from countries like India, Pakistan, and Nepal in the South region; writings from Kazakhstan and its surrounding countries in Central Asia; and stories from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand in the Southeast.
But what are the defining traits of Asian literature? Why is it significant?
How has it developed over time to become the favorite reads that we know today? More importantly, does it have a place in our world now?
Asian Literature, Defined
Asian literature is diverse in that it showcases a selection of styles and themes, but as it progressed over time, common ideas have been identified between the texts from the various regions of the Asian continent.
Perhaps the most similar trait of all Asian texts is their religiosity and spirituality. Asian literature is known to be a philosophical and contemplative art, pondering on major matters in life such as our origins and our death: where we come from and where we go, how we come alive and how we die, as well as how we should live in between.
Related to the spiritual feature, the involvement of nature is evident.
Besides these, Asian literature greatly talks about race, injustice, power, nationalism, struggles, love—and in all things at all times, there are morals to be learned.
The most common styles in this type of literature are poetry or verse and dramatic prose. Asian poetry is typically lyrical, as in it deals with the grand scheme of emotions. A sub-type of lyrical poetry is the ode, which we can see in some religious texts. Asian poetry is also usually formed in narratives or story-telling verses like epics. As for the proses of Asia, there are collections of short stories, legends, orally transmitted sayings, and dramas.
Importance of Asian Literature
The historical experiences of people in Asia have been interwoven for centuries if not millennia, owing to their close and vast geography as well as years of trade and conquests.
Naturally, while each Asian country has a unique literary style, their literature also reflects the similarities in their customs and traditions, struggles and successes, even their philosophies in life, giving the rest of the world a better understanding of Asian culture.
This is hugely important especially to Western people in the past since they did not know a lot of Asia, much less its people’s ways of living, due to both their geographic and cultural distances.
The differences between Western and Eastern culture manifests even until today. However, Asian literature brings their people’s lives straight from reality to the pages that then take their stories into the hearts of others worldwide, where they somehow find a common ground of shared experiences. Asian literature goes to show that despite the distance and differences, we are all connected through the tales that we have in common with each other.
Not only does Asian literature give us an original and fresh take on people’s experiences, but it also contributes to our collective perception of life through the morals and philosophies that their literary pieces embody. One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabian folk tales, is the epitome of the value-centered pieces of Asian literature. In its hundreds of stories, just as many moral lessons can be gleaned. To name a few, Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp teaches us the meaning of identity and how it is based on merit, not wealth; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves characterizes loyalty, honesty, and generosity; The Tale of the Hunchback calls out to the persistence of truth and our conscience.
Asian literature has also aided the spread of Asian spirituality, heightening the major religions that we know and are a part of until today—all of which started in the continent itself: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam having originated from West Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism from the South, and Confucianism and Taoism from the East. Examples of literary texts that support religions range from the Tao Te Ching that exemplifies Taoism, the Analects that epitomizes Confucianism, to the Sanskrit epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata that are important to Hinduism, amongst many others that knit the patchwork of Asian religions.
Asian literature has impacted our lives, whether we know it or not. It is there in the way that we view certain aspects of life—such as struggles, injustices, death—, and it is there in the way that we treat life itself. Throughout the years and until today, all over the world, Asian literature has helped shape our ideals and lifestyles. It is only right that we trace the origins of such a powerful medium that has moved our minds.
Development of Asian Literature
In the general sense of literature, the oldest known written piece is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This in fact originated in Asia, particularly in ancient Mesopotamia, which is now found in the Western region of the continent. The Kesh Temple Hymn and the Instructions of Shuruppak are two other examples of the earliest written literature that came from Mesopotamia, brought about by their development of writing at around 3400 BC.
From these earliest writings, we can already see Asian literature taking shape. Its defining traits have been present as early as in the first recorded literary pieces. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh embodies the narrative feature of Asian literature; it is a tale that explores the notions of life and death, love and loss, all of which are prevalent themes in Asian literature. The Kesh Temple Hymn is an ancient manifestation of the Asian literature’s lyrical nature, as it is an ode to the deities of Kesh Temple. Even the Instructions of Shuruppak represents Asian literature in its wisdom literature style that contemplates and gives advice.
As civilizations grew and developed—in the whole world and within Asia—, so have literature.
In Asia, the literary pieces developed according to its various regions. And while every country in these regions has their own unique style and story to offer, there are major advancements in Asian literature that represent the continent. Typically, researchers of literature classify Asian literary artworks into only three categories despite the many regions; we have Chinese, Japanese, and Indian literature to characterize the growth of Asian literature because they are the ones with withstanding influence and recognition.
In China, the system of writing began at around 1300 BC under the Shang Dynasty. Following suit, Chinese literature was established using their formal language of Classical Chinese. Under another dynasty between 1045 to 225 BC—the Zhou dynasty—, the Chinese writing system blossomed from mere hieroglyphs to bodies of religious texts, marking the beginnings of Chinese literature.
The philosophical texts written in this era comprised the great literary pieces that served as a foundation to Confucianism and Taoism, amongst other budding systems of beliefs, of which little are known due to their lost records caused by the book burning event in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). This then reduced China’s “One Hundred Schools of Thought”, as well as standardized the Chinese writing system. However, despite such literary destruction, political literature did thrive in this time, emphasizing an emperor’s power and thus contributing to their seemingly unending reigns.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), it was the turn of scientific and historic texts to prosper, and in the subsequent dynasties, more forms of literature emerged and became prominent. These were less formal or knowledge-centered pieces that ranged from the Tang Dynasty’s poetry, the Song Dynasty’s travel and neo-Confucianism literature, the Yuan Dynasty’s dramas and fictions, to the Ming and Qing Dynasty’s novels, until it has become the modern Chinese literature that we produce and consume today, though now riddled with Western principles.
The Japanese owed the origins of their writing system to China. Some of the oldest known pieces of Japanese literature are the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the former being a collection of myths and legends and the latter being a historical chronicle. A third ancient literary piece is the Man’yoshu, a vast collection of poems. We can see in these examples, however early, the recurring patterns and themes of Asian literature that until today are palpable.
These genres of Japanese literature continued and prospered into their golden era of art, the Heian period (794-1185), in which classical pieces of poetry, fiction, novels, and essays on the topics of life, love, nature, and nobility were evident. Specific examples would be the Genji Monogatari, Kokin Wakashu, and Makura no Soshi.
The Asian literature feat of telling tales of hardships and setting examples of reflection and morality are also based in Japanese literature—especially from the Kamakura-Muromachi Period of 1185-1600—, where we saw epics like the Heike Monogatari, as well as pieces such as the Hojoki and Tsurezuregusa.
The Kabuki drama of the Edo Period (1600-1868), as well as the Haiku and Renga types of poetry continued to shape the bigger picture of not just Japanese but also Asian literature.
However, such developments became intermingled by Western literary ideas at around 1868-1945 during the Meiji Period. Free verse and romanticism started to reign, especially during the war. The literary period that then followed was filled with more stories centered on socio-political awareness. However, later, fiction and non-fiction pieces of every genre—especially in the form of Manga—started to dominate the scene, resulting to the Japanese literary landscape that we know today.
Yet another epitome of Asian literature is that of India, in which some of the oldest literary masterpieces are religious and reflective in nature, becoming the basis for the major religion of Hinduism. Examples include the Veda hymns and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, all of which inspire morals and philosophy in the form of myths, chants, narratives, and verses.
The rest of Indian literature molded itself over the years after these ancient texts. India’s renowned writer, Rabindranath Tagore, exemplified such styles in his romantic works that spanned spiritual and mystic themes mainly in various forms of prose and poetry.
The Adikal stage of Indian literature was another example of spiritually-inclined poetic pieces, emphasized further by the next stage of Bhakti Kal literature, which personified God. Ritikal Literature centered on notions of love, while Adhunikaal literature has presented itself even until the modern era in the form of more varied texts; novels, short stories, and dramas of every genre has become apparent, especially written in the English language that the British occupation brought.
Other prominent features of Indian literature—and therefore, Asian literature—are its political themes like topics surrounding calls for justice, as well as feminist and pacifist movements.
Asian Literature Now
Nowadays, although the spread of Western ideals unmistakably and unstoppably continues to seep into the cultures of Asians, including their literature, the said features of Asian literary works are still observable, albeit in a modern sense.
Even with shelves stacked up on new reads, though, the classics of Asian literature—those that shaped the religions, perceptions, and histories of people across the globe—remain significant stories today as we study and apply them to our daily lives, whether knowingly or not.
Not only has Western literary concepts caused shifts to Asian literature, but Asian literature in turn has changed lifestyles all over the world. Not to mention, the dynamics of Asian literature has been slowly taking over popular culture in the last several years.
This goes to show that though full of tales as old as time, Asian literature persists in flourishing today, adding more depth and impact to already centuries’ worth of gripping experiences.
Now that you're well-versed in the history, dive deeper into literary gems in North-east India here!
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