With the first translation and publication of the first edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales into English recently, I've been wondering a lot about Chinese and/or Sinological oral tradition.

The Wikipedia page doesn't have a lot of information in Chinese, and mostly just talks about Western stuff.

What sort of literature or other things have come about from the practice of oral tradition in China?

In the West the works attributed to Homer (Odyssey, Iliad) are particularly notable but what works are Sinologically well(or not)known historically or modernly?

2 Answers 2


You touched a sore spot, because there really isn't anything in Chinese that's comparable with Homer's work.

The reason, I think, is that in ancient China, history logging is a monopoly business. It's always in the hands of the royal families and their ministers. There might be great story tellers among the common folks, but the literate class just didn't bother to record them down. Or simply, maybe we just didn't have the luck, so no such great artist was born.

But obviously we did have an active oral tradition. Besides 诗经, 木兰辞 is one, 孔雀东南飞 is another, but there is nothing epic about them.

山海经》 for example, recorded myths that trace back to prehistory. These are, however, just short stories.

聊斋》 is literally folk stories told by men on the street, but again, they are just short stories, and nothing historically important.

格萨尔王传》 is something.. oops, it doesn't belong to the Sinosphere. Similar are some some other epics produced by the minority cultural groups. Anyway, we conquered and ruled them, so they belong to us now. I've even read Korean folk tales when I was young.

Regarding to the oral tradition of the Han ethnicity, we have 评书, 快板, 大鼓, etc. These things are probably very ancient. Many of them are still pretty much alive. They all tell great poetic stories about the past. 三国演义 and 水浒 are probably of such origins, they are pretty epic to my standards, but not ancient enough to compare with Homer.

I have a deceased elder relative who was in the business of 说书. I used to follow him when I was little. Like Homer he was blind. His instrument was 三弦 and 惊堂木. When he visited a town or village, people would gather at small theaters or open places to hear him talk and sing about the past. Oh the good old days....


中国为什么没有史诗 by 朱光潜

Also from this interesting discussion:

Gilgamesh: I hunted monsters.

Rama: I killed the demon king to save my wife.

Gesar: Me too.

Achilles: I battled Troy and killed their general with a spear.

Beowulf: I killed dragons.

Siegfried: Me too!

后稷: I cultivated rice and beans....

Ignore those who say "Because Chinese culture is superior!". They are stupid.

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    "后稷: I cultivated rice and beans...." Interesting. According to Bertrand Russell, agriculture gives importance to prudence. Civilized humans have foresight and are willing to sacrifice present pleasures for future gains, but, in Russell's words, "this habit of thinking of the 'next thing' is most fatal to any kind of aesthetic excellence than any other habit of mind that can be imagined." --Authority and Individual. Lecture 3. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:39
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    "and if art, in any important sense, is to survive, it will not be by the foundation of solemn academies, but by recapturing the capacity for wholehearted joys and sorrows which prudence and foresight have all but destroyed." --Russell, Bertrand. Authority and the Individual. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:45
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    Propriety and decorum are at the core of Confucius teachings. We are a nation of prudes. That is probable the ultimate reason. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:49


To quote wikipedia:

The Confucian school eventually came to consider the verses of the "Airs of the States" to have been collected in the course of activities of officers dispatched by the Zhou Dynasty court... After the officials returned from their missions, the king was said to have observed them himself in an effort to understand the current condition of the common people.


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