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History of Travel Literature in Ancient China

Chinese literature, which has a history of over 3,000 years, has proved to be paramount in the civilization of China. The use of written literature and Chinese characters has been very significant and has had an impact on the Chinese culture. The transmission of literary tradition has been a result of the act of collecting and coming up with libraries for this literature. Today, travel literature has decreased regarding its quality in a time when travel has become very frequent and shared everywhere in the world. Over some time, travel literature in China has immemorial developed and progressed through the various dynasties and has had several impacts on the culture and history of the Chinese people. The following research paper presents a short history of the development of China’s travel literature from the Six Dynasties Period to the late Ming Dynasty.

Historical Importance in China’s Travel Literature

Over many centuries that travel literature has progressed in China, it has influenced the perception that the Chinese people have towards their history and foreign population in the rest of the world. Travel literature’s authors and their works have played a significant role in the enterprise of China over the centuries. Different leaders of the various dynasties from the Six Dynasty Period to the Ming Dynasty sent many explorers as a response to good reports of high culture and fantastic places from the merchants who developed the trade routes in China. They returned with goods and stories about unusual places they had experienced in their trade expeditions. This made it possible for the particular dynasties to provide new ideas in the trade market and establish many markets that they could sell and purchase merchandise (Strassberg, 1994). Therefore, this made it possible for the regime to improve the living standards of their people by expanding their territory and increasing the wealth of the country.


Another aspect of China’s history that was influenced is religion. Buddhists from the East of China traveled to the holy sites that were in India and wrote extensive descriptions of their studies with the Buddhist masters that were in India. They learned a lot of things that were unknown to their counterparts back in China. The writings that they wrote and the information that they came back with made it possible for them to establish and expand their religion in other places in China. The world beyond the mountains looked very mysterious to the people of China, especially in the previous generations, which led to explorers being sent by the Emperors to discover the vast land and many cultures past the mountain range and oceans. Explorers, who are the authors of much of travel literature that is available today, came back with information about the ways of life and culture of many people they met. With this literature, the Chinese people could view certain aspects of life in a different way and would assimilate some of new things they learned that seemed fit in their culture.

Individual Contribution to History and Development

Many of literature authors in China had the desire and the commitment to learn their environment and surroundings and the role they played in people’s lives. The desire to explore was with complete earnest with every one of them trying to seek answers to some of life’s questions by understanding and interpreting nature as a phenomenon. Different authors had various things to offer to the development of prose travel literature in China. Liu Tsung-Yan was well known for his contribution to the history of prose travel literature by developing depictions of scenery that were elegant and using impressive figures of speech that would capture the reader’s attention. For example, he describes the formation of large mountains as towering and low-lying, which together with deep lakes looked like anthills and caves. To the readers, depiction of this scenery is exquisite since he or she can already picture how beautiful the scenery looks with a comparison to anthills and caves.

Su Shih is another author who was dominant in his literature and influenced prose travel literature by imposing the expression of its lyrics in a straightforward manner and brought the prose writing techniques in the Tzu genre. His use of literature was not stylistic but would use comparisons that were straightforward and not hidden for the readers to contemplate. Shih also developed travel literature by using it as a tool to fight oppression from the Chinese government in his years, and, thus, many people indulged in it. For instance, in one of his works, he talks about the sound made by a flute that would arouse a dragon that was submerged in the cavernous depths to whirl around and would also cause the weeping of a widow in her lonely boat. This directly explains the emotion of the author in response to his guest’s flute sounds and would directly account for this for the reader to understand.

Yuan Hongdao was one of the most influential poets and writers in the late Ming Dynasty. He developed styles of prose to transmit the author’s meaning and recognizing the inevitable change to travel literature. Hongdao adopted some genres of literature such as drama and the use of fiction in writing. In one of his works, for example, Hongdao speculates about different theories that describe the origin of a park dominated by a hill. He talks about how the hill looks like a crouching tiger and hence the name Tiger Hill. The speculation use in this scenario portrays the use of fiction in the literature to captivate the readers and make the story more attractive. This has contributed to the development of travel literature by the introduction of new styles that indulges the readers more.

Development Through the Various Dynasties

Travel writing as a literary genre developed from the Six Dynasties to the late Ming Dynasty due to the broad and different inputs and contribution to the literature in various ways. Many of the writers traveled far and wide and had different experiences in their journeys, and each was inspired in his or her way. This means that in the Six Dynasties Periods where there was the fall of the Han, travel literature was on a personal level, where any writer would put in writing his experiences not for the documentation in national research but personal reasons. As the various dynasties rose and fell, many aspects of the lives of the Chinese people changed due to governance, which, consequently, influenced travel literature in particular ways. As the territory of China and its economy expanded, so did the population. The level of literacy among the people was increasing as every dynasty came by and many people were able to associate with travel literature, and this helped in the progression of literature over the centuries. As any writers indulged in this type of research, they began to develop and incorporate different effects and styles from other forms of writing in their culture to make it more efficient.

This genre of literature developed in this particular way because of the political turmoil that the people faced during the reign of the various dynasties in China. The contributions of the authors towards this genre show us of how the people in China changed their rules due to discontent in many issues. Travel literature has developed for the reason that the people have over the centuries used it as a medium in which they fight for their rights and condemn oppression caused by the governments (Strassberg, 1994). Some of the authors who had explored the vast aspects of this literature had sentiments that were patriotic to the nation and shared their visions of the glory of previous Chinese empires. This inspired people to remember who they were and what their culture dictated in particular events that provoked their stability and unity. Travel literature, which began as a preface to a poem during the Six Dynasties Period, has evolved to become a part of the Chinese culture and history. This is among many reasons why travel literature has developed over the centuries


The historical importance of travel writing has been evident in the enterprise of China ever since the Six Dynasties Period. The merchants that did trades in foreign lands came with good reports that made the emperors send out explorers. It led to the expansion of the Chinese territory and uplifted in the economy due to new trading abilities. This genre has also influenced religion over the years by introducing Buddhism in the country, which spread from the East of Asia. Many individual contributions of travel literature have improved this genre in different ways and affected the society and people in many positive ways. The size of the population in China increased over the years allowing more people to become literate and develop travel literature. The tribulations that the people of China faced and the political wrangles and oppression towards people were the reason they adopted travel literature to express their dissatisfaction and ideas of good governance.