Ancient Chinese marine literature should extend beyond descriptive study

BY KANG DANYUN | 04-20-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Wall paintings about marine culture in a village of Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province Photo: Yao Feng/CNSphoto

Since modern times, Western countries with strong marine cultures have developed rapidly through colonial expansion, dominating the world’s historical process. Based on this, Hegel analyzed the trend of world development and changes. He praised Western marine civilization while believing that Asian countries, particularly China, do not have a favorable relationship with the seas and hence lack the civilization that the oceans have endowed. Influenced by Hegel’s judgment, some scholars have asserted that China has no connection with marine culture, and the country only possesses an agrarian culture adapted to the land. However, such a view does not conform to the historical and cultural reality of China.

Marks of oceans left in literary works 

In reality, China is a major marine country with a long coastline of about 32,000 kilometers. Within the vast expanse of maritime space, Chinese ancestors began to explore the oceans in ancient times, and those in coastal areas also began to develop the oceans in quite early time. They fished, built boats and collected shellfish for decoration, leading to the emergence of the Longshan Culture, Liangzhu Culture, Hemudu culture and other marine cultures. 

With the improvement of navigation technology and societal progress in different sectors, the ancient people improved their abilities to exploring the oceans, forming stronger ties with them. This offered favorable conditions for the creation of marine literature, hence giving rise to the marks of the oceans left by the ancient people in various literary works.

Providing intellectual and cultural resources 

The international community has reached a consensus that the 21st century is a century of oceans. An increasing number of countries are focusing on developing their oceans for a variety of activities, such as marine geological surveys, resource exploitation, and ecological and environmental protection. Various types of marine activities are being actively pursued in full swing around the world today. Professor Qu Jinliang, a Chinese expert on marine culture, pointed out in his book Introduction to Marine Culture that as human society progresses towards the future, our hope for advancement and the way forward will rely more and more on the oceans. In addition, the international community now generally attaches great importance to developing science and technology as well as ocean-related industries. In this context, studying Chinese marine literature is of great significance to deepening and enriching Chinese marine culture. It can also provide intellectual and cultural resources for the current construction of the Belt and Road Initiative and the strategy of building China into a maritime power. 

Systematic research not formed

As Professor Wang Qingyun from the School of Literature and Journalism at Ocean University of China believes, marine literature reveals the Chinese nation’s understandings of and emotions toward the oceans, described as “the artistic recording of life history, emotional history and aesthetic history derived from the oceans.” However, marine literature is an emerging discipline, and the research on this subject is still in its infancy, with relatively weak theoretical support. To date, no generally accepted definition of the concept of marine literature exists in academia. 

Regarding the current status of the research in this field, it appears that there is no established comprehensive and systematic research approach. Current research tends to focus heavily on modern and contemporary literature, while neglecting ancient literature. Some research attempts to explore the concept and essence of marine literature, without substantial influence.

The study is mainly about sorting out the development track, overall features, evolutionary clues, or about summarizing the aesthetic features of marine literature in a certain era. The obvious shortcomings of the current research are that it simply lingers on delineating or stating the historical facts. Most research is about descriptive study. The research results often tend to be only descriptions of the themes and content of marine literature. But studies for reasons behind the phenomena, and the theoretical interpretation of the implied meanings beyond the phenomena are relatively insufficient. 

In addition, deep exploration and analysis from micro perspectives are quite insufficient. Most studies are conducted within the framework of popular science, that is, to generally introduce knowledge about marine literature and regard it as economic, political and cultural carriers. However, in terms of research methods and contents, systematic studies regarding the method and content have not yet been conducted, which urgently needs to be improved and extended. 

Kang Danyun is from the College of Liberal Arts at Jinan University. 

Edited by BAI LE