Introduction to Premodern Chinese Literature – Outlier Linguistics

Learn about traditional Chinese literature

A semester-length survey of traditional Chinese literature, from the Canon of Odes through Dream of Red Chamber—no Chinese language required!

  • In this online course, you'll learn about Chinese literature from the earliest poems up to the start of the 19th century and familiarize yourself with some of the major landmarks:
    • The Canon of Odes (Shījīng 詩經/诗经)
    • Laozi and Zhuangzi
    • Qu Yuan and the Chǔ Cí 楚辭/楚辞
    • Works of history like the Zuǒzhuàn 左傳/左传 and the Shǐjì 史記/史记
    • Poetry from the Northern and Southern Dynasties
    • Tang Poetry, some of the best-known Chinese poems
    • Song dynasty lyric poetry
  • • Yuan dramas
  • • Ming and Qing novels, including the Story of the Stone/Dream of Red Chamber Hónglóumèng 紅樓夢/红楼梦
  • No knowledge of Chinese is assumed or required! All reading will be in English translation, although the Chinese original will also be provided for those who want it.
  • The course starts on 12 September—sign up now so you don't miss it!

Online Course with 20+ hours of video lessons (plus Q&A sessions!), just $299 $199 using discount code 'literature' at checkout!

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Rated 4.8/5 by 1000's of Chinese learners

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For Readers

The course will follow Stephen Owen's An Anthology of Chinese Literature, with occasional supplemental readings from other books (which will be provided). We'll be reading through several passages of Chinese literature each week, and we'll cover a broad range of genres and time periods.

For Non-native and Heritage Speakers

All of the readings in the course will be in English, and no knowledge of Chinese is required. However, the Chinese originals will also be provided, and weekly reading sessions will be available for those who want to read the works in the original.

Lifetime Access

Lessons will take place over a 10-week period, but like all of our courses, you'll be able to access all of the materials after it's finished. No need to stress about keeping up—you'll be able to go at a slower pace if you want!

  • Intro: Angel Island Poems and the Weight of Tradition
  • Week 1
    1 The Shi jing: Ancestors, Commoners, and the State
    2 “Young people, read the Shi jing!” Poetry, rhetoric, and diplomacy

    Week 2
    3 The Laozi and the Zhuangzi
    4 Qu Yuan: the Chu ci tradition and the poet’s persona

    Week 3
    5 History and the Historian (Zuozhuan and Shiji)
    6 Songs, Ballads, and Poems

    Week 4
    7 Bamboo Grove, Orchid Pavilion
    8 Extraordinary Men and Strange Occurrences

    Week 5
    9 Tao Yuanming and the Figure of the Poet
    10 Northern & Southern Dynasties Poetry and Literary Theory

    Week 6
    11 Tang I: Meng Haoran, Wang Wei
    12 Tang II: Li Bai, Du Fu

    Week 7
    13 Tang III: Bai Juyi, Han Yu, Meng Jiao
    14 Tang IV: Examination Culture and the Margins of the Canon

    Week 8
    15 Song Lyric Poetry: Li Qingzhao, Su Shi, Xin Qiji
    16 Yuan Drama and Ditties

    Week 9
    17 Ming Novels: Three Kingdoms and Shuihu zhuan
    18 Fiction and Authenticity

    Week 10
    19 The Story of the Stone
    20 The Story of the Stone II

This course will be taught live, as a combination of lectures and Q&A (though if you can't make it to the live sessions you can watch the recordings later). We'll also hold weekly office hours via Zoom. An exam will be given at the end of the course, and a passing score at the end earns you a Certificate of Completion!

This is a semester-length course on premodern Chinese literature, spanning from the earliest extant Chinese literature in the Canon of Odes (Shījīng 詩經/诗经) through the Story of the Stone (Hónglóumèng 紅樓夢/红楼梦), published in 1791 CE.

The Chinese literary tradition stretches back three millennia and contains more treasures than we could cover in ten semesters. We’ll be pacing ourselves: our goals in this course are to survey the landscape of Chinese literature up to the start of the 19th century and familiarize ourselves with some of the major landmarks.

No knowledge of Chinese is assumed or required. That said, I will be delighted to provide original texts for anyone interested, and if there’s sufficient interest we could organize an additional weekly session for reading through texts together.

By the end of our course, you should have a working knowledge of many of the major works of Chinese literature, an understanding of the forms and genres in which they were executed, and a sense of how those forms and genres developed. Ours will be a whirlwind tour, but it should offer enough of a sense of the terrain for you to come back and explore at leisure if you are interested in doing so, as I hope you will be.

This will be a discussion-intensive course, and your active, informed participation — either by posting on the course discussion board or by joining our live sessions — will be crucial to its success. I’ll be available to answer questions, offer additional context, and talk through readings 1-on-1 during weekly office hours, but I encourage you to post or join in during class if you’re comfortable doing so.

Can I go at my own pace? Will I be able to access the course once it's finished?

Yes! We'll do two lessons per week, but once the course is finished, we'll keep everything available online so that you can go through it at your own pace.

How much Chinese do I need to know to take this course?

None! This is not a language course, so it will be taught entirely in English. All readings will be in English, although we will also provide the original Chinese for those who wish to read the originals.

How long does the course take to complete?

There are 20 lessons, and we'll be doing two lessons per week. The course begins on 12 September and ends on 17 November, 2023.

How much time will it require per lesson?

There will be two lectures each week (you can attend live or watch the recording), and each will be about an hour. You'll also need to devote some time each week to reading the assigned passages in the textbook.

We'll also do a live "office hour" session once a week on Zoom, so you can pop in and ask questions if you'd like. There will also be a discussion forum, so if you can't make it to the office hours, you can still get your questions answered.

Will I need anything (apps, etc.) in order to take the course?

Only the main textbook is required, as all other readings will be supplied in PDF form.

- An Anthology of Chinese Literature - Beginnings to 1911 by Stephen Owen (required; note that the author has generously made the PDF available for free)

However, there are some other books that you may also find interesting and useful:

- The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature edited by William H. Nienhauser

- Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey

What time will the live lessons be?

The lectures will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm EST. You can watch either (or both) live, or watch the recordings later.

Can I study at my own pace or do I have to take the course live?

Either way. I'm teaching it as a live course, but you don't need to feel pressured to keep pace!

Keep in mind that if you can't show up to the live session, you'll be able to watch the replay at any time. Many people don't show up for the live session, but just watch the replay at their own pace. That's totally fine! You'll get lifetime access to the course, so that's no problem.

What does "lifetime access" mean?

In practical terms, it means the course materials will be available online for as long as Outlier is in business. If we do ever go out of business or otherwise need to remove the course for any reason, we'll make the material available for you to download for a period of at least 6 months.

Can I get a refund if I decide the course isn't for me?

Yes! Our usual refund policy is "30 days from purchase," but since the course doesn't start until 12 September, we're extending the refund date to "the 12th of October." If you decide you don't like the course for whatever reason, just reach out by then and we'll be happy to refund you.

Will there be assignments or homework?

You'll need to set aside time each week to read the assigned passages. There will also be an optional final exam after the course is finished.

Can we collaborate with other students or form study groups?

Definitely! Our live courses usually 150+ students enrolled, so there should be plenty of students of all backgrounds and interests in this course too.

And sure, working together is no problem! We'll have a private online community where you can work together, ask questions, share notes, etc.

Your Instructor

Brendan O'Kane

After spending more than a decade as a translator in Beijing, Brendan returned to his hometown of Philadelphia for graduate study of Ming and Qing fiction. He has taught courses in literary translation and Chinese literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University and Bryn Mawr College. He was a co-host for Popup Chinese and a co-founder of Paper Republic, and his writing and translations have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Pathlight, and other publications.

Sign up now!

Online Course with 20+ hours of video lessons (plus Q&A sessions!), just $299 $199 using discount code 'literature' at checkout!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Rated 4.8/5 by hundreds of Chinese learners