Chinese oracle bone
(Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC)
People in China began writing about 1500 BC, more than a thousand years later than people in West Asia or Egypt, but earlier than anyone in Europe, Africa, or Central America. The earliest writing that we know of from China was on animal bones, which are called "oracle bones" because priests used them to tell the future. The writing on these oracle bones is the same writing that people use in modern China, just in an earlier version. The signs they used came from pictures, like earlier Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform.
People in early China also wrote on strips of bamboo wood. Later on, people also wrote on silk cloth. The earliest Chinese literature that we know of probably comes from the later part of the Western Chou Dynasty about 800 BC (the same time as Hesiod in Greece) and was written on silk. This is the I Ching, a fortune-telling book, like the earlier oracle bones.
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, in Chinese
Around 100 BC, people in China invented paper to write on. Paper was cheaper to write on than silk, so more people wrote and copied books during the Han Dynasty. The first woman writer of China, Ban Zhao, lived during the Han Dynasty in the first century AD. She wrote many books, including poetry and a history of the Western Han. Ban Zhao also astronomy and math books, and she wrote "Lessons for Women," which advised women to submit to the men around them. This last book became very famous.
During the Tang Dynasty, about 700 AD, people in China invented wood-block printing, which was easier than copying out books by hand and made books much cheaper than they had been before. Many more people learned to read, and many more people wrote books. The poet Bai Juyi wrote a famous poem, the Song of Everlasting Sorrow.
Soon afterward, during the Sung Dynasty, about 1000 AD, people invented movable clay type, and this made books even cheaper and more popular than before. In 1103 AD, Lie Jie published a book setting architectural standards for all of China.
To find out more about Chinese language and literature, check out these books from Amazon or from your library:
Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). For kids, with lots of excellent pictures.
Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).
The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the SungPeriod, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).
Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T'ang period figurines.