“I found that the history of Chinese literature consisted of two parallel movements: there was the classical literature of the scholars, the men of letters, the poets of the imperial courts, and of the élite; but there was in every age an undercurrent of literary development among the common people which produced the folk songs of love and heroism, the songs of the dancer, the epic stories of the street reciter, the drama of the village theatre and, most important of all, the novels. I found that every new form, every innovation in literature, had come never from the imitative classical writers of the upper classes, but always from the unlettered class of the country-side, the village inn and the market-place. I found that it was always these new forms and patterns of the common people that, from time to time, furnished the new blood and fresh vigour to the literature of the litterati, and rescued it from the perpetual danger of fossilisation. All the great periods of Chinese Literature were those when the master minds of the age were attracted by these new literary forms of the people and produced their best works, not only in the new patterns, but in close imitation of the fresh and simple language of the people. And such great epochs died away only when those new forms from the people had again become fixed and fossilised through long periods of slavish imitation by the uncreative litterati. …
“It was the anonymous folk songs of Antiquity that formed the bulk of the great Book of Poetry [mainly Western Zhou, 1046-771 BC] and created the first epoch of Chinese Literature. It was again the anonymous folk songs of the people that gave the form and the inspiration in the developments of the new poetry in the Three Kingdoms [immediately post-Han] and later in the T’ang Dynasty. It was the songs of the dancing and singing girls that began the new era of ts’ĭ or songs in the Sung Dynasty [between the post-T’ang Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and the Mongols]. It was the people that first produced the plays which led to the great dramas of the Mongol period and the Mings. It was the street reciters of epic stories that gave rise to the great novels [Ming, and before and after], some of which have been ‘best sellers’ for three or four centuries.”
The op cit footnote refers to:
Hu Shih: The Chinese Renaissance: The Haskell Lectures, 1933 (Chicago 1934, University Press) […].
A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954