Originally, the term meant to command a good knowledge of documents from pervious dynasties. Wen (文) referred to documents, and xue (学) referred to the study of these documents. Later, the term referred to articles and documents in general as well as the knowledge about those documentations. The term had three main meanings. Firstly, from the pre-Qin period to the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, it meant knowledge of ancient literature, especially that of humanities including poetry, history, rites and music, as well as works of laws and regulations. Starting from the Wei and Jin dynasties, the term basically became equivalent to today’s concept of literature, but it also referred to academic writings on humanities. With the introduction of the Western concept of literature in recent history, the term gradually evolved to mean a pursuit that uses language to create aesthetic images. However, a few scholars, such as Zhang Taiyan, stuck to its traditional definition. The original meaning of the term determined the mainstream view on literature in contemporary China, which focuses on examining a literary phenomenon in the broader cultural context and emphasizing the intrinsic relationship between the aesthetic values of literature and liberal arts. This is somewhat different from the Western notion of literature which highlights the independent nature of literary appreciation. Secondly, the term refers broadly to various kinds of articles and documents in ancient times. Thirdly, it refers to scholars who promote learning through writing and teaching, as well as officials in charge of culture and education.
Among the disciples of Confucius, Ziyou and Zixia have a good knowledge of ancient literature. (The Analects)
At that time, the Han Dynasty was on the rise, with Xiao He codifying laws, Han Xin promulgating military rules, Zhang Cang formulating the calendar and measurements, and Shusun Tong establishing ceremonial rites. Soon, literary talent who excelled in writing and learning took up positions in the imperial court. Lost classics such as The Book of Songs and The Book of History were rediscovered one after another. (Records of the Historian)
Generally speaking, Confucian studies are based on The Book of Rites, as exemplified by Xunzi. Historiography is modeled on The Book of History and The Spring and Autumn Annals, as exemplified by Sima Qian. Metaphysical studies are based on The Book of Changes, as exemplified by Zhuangzi. Literature has its root in The Book of Songs, as exemplified by Qu Yuan. (Liu Xizai: Overview of Literary Theories)