Classic Chinese Novels

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In sinology, the Classic Chinese Novels are two sets of the four or six best-known classic Chinese novels. The Four Classic Novels are Romance of the Three Kingdoms , Journey to the West , Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber . The Six Classic Novels add Rulin waishi and Jin Ping Mei to this list. These are among the world's longest and oldest novels, [1] and they are the most read, studied and adapted works of pre-modern Chinese fiction. [2] [3] [4] [5]


Nomenclature and subgroupings

Several terms have been used to refer to the novels and various subgroupings of them. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Chamber are most commonly grouped as the Four Great Classic Novels (Chinese :四大名著; pinyin :sì dà míngzhù; lit. 'four great masterpieces'). [6] [7] Another term used is Classical Novels (simplified Chinese :古典小说; traditional Chinese :古典小說; pinyin :gǔdiǎn xiǎoshuō). [8] [9] Prior to the composition of Unofficial History of the Scholars and the Dream of the Red Chamber, the earlier four began to be referred to as the Four Great Masterworks (四大奇书; 四大奇書; sì dà qíshū; 'four extraordinary books'). [10]

In chronological order, they are:

EnglishSimplified ChineseTraditional ChinesePinyinAttributed toCentury
Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义 三國演義Sānguó Yǎnyì Luo Guanzhong 14th
Water Margin 水浒传 水滸傳Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn Shi Nai'an [lower-alpha 1] 14th
Journey to the West 西游记 西遊記Xī Yóu Jì Wu Cheng'en 16th
Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 紅樓夢Hónglóu Mèng Cao Xueqin 18th

The other two novels are:

EnglishSimplified ChineseTraditional ChinesePinyinAttributed toCentury
The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅 金瓶梅Jīn Píng MéiThe Scoffing Scholar of Lanling 16th-17th
The Scholars 儒林外史 儒林外史Rúlín Wàishǐ Wu Jingzi 18th


Chinese fiction, rooted in narrative classics such as A New Account of the Tales of the World , Soushen Ji , Wenyuan Yinghua , Great Tang Records on the Western Regions , Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang , Taiping Guangji and official histories, developed into the novel as early as the Song dynasty. The novel as an extended prose narrative which realistically creates a believable world of its own evolved in China and in Europe from the 14th to 18th centuries, though a little earlier in China. Chinese audiences were more interested in history and were more historically minded. They appreciated relative optimism, moral humanism, and relative emphasis on collective behavior and the welfare of the society. [11]

The rise of a money economy and urbanization under the Song Dynasty led to a professionalization of entertainment which was further encouraged by the spread of printing, the rise of literacy, and education. In both China and Western Europe, the novel gradually became more autobiographical and serious in exploration of social, moral, and philosophical problems. Chinese fiction of the late Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty was varied, self-conscious, and experimental. In China, however, there was no counterpart to the 19th-century European explosion of novels. The novels of the Ming and early Qing dynasties represented a pinnacle of classic Chinese fiction. [12]

The scholar and literary critic Andrew H. Plaks argues that Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West as well as Jin Ping Mei (not considered one of the four classic novels but discussed by him as one of the four masterworks of the Ming dynasty) collectively constituted a technical breakthrough reflecting new cultural values and intellectual concerns. Their educated editors, authors, and commentators used the narrative conventions developed from earlier storytellers, such as the episodic structure, interspersed songs and folk sayings, or speaking directly to the reader, but they fashioned self-consciously ironic narratives whose seeming familiarity camouflaged a Neo-Confucian moral critique of late Ming decadence. Plaks explores the textual history of the novels (all published after their author's deaths, usually anonymously) and how the ironic and satirical devices of these novels paved the way for the great novels of the 18th century. [13]

Plaks further shows these Ming novels share formal characteristics. They are almost all over 100 chapters in length; divided into ten chapter narrative blocks which are broken into two to three chapter episodes; arranged into first and second halves which are symmetrical; and arrange their events in patterns which follow seasons and geography. They manipulated the conventions of popular storytelling in an ironic way in order to go against the surface meanings of the story. Three Kingdoms, he argues, presents a contrast between the ideal, that is, dynastic order, and the reality of political collapse and near anarchy; Water Margin likewise presents heroic stories from the popular tradition in a way that exposes the heroism as brutal and selfish; Journey to the West is an outwardly serious spiritual quest undercut by comic and sometimes bawdy tone. Jin Ping Mei is the clearest and most sophisticated example; the action is sometimes grossly sexual, but in the end emphasizes conventional morality. [14]


The four novels were highly influential in the development of vernacular works in Chinese literary history. Traditionally, fiction and drama were not held in "high regard" in the Chinese or East Asian literary hierarchy, [15] and they were generally not seen as true "literature" by scholars. [1] Writers in these forms would not have the same level of prestige as poets or scholars of Chinese classics would have had.

All four of the novels were written in a style that is a mixture of vernacular and classical Chinese, [1] with some that are more completely vernacular than the others. [16] For instance, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is known for its mix of classical prose with folklore and popular narratives, [17] while the Dream of the Red Chamber is known for the use of poetry within its mostly vernacular style. These four novels are thought to have popularized, and more importantly "legitimatized" the role of vernacular literature among the literary circles of China.

The term "classic novels", writes Andrew H. Plaks, is a "neologism of twentieth-century scholarship" which seems to have come into common use under the influence of C. T. Hsia's Classic Chinese Novel. [18] Paul Ropp, following Hsia's selection, [19] notes that "an almost universal consensus affirms six works as truly great", including, in addition to those above, Jin Ping Mei by Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng and The Unofficial History of the Scholars by Wu Jingzi. [20]

Because of its explicit descriptions of sex, Jin Ping Mei has been banned for most of its existence. Despite this, many if not most scholars and writers, including Lu Xun, place it among the top Chinese novels. [21]

See also


  1. There is considerable debate on the authorship of Water Margin. While most attribute the novel to Shi Nai'an, there were some who believe that the novel, or portions of it, was written by others, such as Luo Guanzhong (the author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms ), Shi Hui (施惠) and Guo Xun (郭勛).

Related Research Articles

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Chinese culture Overview of the Chinese culture

Chinese culture is one of the world's oldest cultures, originating thousands of years ago. The culture prevails across a large geographical region in East Asia and is extremely diverse and varying, with customs and traditions varying greatly between provinces, cities, and even towns as well. The terms 'China' and the geographical landmass of 'China' has shifted across the centuries, with the last name being the Great Qing before the name 'China' became commonplace in modernity.

<i>Romance of the Three Kingdoms</i> One of Chinas Four Great Classical Novels

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th-century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, starting in 169 AD and ending with the reunification of the land in 280 by Western Jin. The novel is based primarily on the Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), written by Chen Shou.

<i>Journey to the West</i> One of Chinas Four Great Classical Novels

Journey to the West is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Ming dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng'en. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. It has been described as arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia. Arthur Waley's abridged translation, Monkey, is known in English-speaking countries.

Luo Guanzhong Chinese writer

Luo Ben, better known by his courtesy name Guanzhong, was a Chinese writer who lived during the Ming Dynasty. He was also known by his pseudonym Huhai Sanren. Luo was attributed with writing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

<i>Water Margin</i> 14th-century Chinese novel

Water Margin is a 14th-century Chinese novel attributed to Shi Nai'an. It is also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers. Considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, the novel is written in vernacular Chinese rather than Classical Chinese.

Shi Nai'an was a Chinese writer from the Yuan and early Ming periods. Shuihu zhuan, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, is traditionally attributed to him. There is little reliable evidence for his biography, much less his literary activity.

<i>Jin Ping Mei</i> 1610 Chinese naturalistic novel

Jin Ping Mei —translated into English as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus—is a Chinese novel of manners composed in vernacular Chinese during the latter half of the sixteenth century during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The author took the pseudonym Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng (蘭陵笑笑生), "The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling," and his identity is otherwise unknown. The novel circulated in manuscript as early as 1596, and may have undergone revision up to its first printed edition in 1610. The most widely read recension, edited and published with commentaries by Zhang Zhupo in 1695, deleted or rewrote passages important in understanding the author's intentions.

The Xingshi Yinyuan Zhuan, also translated as Marriage Destinies to Awaken the World, Tale of Marriage Destinies That Will Bring Society to Its Senses and A Romance to Awaken the World, is a Chinese classical novel of the late Ming or early Qing dynasty. One recent scholar calls it "one of China's most underrated traditional vernacular novels", a saga of two families, one a reincarnation of the other, whose "catalog of vices and moral decay conjures up the apocalyptic vision of a doomed nation".

Hsia Chih-tsing or C. T. Hsia was a Chinese literary critic, scholar, and translator. He contributed to the introduction of modern Chinese literature to the Western world by promoting the works of once marginalized writers in the 1960s. Today, C. T. Hsia is considered one of the most important critics of Chinese literature.

Gods and demons fiction is a subgenre of fantasy fiction that revolves around the deities, immortals, and monsters of Chinese mythology. The term shenmo xiaoshuo, which was coined in the early 20th century by the writer and literary historian Lu Xun, literally means "fiction of gods and demons". Works of shenmo fiction include the novels Journey to the West and The Investiture of the Gods.

Caizi jiaren is a genre of Chinese fiction typically involving a romance between a young scholar and a beautiful girl. They were highly popular during the late Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty.

Ping Shan Leng Yan is a classic novel of the caizi jiaren genre written in 1658 in early Qing Dynasty China. The title of the book is derived from the surnames of the two couples featured in the book. The novel is sometimes attributed to Di An Shanren, but the authorship is uncertain. It is often attributed to Tianhua Zang Zhuren (天花藏主人), a pseudonym meaning "Master of the Heavenly Flower Sutra". Yu jiao li and Ping Shan Leng Yan were both written by the same Tianhua Zang Zhuren according to a style analysis by caizi jiaren scholar Qing Ping Wang. Classical Chinese scholar and Yale professor Chloë Starr lists Ping Shan Leng Yan along with Yu jiao li and Haoqiu zhuan as one of the three best-known examples of the caizi jiaren genre.

Mao Zonggang, and his father, Mao Lun were Qing dynasty editors and commentators who influenced the conception of the Chinese novel.

Zhang Zhupo, alt. name Daoshen (道深), courtesy name Zide (自得), was an early Qing dynasty literary critic, commentator, and editor of fiction best known for his commentarial edition of the novel The Plum in the Golden Vase.

Patrick Dewes Hanan was a New Zealand scholar of Chinese literature who was the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. A Sinologist, he specialised in pre-20th-century vernacular fiction.

Andrew Henry Plaks is an American sinologist who specializes in the study of the vernacular fiction of the Ming and Qing dynasties. From 1973 to 2007 he taught at Princeton University, becoming full professor in 1980. He moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2007, where he is currently Professor of East Asian Studies.

<i>A Brief History of Chinese Fiction</i>

A Brief History of Chinese Fiction is a book written by Lu Xun as a survey of traditional Chinese fiction. It was first published in Chinese in 1930, translated into Japanese, Korean, German, and then into English in 1959 by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi. It was the first survey of Chinese fiction to be published in China, and has been influential in shaping later scholarship.

David Tod Roy was an American sinologist and scholar of Chinese literature who was Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at University of Chicago from 1967 until he took early retirement in 1999. Roy is known for his translation of Jin Ping Mei, published in five volumes by Princeton University Press 1993–2013. It stands alongside the Four Great Novels of the Ming dynasty. Where earlier translations omitted many passages, especially the sexual ones, Roy was the first to render the whole novel into English.

<i>The Embroidered Couch</i> Chinese erotic novel

Xiuta yeshi, translated into English as The Embroidered Couch, is a Chinese erotic novel composed during the late Ming dynasty by playwright Lü Tiancheng (呂天成) under various pseudonyms. Believed to be one of the oldest erotic novels published in China, Xiuta yeshi has been constantly banned or censored since its publication, while being poorly received by literary critics. A complete English translation by Lenny Hu was published in 2001.


  1. 1 2 3 "Big Little Talk (Review of Lin Yutang, Moment in Peking)". Time . November 20, 1939.
  2. Hsia, C. T. (2016). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. Chinese University Press. p. 3. ISBN   9789629966577.
  3. Berry, Margaret (2010). The Chinese Classic Novels (Routledge Revivals): An Annotated Bibliography of Chiefly English-Language Studies. Routledge. ISBN   9781136836589.
  4. Rolston, David L. (2014). How to Read the Chinese Novel. Princeton University Press. ISBN   9781400860470.
  5. France, Peter (2001). The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780199247844.
  6. Shep, Sydney J. (2011), "Paper and Print Technology", The Encyclopedia of the Novel, Encyclopedia of Literature, Vol. 2, John Wiley & Sons, p. 596, ISBN   9781405161848, Dream of the Red Chamber ... is considered one of China's four great classical novels
  7. Li Xiaobing (2016), "Literature and Drama", Modern China, Understanding Modern Nations, Sta Barbara: ABC-CLIO, p.  269, ISBN   9781610696265, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, A Dream of Red Mansions, and Journey to the West have become the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese literature.
  8. Plaks, Andrew H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch'i-shu. Princeton University Press. p. 4. ISBN   9781400843930.
  9. France, Peter (2001). The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford University Press. p. 232. ISBN   9780199247844.
  10. Plaks, Andrew H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch'i-shu. Princeton University Press. ISBN   9781400843930.
  11. Ropp (1990), p. 310-311.
  12. Ropp (1990), p. 311.
  13. Andrew H. Plaks, Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 497-98.
  14. Plaks, Four Masterworks, Ch 6 summarizes this argument.
  15. Mark Bender, Literature in East Asia Archived 2012-03-30 at the Wayback Machine
  16. Anne Elizabeth McLaren (1998). Chinese popular culture and Ming chantefables. Brill. p. 4. ISBN   90-04-10998-6.
  17. Dale, Corinne H. (2004). Chinese aesthetics and literature: a reader. SUNY Press. p. 110. ISBN   0-7914-6021-5.
  18. Plaks (1987), p. 4.
  19. Hsia (1968).
  20. Ropp (1990), p. 317.
  21. Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1959), pp. 232–234.

Further reading

For critical studies specific to the individual novels, see their separate articles.