Jump to content

Classic Chinese Novels

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Four Great Classical Novels)

Classic Chinese Novels (traditional Chinese: 古典小說; simplified Chinese: 古典小说; pinyin: gǔdiǎn xiǎoshuō) are the best-known novels of pre-modern Chinese literature. These are among the world's longest and oldest novels.[1] They represented a new complexity in structure and sophistication in language that helped to establish the novel as a respected form among later popular audiences and erudite critics.

They include the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West, The Plum in the Golden Vase (of the Ming dynasty), Dream of the Red Chamber (The Story of the Stone), and The Scholars (of the Qing dynasty). The Chinese historian and literary theorist C. T. Hsia wrote that these six "remain the most beloved novels among the Chinese."[2]

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese novels inspired sequels, rebuttals, and reinventions with new settings, sometimes in different genres. Far more than in the European tradition, every level of society was familiar with the plots, characters, key incidents, and quotations. Those who could not read these novels for themselves knew them through tea-house story-tellers, Chinese opera, card games, and new year pictures. In modern times they live on through popular literature, graphic novels, cartoons and films, television drama, video games, and theme parks.[3]

Nomenclature and subgroupings[edit]

The literary critic and sinologist Andrew H. Plaks writes that the term "classic novels" in reference to these six titles is a "neologism of twentieth-century scholarship" that seems to have come into common use under the influence of C. T. Hsia's The Classic Chinese Novel. He adds that he is not sure at what point in the Qing or early twentieth century this became a "fixed critical category", but the grouping appears in a wide range of critical writing.[4] Paul Ropp notes that "an almost universal consensus affirms six works as truly great".[5] Hsia views them as "historically the most important landmarks" of the novels of China.[6]

There have been a number of groupings. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin and The Plum in the Golden Vase were grouped by publishers in the early Qing and promoted as Four Masterworks (Chinese: 四大奇書; pinyin: Sìdàqíshú; lit. 'four great masterpieces').[7] Because of its explicit descriptions of sex, The Plum in the Golden Vase was banned for most of its existence. Despite this, Lu Xun, like many if not most scholars and writers, place it among the top Chinese novels.[8] Several Western reference works consider Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber as China's Four Great Classical Novels.[9][10]

Textual history and authorship[edit]

None of the six were published in the author's lifetime. Three Kingdoms and Water Margin appeared in many variants and forms long before being edited in their classic form in the late Ming. There is considerable debate on their authorship. Since the novel, unlike poetry or painting, had little prestige, authorship was of little interest in any case. While tradition attributes Water Margin to Shi Nai'an, there is little or no reliable information on him or even confidence that he existed. The novel, or portions of it, may have been written by Luo Guanzhong, perhaps Shi's student, who was the reputed author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or by Shi Hui (施惠) or Guo Xun (郭勛).[11] Journey to the West is the first to show strong signs of a single author who composed all or most of the text, which became more common in later novels.[citation needed]

In the late Ming and early Qing, new commercial publishing houses found it profitable to issue novels that claimed specific authors and authentic texts. They commissioned scholars to edit texts and supply commentaries to interpret them. Mao Zonggang, for instance, and his father Mao Lun, edited Three Kingdoms and Jin Shengtan edited Water Margin, supplying an introduction to which he signed Shi Nai'an's name. In each case the editor made cuts, additions, and basic alterations to the text, misrepresenting them as restoring the original. They also supplied commentaries with literary and political points that modern scholars sometimes find strained. Their editions, however, became standard for centuries, and most modern translations are based on them. Zhang Zhupo likewise edited The Plum in the Golden Vase. Zhang worked on an abridged and rewritten text of 1695; the 1610 text, however, was a more coherent and presumably closer to the author's intent.[12]

In chronological order of their earliest forms, they are:

English Pinyin Attributed to Century Earliest extant
printed edition
standard recension
Recension year Dynasty of Setting Years of Setting Unabridged English Translations
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms Sānguó Yǎnyì Luo Guanzhong 14th century 1494 (preface)
Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang 1660 Han and Three Kingdoms 168–280 Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor
Moss Roberts
The Water Margin Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn Shi Nai'an
Luo Guanzhong
14th century 1589 Jin Shengtan (71-chapters version) 1643 Northern Song 1120s 71-chapter version: Pearl S. Buck
J. H. Jackson and Fang Lo-Tien
100-chapter version: Sidney Shapiro
120-chapter version: Alex and John Dent-Young (help from John Minford)
The Journey to the West Xī Yóu Jì Wu Cheng'en 16th century 1592 Tang 629–646 Dr. Anthony C. Yu
William Jenner
Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase) Jīn Píng Méi The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling 16th century 1610 Zhang Zhupo 1695 Northern Song 1120s 1610 version: David Tod Roy
1695 version: Clement Egerton and Lao She
The Dream of the Red Chamber Hónglóu Mèng Cao Xueqin 18th century 1791–92 Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E 1792 Qing Early to mid-18th century Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang
David Hawkes and John Minford
The Scholars Rúlín Wàishǐ Wu Jingzi 18th century 1750 1803 Ming Early 16th century Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang


From early times, Chinese writers preferred history as the genre for telling stories about people, while poetry was preferred for personal expression of emotion. Confucian literati, who dominated cultural life, looked down on other forms as xiao shuo (lit. “little talk” or “minor writings”), the term that in later times came to be used for fiction.[13] Early examples of narrative classics include Bowuzhi, 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 Yijian Zhi. The novel as an extended prose narrative that realistically creates a believable world 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.[14]

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.[15]

Until World War II, the dominant sinological scholarship considered all fiction popular and therefore directly reflective of the creative imagination of the masses. C.T. Hsia, however, established the role of the scholar-literati in the creation of vernacular fiction, though not denying the popular subject matter of some texts. Scholars then examined traditional fiction for sophisticated techniques.[16]

The American literary critic and sinologist 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.[17]

Plaks further shows these Ming novels share formal characteristics. They almost all contain more than 100 chapters; are divided into ten-chapter narrative blocks, each broken into two- to three-chapter episodes; are arranged in symmetrical halves; and arrange their events in patterns that 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.[18]


These novels influenced the development of vernacular fiction in later Chinese literary history. Traditionally, fiction and drama were not held in high regard in the Chinese and East Asian literary culture,[19] and they were generally not seen as true "literature" by the literati who dominated intellectual life.[1] Writers in these forms did not have the same level of prestige as poets or scholars of Chinese classics. The late Ming and early Qing dynasty versions of these novels, however, included commentaries that were printed between the lines, so that the reader saw them as part of the text. These commentaries interpreted the text in often strained ways, but established critical and aesthetic criteria, modeled on those of poetry and painting, that gave fiction a new legitimacy.[20]

These novels were written in a mixture of vernacular and classical Chinese,[1] though some were more completely vernacular.[21] For instance, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is known for its mix of classical prose with folklore and popular narratives,[22] while the Dream of the Red Chamber is known for the use of poetry within its mostly vernacular style. These novels popularized and legitimatized the role of vernacular literature in literary circles.[23]

In the late imperial periods, with the widespread of commercial printing, Chinese novels also became heavily circulated across East and Southeast Asia;[24][25] it was reported in 1604, several hundreds of titles of Chinese books came through to the port city of Nagasaki alone,[26][27] and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, estimated over a thousand Chinese titles were imported every year.[28] Their prominence prove to be crucial in the development of literature in these places.[29][25][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Big "Little Talk" (Review of Lin Yutang, Moment in Peking)". Time. November 20, 1939.
  2. ^ Hsia (1968), p. 1–2, 6.
  3. ^ Li (2018), p. 252–253.
  4. ^ Plaks (1987), p. 4.
  5. ^ Ropp (1990), p. 317.
  6. ^ Hsia (1968), p. 31.
  7. ^ Plaks (1987), p. 4–5.
  8. ^ Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1959), pp. 232–234.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Plaks (1987), chapter 1.
  12. ^ Roy, David Tod (2006), "Introduction", The Plum in the Golden Vase, or, Chin P'ing Mei Vol I The Gathering, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, pp. xvii–xlvii, ISBN 0691069328: xx-xxi
  13. ^ Knight (2012), p. 52.
  14. ^ Ropp (1990), p. 310-311.
  15. ^ Ropp (1990), p. 311.
  16. ^ Hegel (1994), p. 408.
  17. ^ Plaks (1987), p. 497-89.
  18. ^ Plaks (1987), Ch 6 summarizes this argument.
  19. ^ Mark Bender, Literature in East Asia Archived 2012-03-30 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Knight (2012), p. 88.
  21. ^ Anne Elizabeth McLaren (1998). Chinese popular culture and Ming chantefables. Brill. p. 4. ISBN 90-04-10998-6.
  22. ^ Dale, Corinne H. (2004). Chinese aesthetics and literature: a reader. SUNY Press. p. 110. ISBN 0-7914-6021-5.
  23. ^ Hsia (1968), p. 4.
  24. ^ Salmon, Claudine, ed. (2013). "Part III: Mainland Southeast Asia; Part IV: Insular Southeast Asia". Literary Migrations: Traditional Chinese Fiction in Asia (17th-20th Centuries). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. pp. 163–271. ISBN 9789814414326.
  25. ^ a b Sun Chang & Owen (2010), p. 269: "...suffice it to say that the circulation of the vernacular Chinese novel had a profound impact on other East Asian countries...In fact, when Japanese writers and scholars later encountered European novels, they often resorted to vernacular Chinese novels and fiction commentaries (...) for interpretative models and strategies."
  26. ^ Brokaw, Cynthia; Kornicki, Peter, eds. (2016). The History of the Book in East Asia. Taylor & Francis. p. 497. ...also suggests strongly that by the middle of the seventeenth century Nagasaki was commonly seen as the main port of entry for Chinese books. At the end of a list of 'Books Razan had already read' by 1604 - an impressive list of over 440 titles...
  27. ^ "'The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction': A literary classic's outsize impact on Japan". The Japan Times. ...fiction that entered Japan from the 17th century was written in the vernacular, a tongue that only a tiny minority of Japanese interpreters in the port city of Nagasaki understood...Understanding this type of fiction required a serious commitment, and a variety of reference guides and dictionaries were published in Japan to facilitate its reading.
  28. ^ Katzenstein, Peter J., ed. (2009). Civilizations in World Politics: Plural and Pluralist Perspectives. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 9780415777117. ...with up to ninety Chinese ships visiting Japan each year during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Japan imported over 1,000 Chinese books each year...
  29. ^ Theo D'haen; David Damrosch; Djelal Kadir, eds. (2011). The Routledge Companion to World Literature. Routledge. pp. 464–475. ISBN 9780415570220. OCLC 900201453. During the Edo period (1603-1868), when early modern Japanese fiction was developed, its greatest influence came from Chinese vernacular fiction.
  30. ^ "Southeast Asian arts - First golden age: King Narai (1657-88)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2 May 2016. ... a royal official composed a Thai translation ... of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The author, Pra Klang, was admittedly a royal official; nevertheless, the work was meant for the people rather than the court. It was followed by a spate of imitations and finally resulted in the development of the historical novel.

Works cited[edit]

  • Chang, Shelley Hsueh-lun (1990). History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novels. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 047210117X. 279p. Explores the Ming world of fiction and ideas of historical change; the hero; social, political, cosmic order and morality; and reactions to the growth of imperial despotism.
  • Hanan, Patrick (1964). "The Development of Fiction and Drama". In Raymond, Dawson (ed.). The Legacy of China. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 115–143. Internet Archive free online HERE. A cogent summary, though superseded on some points.
  • Hegel, Robert E. (1994). "Traditional Chinese Fiction—the State of the Field". The Journal of Asian Studies. 53 (2): 394–426. doi:10.2307/2059840. JSTOR 2059840. S2CID 163011311.
  • —— (1998). Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804730024.. This study argues that the decline in quality of printed editions of fiction from late Ming to mid-Qing shows split into popular and literati novels.
  • Hsia, Chih-tsing (1968). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press. rpr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980; 413p. ISBN 0253202582); rpr. Shatin: Chinese University Press, 2015 ISBN 978-962-996-763-7) . InternetArchive free online HERE. A key introduction for Western general readers to six novels considered in China to be classics: Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi yanyi); Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan); Journey to the West (Xiyou ji); Golden Lotus, or Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinpingmei); The Scholars (Rulin waishi); and Story of the Stone (Hongloumeng or Shitou ji)
  • Knight, Sabina (2012). Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195392067.
  • Li, Wai-yee (2018), "Why Do Classic Chinese Novels Matter?", in Szonyi, Michael; Rudolph, Jennifer (eds.), The China questions: critical insights into a rising power, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, pp. 252–260, ISBN 978-0-674-97940-6
  • Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. (Foreign Languages Press, tr. 1959 Translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi. Various Reprints). China's leading early 20th-century writer surveyed traditional fiction in this pioneering survey, based on a series of 1923 lectures, in order to serve as a basis for modern writers. Internet Archive free online HERE
  • Plaks, Andrew H. (1987). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu Ta Ch'i-Shu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691067082. Free Internet Archive HERE. A seminal exploration of "literati novels". Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin (or, Men of the Marshes), Journey to the West, and Golden Lotus (or Plum in a Golden Vase).
  • Rolston, David L. & Shuen-fu Lin (1990). How to Read the Chinese Novel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691067538. 534 p. Chinese critics of the 17th and 18th centuries wrote commentaries – called dufa ("how to read") – which were interspersed in the text so that the text and the commentary formed one experience for the reader. Scholars in this volume translate and introduce such commentaries for the six now classic novels.
  • Ropp, Paul S. (1990). "The Distinctive Art of Chinese Fiction". In Paul S, Ropp (ed.). The Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. pp. 308–334. ISBN 0-520-06441-0. Introductory article summarizing scholarship in the field.
  • Sun Chang, Kang-i; Owen, Stephen, eds. (2010). The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Vol. II From 1374. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wu, Yenna (1999). "Six Classic Chinese Novels". In Schellinger, Paul (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Novel. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. pp. 1226–1231. ISBN 1579580157.. Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi yanyi); Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan); Journey to the West (Xiyou ji); Golden Lotus, or Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinpingmei); The Scholars (Rulin waishi); and Story of the Stone (Hongloumeng' or Shitou ji).
  • —— (2013). Ming-Qing Fiction. Oxford Online Bibliographies (Chinese Studies). Oxford University Press. Retrieved June 16, 2014. Annotated bibliography of books and articles in Western languages and Chinese (subscription required).

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]