The Four Classic Novels of Chinese Literature
Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber; these four novels form the core of Chinese classical literature and still inform modern culture. As with Dante or Shakespeare in Europe, they are touchstones to which Chinese literary culture persistently returns to discover new relevance and fresh insight.
View all trips.
Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, these four novels are the bedrock of Chinese literary culture. Their influence has spread across Asia to inform elements of Japanese, Korean and South East Asian mythology. The writing and dissemination of these four works marked the emergence of the novel form in China as a counterpart to more refined philosophical and poetic works. The more expansive form of the novel allowed for a synthesis of the historical and the mythological, whilst also developing along more accessible narrative lines. These works thus marked a limited but notable democratization of literature which is perhaps most evident in their use of vernacular Chinese, rather than the Classical Chinese which had previously dominated. These four works also revealed the novel’s potential to embrace a multitude of perspectives, and to allow for irony; this permitted writers to voice previously suppressed critiques about the ruling order, whilst also expressing the vast multitude of voices which made up the Chinese populace.
Looking for an expert's perspective.
Back to map, southamerica.
Seductive Southern Italy
Edinburgh And The Scottish Highlands By Train
Complete Portugal By Train
Soulful South Korea
1. south korea.
Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam
Secrets Of Sri Lanka By Train
3. sri lanka.
Published in the 14th century, Water Margin was the first of the four classical novels to be released, and introduced the vernacular form and style which the others would adhere to. The title has been translated in a number of ways, including as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang , and whilst doubts persist over the identity of the author, most attribute it to Shi Nai’an, a writer from Suzhou. The novel is set in the Song dynasty and depicts a group of outlaws who eventually go on to serve the Emperor in battling foreign invaders. It was based on the real life story of the outlaw Song Jiang, who was defeated by the Emperor in the 12th century, and whose gang of 36 outlaws came to populate folk tales throughout China. These folk tales generated a mythology around Song Jiang which led to various dramatic adaptations and printed retellings. These precursors would all go on to inform Water Margin , which condensed and synthesised the various tales which had erupted around the Song Jiang story. Some have attributed Water Margin’s success to its ironic representation of common grievances against the ruling classes. Its depiction of outlaw’s rebellion tapped into resentments held by many during the Ming dynasty, and the novel was indeed banned for a period for its potential for promoting sedition. The novel has gone on to be the subject of numerous modern adaptations, and has continued contemporary relevance in its prototypical tale of rebellion, repression and subservience.
Journey to the West
Perhaps the most influential of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, and certainly the most widely known beyond China’s borders, Journey to the West was written in the 16th century by Wu Cheng’en. It depicts the pilgrimage of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang to India, and his resultant travels through the Western provinces of China, accompanied by his three disciples. Whilst the framework of the story is based on Buddhism, the novel draws on a host of Chinese folk tales and mythology, as well as pantheism and Taoism to create its fantastical cast of characters and creatures. These creatures include various demons who Xuanzang encounters along his travels, and a variety of animal-spirits who assume human form. This latter category includes the three disciples, who are characterised as a monkey, a pig and a river ogre, and who are bound to Xuanzang as they attempt to atone for their past sins. An early and partial English translation of Journey to the West by Arthur Waley was entitled Monkey and focused on the exploits of this character, which has also been the case with many subsequent adaptations. Journey to the West was an early example of the Shenmo genre, which incorporated a range of fantastical fiction focusing on the exploits of gods or demons, and was very prominent in the rise of vernacular Chinese literature during the Ming dynasty, as the centuries old folk tales were written and disseminated for the first time. Journey to the West was the most famous example of the Shenmo, and remains omnipresent in China, in a huge variety of adaptations. The novels continued relevance is a reflection of its paradigmatic qualities, as with the Greek myths of Homer, it set down the ancient myths of Chinese culture for the first time, and remains a repository for those myths even today.
Become a Culture Tripper!
Sign up to our newsletter to save up to 800$ on our unique trips..
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
A historical novel which recounts the political intrigue and deceit within the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms combined history, legend and mythology to tell the tumultuous story of this era. This epic tale was written by Luo Guanzhong and incorporates hundreds of characters, weaving a multitude of complicated plotlines in its portrayal of the disintegration of a unified China into three warring kingdoms, the three states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu, and their eventual reconciliation and unification. Romance of the Three Kingdoms remains hugely popular in China, and has had a profound influence on national identity, since it dramatises one of the foundational myths of the nation; that of its disintegration and unification. The belief in the cyclical nature of history is expressed succinctly in the opening line of the novel: ‘It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide’. The complexity of the political world it depicts, as well as its epic length and density, can make reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms a challenge. However it remains a uniquely potent work, which informs Chinese political consciousness event today in a way that rivals Shakespeare’s place in English self-identity.
Dream of the Red Chamber
Written in the mid-18th century during the Qing dynasty, Dream of the Red Chamber was the last of the four great novels of Chinese literature to gain prominence. It is a semi-autobiographical work which focuses on the financial and moral decay of author Cao Xueqin’s family and by extension the Qing dynasty. Recognized for its formal beauty and innovation, Dream of the Red Chamber has spawned a scholarly field of its own, ‘Redology’, which is still a thriving academic subject in China. The novel is markedly more nuanced and precise than its fellow classics, and it offers an incredibly detailed rendering of the life of 18th century Chinese aristocracy, paying particular attention to the complexities of social conventions in this esoteric world. The novel is thus a repository for those interested in Chinese culture, granting readers an insight into the religious, social and political world of upper class China. It also offers insight into a wide variety of aspects of Chinese culture, from medicine to mythology and art, all of which continue to inform contemporary culture in China.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
Meet our local insider.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
What do you love about your job, it's the personal contact, the personal experiences. i love meeting people from all over the world... i really like getting to know everyone and feeling like i'm traveling with a group of friends., what destination is on your travel bucket-list, i have so many places on my list, but i would really lobe to go to africa. i consider myself an “adventure girl” and africa feels like the ultimate adventure.
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
See Our Culture Trips
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.
Holiday Sale Offers on Our Trips
- Post ID: 102501
- Sponsored? No
- View Payload
THE FOUR CLASSIC CHINESE NOVELS
Finding your cultural bearings when it comes to an international move can seem daunting, and relocating to a culture as old, vast, and complex as China is especially so! Luckily for new starters to the many seemingly impenetrable sides of Chinese culture, you soon find that there’s a trend for numbering things; be it the number of officially recognized minority ethnic groups in this huge country (fifty-five), distinct regional cuisines (eight), ‘treasures of the study (four), and books and classics of Confucianism (four and five). The most accessible hit list has got to be the Four Classic Novels – some really good English translations (and abridgments, thank goodness!) are available, and these stories are an excellent way to while away the long hours of hotel isolation and quarantine. Already emerged in China and looking for the backstory behind the not infrequent references to a magic monkey chasing a pig? Read on for a short guide to the classics!
Dynasty Warriors: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演) by Luo Guanzhong
An absolute cracker of a novel that one hundred per cent holds its own against The Lord of the Rings and other modern Western adventures, Three Kingdoms is possibly the most famous of the Four Classics, and rightly boasts a huge fanbase around the world. The story revolves around the struggles of Liu Bei (also known as Xuande) as he goes from zero to hero with the help of his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei after their oath in the peach garden. The heroes and villains of Three Kingdoms are as ubiquitous as the characters from Shakespeare, and can be a good starting point when it comes to choosing your Chinese name! The Penguin Classics abridged version is a really comfortable translation (with Pinyin naming conventions), and there are countless movies, TV series, videogames and other spinoffs related to the story. Special mention goes to John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008): maximum ponytails, minimum peach gardens.
Written? Ming Dynasty (probably)
Best Character: Cao Cao
Good translation: Martin Palmer for Penguin Classics (672pp, abridged)
Moral of the story: friendship conquers all, trust no-one, have Lu Bu on your team.
Monkey Business: Journey to the West (西遊記) by Wu Cheng'en
Journey to the West, also known as Monkey and Monkey King is the classic novel with the most bang for your buck when it comes to recognising characters out and about in China (the main character is a magic monkey wielding a huge metal pole, go figure). During my first week in China we had seen Sun Wukong (the monkey) on cartons of juice, in art galleries, adverts and t-shirts… we just couldn’t escape the ape! Journey to the West is a mythical telling of the journey taken during the Tang dynasty by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who braved hostile elements, magical adversaries and the peccadilloes of his sidekicks to reach India and bring back precious sutras to China. I picked up an old out-of-copyright version on my Kindle which was a bit of a monster to get through (there’s a huge prologue involving monkey’s celestial back and forth with different gods), but there is a new translation by the excellent Cambridge sinologist Julia Lovell. My Chinese teacher told me there is a much loved TV adaptation from the eighties – I haven’t watched it, but the screenshots online are… interesting.
Written? Ming Dynasty
Best Character: Pigsy
Good translation: Julia Lovell for Penguin Clothbound Classics (384pp, abridged)
Moral of the story: don’t mess with magic monkeys.
Bad boys for life: The Water Margin （水浒传）by Shi Nai’an
The most swashbuckling of the four classic novels, The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers ) is really more of a collection of tall tales surrounding a huge cast of characters that rebel from a corrupt society to establish a sort of gangster’s paradise at Liangshan Marsh. As with Three Kingdoms , many of these characters (such as Wu Song and Song Jiang) pop up in modern Chinese settings, and the some of the set pieces and stock characters can definitely be found on the streets of twenty-first century Shanghai! This is really a novel about shifting morality in an unjust system, and teaches that camaraderie, bravery and cunning are each important keys to success. I found a cheap and cheerful old translation by JH Jackson available on the Kindle, it’s definitely one for long layovers and extended isolations at over 800 pages, but a swashbuckler of this quality flows so thick and fast you’ll be itching for more by the end.
Written? Yuan/Ming Dynasty
Best Character: Wu Song
Good translation: JH Jackson for Tuttle Classics (850pp, abridged)
Moral of the story: don’t stop for a drink at the inn near Liangshan Marsh!
Lust, caution: Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) by Cao Xueqin
Full disclosure: I didn’t get anywhere near the end of Red Chamber . This epic story (also known as The Story of the Stone ) is a novel of leviathan proportions that is probably best read about – not sure if anyone has been brave enough to try and turn it into a movie or TV series (I certainly wouldn’t be). Basically there’s this baby born with a piece of jade in his mouth, and he grows up amid the splendour of a high-ranking family, goes to parties that usually end with spontaneous poetry competitions, there are (chaste) romances… That’s pretty much as far as I got. This is an immensely complex book, there’s a whole area of study in China known as ‘Redology’ that picks apart its many themes and characters (oh, there are a lot of characters), and it will probably take a second stint in isolation for me to consider picking up Book Two. Penguin have done a five-volume run of the novel – I threw in the towel after round one, you will have earned my undying respect if you make it any further.
Written? Qing Dynasty
Best Character: Jia Baoyu (in the bit I read anyway)
Good translation: HB Joly for Penguin Classics (book one was 323pp)
Moral of the story: err… don’t accept a dinner date at the Jia residence?
Honourable mentions: Golden Lotus and Chinese Studio
Not officially on the list but definitely worth checking out; The Golden Lotus (金瓶梅，also known as The Plum in the Golden Vase ) by an author using the pseudonym ‘The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling’. Golden Lotus is actually a spin-off of Three Kingdoms , chronicling the extra-marital shenanigans of Wu Song’s brother’s wife. Arguably of less literary merit than the big four, but with plenty of sex, violence and partying – the perfect pick me up after Red Chamber anyway! Finally, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. This is a collection of folk stories involving witches, magic, fox spirits (the jury is still out on whether you want to be visited by a fox spirit or not) collected by the seventeenth-century intellectual Pu Songling from his country retreat. Sort of magical realism meets the Brothers Grimm, definitely worth picking up.
If you’re wired anything like me, you see a list and want to start ticking items off it. While it’s probably easier to spend a fortnight tackling the eight cuisines, it is immensely satisfying to get to grips with these incredibly important works of Chinese literature. You will be surprised how many times you meet these fabled characters in adverts, descriptions of modern figures, and places around China , and it’s really rewarding to be able to join the dots. Good luck with the list, and if you’re up to it then let me know how Red Chamber ends!
Apply to Teach NOW
It takes less than five minutes to change your life.
What Are China’s Four Great Classical Novels?
Chinese literature contains four masterpieces known as the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著). Journey to the West , Outlaws of the Marsh , Romance of the Three Kingdoms , and Dream of the Red Chamber were written during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Throughout the centuries, these 100-plus-chapter novels have permeated Chinese culture and been represented in art, film, drama, literature, and more. The stories—from the adventures of the magical Monkey King to heroic episodes from Outlaws —are well-known by everyone in China from children to the elderly. They depict characters who abide by Buddhist, Taoist, and traditional Chinese moral philosophies, offering the reader insight to understanding the traditional Chinese way of thought.
Today their influence has spread across the international community. Shen Yun also presents exhilarating pieces inspired by the Four Classic Novels live on stage each season.
Explore: Monkey Business in the Dragon Palace Capturing Arrows with Boats of Straw Wu Song Beats the Tiger Monkey King at Fire Mountain And more...
- Traditional Chinese Culture
- Chinese Language & Writing
- 1 Official 2024 Trailer is Here!
- 2 Symphony Orchestra is Back – For One Day Only!
- 3 Shen Yun Dancers to Compete in International Event
- 4 Shen Yun 2024 is Ready for Takeoff
- 5 To See or Not to See: 9 Things to Know About Shen Yun
Oxford University Press's Academic Insights for the Thinking World
10 great writers from China’s long literary history
Check a fact, find key, trusted information on a person, concept, or term, or conduct comprehensive research on a specific topic with Oxford Reference , containing over 2 million entries across every subject area.
- By Steven Filippi
- December 5 th 2017
China and its long history goes hand in hand with its rich literary tradition. The Zhou dynasty (1030-221 BC) saw some of the earliest forms of literature, and it was during this time that the writings of Confucius and Lao Tzu were penned, from which the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism arose. Prose poetry flourished under the Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), and the Tang dynasty of the seventh- through tenth-centuries marked the golden age of Chinese literature. The novel arose during the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the following centuries saw the publication of the “ four great classical novels .” The twentieth century brought about the rapid modernization of China and its literature, though censorship during the Cultural Revolution and under communist rule has threatened to halt this transformation.
The names Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu are well-known around the world, but many of China’s poets, philosophers, and novelists remain hidden gems to outsiders. Take a look at the list below and discover 10 of China’s greatest writers, from the end of the Zhou dynasty to the twentieth century.
1. Qu Yuan (339-278 BC) was a statesman and poet during the Warring States period. He has been attributed to the first seven poems of the Chu ci (Songs of Chu). He served under King Huai but was banished after composing the poem “Li Sao” (Encountering Sorrow), which attacked the court for failing to listen to his advice. He committed suicide by throwing himself in a river.
2. Wang Wei (701-761) was a painter, musician, poet, and devout Buddhist. He composed “landscape poems” while roaming the lands near the Wang River, exchanging verses with his friend Pei Di. A Zen Master taught him the doctrine of dunwu (instantaneous enlightenment), and Wei’s later poetry reflects his devotion. He was referred to as Shi fo , or the Buddha of Poetry. The poet Su Shi said of his works: “There is painting in his poetry, and poetry in his painting.”
3. Shi Nai’en (1296-1372) was the author of the first of the “four great classical novels,” though some historians believe his mentor Luo Guanzhong played a role its writing. Not much is known about Shi, but the work attributed to him, Shuihu zhuan ( Water Margin ), about a rebellious leader of outlaws, has been equally banned and celebrated over hundreds of years. Water Margin was written in popular vernacular and expanded on its characters in contrast to the historical writings of the time, advancing the art of the novel.
4. Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400) was a prolific writer who has had many anonymous works attributed to him over the years. Historians agree that the second of the “four great classical novels,” Sanguo yani ( Romance of the Three Kingdoms ), was written by Luo. Over 750,000 Chinese characters long, the novel told the story of three kingdoms over the course of a century. It was based on a historical account and contained historical figures, but also incorporated folk stories and plots from popular dramas of the time.
5. Not much is known about Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500-1582), the author to whom the third of the “four great classical novels,” Xi you ji ( Journey to the West ), is attributed. Loosely based on the historical account of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, the novel humorously followed a group of pilgrims on a journey to India and back. The novel contained religious themes, witty dialogue, and elegant poems, as well as critical commentary on contemporary Ming-era China.
6. The Laughing Scholar of Lanling was the pseudonym of the unknown author of the controversial novel Jin Ping Mei ( The Plum in the Golden Vase ). It has been frequently banned for its pornographic nature since its publication around 1610. American translator David Todd Roy suspected poet Xu Wei (1521-1593) to be its author. Wei was famous for his painting and calligraphy, and he was an early proponent of women’s rights, writing a popular play on the legend of Mulan; however, he was also imprisoned for the murder of his second wife.
7. Cao Xueqin (1715-1763/64) was the author of the fourth of the “four great classical novels,” Honglou meng ( Dream of the Red Chamber ), which told the story of an aristocratic family and its downfall. The novel was written in vernacular and published in two editions: the 80-chapter version reportedly based on Cao’s life, and the 120-chapter “Cheng edition,” published posthumously in 1791 and believed to have been enhanced by the scholar Gao E. Cao’s novel is so important to Chinese literature that an entire field of study called hongxue (redology) arose in the 1920s.
8. Lu Xun (1881-1936) studied medicine in Japan as a young man but ultimately concluded that he was better served as a writer. In 1918, he published his first short story, A Madman’s Diary , the first colloquial story in modern Chinese literature. His writings comprised many genres, from fiction to zawen (satire) to a historical account of Chinese fiction. Mao Zedong called Lu “the standard-bearer” of the new Chinese culture that arose after the May Fourth Movement .
9. Ba Jin (1904-2005), born Li Yaotang, began his career as a poet but achieved fame as a novelist. His most famous novel was Jia ( The Family ); in addition to these novels, he also translated Russian, British, German, and Italian works. Ba Jin’s most famous later work was Suixiang lu ( Random Thoughts ), a painful reflection on the Cultural Revolution in which he was persecuted as a “counter-revolutionary.”
10. Zhang Ailing (or Eileen Chang) (1920-1995) was a student during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. She returned to her home in Shanghai and supported herself by publishing short stories and novels about the plight of women in difficult romantic relationships. She wrote the anti-communist novel Rice Sprout Song in 1952 and moved to the United States three years later, where she wrote novels and screenplays. In 2007, Ang Lee directed a movie adaptation of her novel Lust, Caution .
Featured image credit: Romance of the Three Kingdoms mural at the Long Corridor by Shizhao. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .
Steven Filippi is a Marketing Assistant at Oxford University Press. This list was formulated using A Dictionary of Chinese Literature (ed. Taiping Chang), which can be found on Oxford Reference.
- Online products
We will only use your personal information to register you for OUPblog articles.
Or subscribe to articles in the subject area by email or RSS
No related posts.
That is a good list of great writers in China. But feels like it includes less accomplished writers from the golden ages of Chinese literature, like the Han, Tang and Song Dynasties, even the Three Kingdom era.
Comments are closed.
- Immersion Program
- Learn Chinese Online
- Study Abroad in China
- Custom Travel Programs
- Teach in China
- What is CLI?
- The CLI Center
- Photo Gallery
Chinese Literature from Ancient Times to the Present Day
Learn Chinese in China or on Zoom and gain fluency in Chinese!
Join CLI and learn Chinese with your personal team of Mandarin teachers online or in person at the CLI Center in Guilin , China.
How many Chinese novels have you read? If the answer is still none, you’re in for a treat! Exploring the exciting world of Chinese literature is not only great fun; it’s also an ideal way to expand your knowledge of Chinese culture and history. Read this article to discover the works of some of China’s most well-known authors and poets, both ancient and modern.
Table of Contents
A strong literary tradition
Classical chinese poetry, the romance of the three kingdoms, a dream of red mansions.
- Journey to the West
The Water Margin
Zhang ailing, qiang zhongshu, contemporary chinese literature, happy reading, chinese literary vocabulary.
Moveable type and woodblock printing were both invented in China, and the strong emphasis on education in ancient China , especially among the Confucian elite, meant that there was widespread interest in and understanding of literature, at least among the educated classes, beginning early on in Chinese history.
This historically strong interest in creating and reading works of fiction contributed to the creation of China’s rich literary tradition that continues to exist today.
The most well-known forms of Chinese literature are classical Chinese poetry, especially that of the Tang Dynasty, the Four Great Classical Novels of the Ming and Qing, and the works of modern writers like Lu Xun.
China’s Four Great Classical Novels, among which is the Three Kingdoms , are famous throughout Asia.
The Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) was a high point in terms of China’s cultural development. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that this was also a watershed moment for poetry in China. The Tang dynasty poets Li Bai (李白 Lǐ Bái) and Du Fu (杜甫 Dù Fǔ) are some of the most well-known and celebrated poets in modern China.
Although Li Bai did not invent any new poetic forms, he displayed an unparalleled mastery of existing forms and infused them with his own personality. His poems (诗歌 shīgē) are notable for their use of fantastic imagery and nostalgic sentiments, as well as for their glorification of wine and drunkeness. By contrast, Du Fu’s poetry is much more staid and tends to deal with themes such as history and morality.
Li Bai wrote poems full of strong emotions and fantastic imagery.
During the eighteenth century, many of the most celebrated Tang dynasty poems were collected into an anthology called Three Hundred Tang Poems (唐诗三百首 Tángshī Sānbǎishǒu). This collection has enjoyed immense popularity ever since and a copy can be found in most Chinese households. Many Chinese children today can recite several, if not all, of the poems from memory.
After the Tang dynasty, poetry continued to flourish during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), although a different style of poetry, known as ci (词 cí), became especially popular during this time. To this day, scholars and arm-chair intellectuals continue to debate the question of which period had better poetry, the Tang or the Song.
During the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing dynasties (1636–1912 CE), the ability to compose classical-style poetry became an expected mark of cultural sophistication among China’s elite. Poetry composition was a popular pastime for the wealthy and the educated, who would compete with each other to see who could compose the best verses.
Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty sponsored the work of many Chinese writers and intellectuals.
Classical novels of the Ming and Qing
In addition to Tang and Song dynasty poetry, China’s Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著 sìdàmíngzhù) also deserve a place in any discussion of Chinese literature (文学 wénxué). These massive classical novels are epic in scope and extremely lengthy.
Anyone who plans to spend time in China should gain at least a passing familiarity with the content of each as they continue to be referenced throughout Chinese popular culture today. For example, the Monkey King (孙悟空 Sūnwùkōng), hero of Journey to the West , is the subject of countless modern movies and cartoons.
The beloved Monkey King continues to appear frequently in modern cartoons, TV shows and movies.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义 Sānguóyǎnyì) is a sweeping historical novel that covers a period of nearly 100 years and features almost 1,000 different characters. The work is generally attributed to a Ming dynasty writer called Luo Guanzhong.
The novel is set during the chaotic period that spanned the end of the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE). It focuses on the exploits of various feudal lords who were either trying to restore or replace the Han dynasty. Although the story has been fictionalized and romanticized, it is largely based on actual historical events and people.
Many of the historical figures who play major parts in this novel, including Cao Cao (曹操 Cáo Cāo), Liu Bei (刘备 Liú Bèi) and Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮 Zhūgé Liàng) are still household names in modern China. In fact, many common sayings reference these characters. For example, Cao Cao is portrayed as an unsavory, somewhat evil character in the novel and so today, the common saying 说曹操,曹操到 (shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào) is used to mean “speak of the devil.”
A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦 Hónglóumèng), also called Dream of the Red Chamber , is another prominent classical Chinese novel. Written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, this massive, semi-autobiographical tale charts the decline of a formerly wealthy and influential family. Scholars assert that the decline of this fictional family is meant to mirror the decline of the Qing dynasty .
The novel features a large cast of characters, many of whom are female, that hail from a variety of social classes. The novel also contains many details about everyday life and the social hierarchies that existed at the time. Therefore, it provides a fascinating window into 18th-century Chinese society.
A Dream of Red Mansions is a popular subject of study among scholars in China today, so much so that there is a special field, called Redology, devoted to the topic.
A Dream of Red Mansions explores the private lives and emotions of a sprawling cast of largely female characters.
Journey to the West
Journey to the West (西游记 Xīyóujì) is a Ming-era novel said to have been written by Wu Cheng’en. It is a romanticized account of the real-life pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang , who spent 17 years traveling from China to India and back in search of authentic Buddhist scriptures.
Journey to the West presents a fictionalized account of Xuanzang’s epic journey. In the novel, he makes the pilgrimage with the help of three disciples including a talking monkey (the beloved Monkey King), a former water monster known as Sha Wujing and a talking pig called Zhu Bajie. Throughout their travels, the characters are repeatedly accosted by various demons who they must find ways to outwit.
Journey to the West and the Monkey King character have proved enduringly popular, not just in China, but throughout Asia. This novel has even been called “the most popular literary work in East Asia.”
Journey to the West is based off of a Tang-era monk’s real-life pilgrimage to India.
The Water Margin (水浒传 Shuǐhǔzhuàn), also called Outlaws of the Marsh , rounds out China’s collection of great classical novels. It was written in vernacular Chinese some time in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an.
Set in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 CE), the book tells the story of a band of 108 outlaws who live in Liangshan Marsh, Shandong Province. The outlaws defeat Song government troops during a great battle, after which they are granted amnesty and recruited to fight against various groups of rebels and invaders.
The story is based on popular folktales about the real-life bandit Song Jiang , who led an armed uprising against the Song dynasty.
The Water Margin is full of engaging anecdotes about the lives of the various outlaws of Liangshan Marsh.
Modern Chinese writers
As China emerged from countless centuries of dynastic rule and stepped into the 20th century, great societal and cultural changes shook the country. These sweeping changes were chronicled by the writers of the time.
Lu Xun (鲁迅 Lǔ Xùn), who lived from 1881-1936, is one of the most well-known Chinese writers of the early 20th-century. Deeply affected by the vast socio-political changes that were happening in China during his lifetime, his writing can seem quite sophisticated, even today.
Lu Xun wrote in both classical Chinese and in vernacular Chinese, employing his distinctive ironic and satirical style to compose works of fiction which were sharply critical of society at the time, such as The True Story of Ah Q (阿Q正传 Ā “Q” zhèngzhuàn).
Chairman Mao was a fan of Lu Xun’s writing, which continues to be taught in schools and universities throughout China.
In addition to Lu Xun, another well-known representative of modern Chinese literature is Zhang Ailing (张爱玲 Zhāng Àilíng), also called Eileen Chang , who lived from 1920-1995.
Her novels (小说 xiǎoshuō), which depict everyday life among upper-class families in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1940’s, frequent deal with difficult romantic relationships between men and women. Her works often feature declining aristocratic families with international ties such as her own. She is also known for exploring the social tensions that women experienced in a rapidly changing society.
One of her most well-known works is Love in a Fallen City , which explores the tumultuous relationship between a Chinese divorcée and a foreign-educated bachelor during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong.
Zhang Ailing’s work is full of insights into the 20th-century decline of China’s traditional aristocracy.
Students of modern Chinese literature should also be familiar with the writer Qiang Zhongshu (钱锺书 Qián Zhōngshū), who lived from 1910-1998. His most celebrated work is a satirical novel called Fortress Besieged about the various misadventures of a mediocre student who has just returned from abroad with a fake university degree.
Qiang Zhongshu’s novel follows the student’s romantic exploits, starting with his attempts at courtship and ending with the breakup of his marriage. It takes its name from a French saying which can be translated as, “Marriage is like a fortress besieged. Those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”
Qiang Zhongshu’s work explores the various misadventures of a new breed of Chinese intellectual caught between East and West.
One especially notable contemporary Chinese writer who is still alive today is Mo Yan (莫言 Mòyán), born in 1955, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is known for writing in a style that has been described as “hallucinatory realism.”
Mo Yan’s works are full of social commentary and dark humor. In the West, he is best known for Red Sorghum Clan . This novel served as the basis for the film Red Sorghum , directed by Zhang Yimou, a notable Chinese director who would later receive international recognition for orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Those looking for a lighter read could consider checking out works in the popular subgenre of Chinese fiction known as wuxia (武侠 or wǔxiá). These novels, which experienced a hayday from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, detail the chivalrous exploits of ancient Chinese martial arts heroes.
Recently, Chinese science fiction writers have also been gaining increasing attention thanks to the success of The Three Body Problem (三体 Sāntǐ), the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin (刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn), born in 1963. In a sign of growing international interest in Chinese fiction, both Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg have proclaimed themselves fans of Liu Cixin’s work.
As the Middle Kingdom becomes increasingly influential on the world stage, understanding contemporary China is becoming increasingly important, and what better way to do that than by reading contemporary Chinese fiction?
Exploring contemporary Chinese fiction is a great way to put your finger on the pulse of modern China.
Reading fiction and poetry is an amazing way to improve your language skills and increase your Mandarin vocabulary. The benefits of reading Chinese literature go beyond language, however. In fact, enjoying works of fiction by Chinese writers is perhaps one of the most entertaining and effective ways to expand your knowledge of Chinese society , culture and history.
If you don’t feel up to reading a whole novel in Chinese yet, don’t worry. The majority of the literary works discussed in this article have been translated into English, making them accessible to millions of people around the world.
If you do want to dive into the world of Chinese literature written in Chinese, we invite you to do so with one of the amazing teachers at CLI. No matter what your level, you can also practice your reading skills with the help of CLI’s Graded Readers . Happy reading!
Reading Chinese literary works, whether in Chinese or in translation, is guaranteed to expand your horizons.
Free 30-minute Trial Lesson
- Chinese Culture
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
Copyright 2023 | Terms & Conditions | FAQ | Learn Chinese in China