Chinese Lit: Four Great Classical Novels

Dream of the Red Chamber artwork

Dream of the Red Chamber scene by Xu Baozhuan (1810-1873). Photo: Wiki Commons

Among China’s greatest and oldest literary achievements are the so-called “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature. In Chinese, these are known as 四大名著 or sì dà míng zhù (“four big masterpieces”).

The novels traditionally included on this list are:

Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’an
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
by Luo Guanzhong
Journey to the West
by Wu Cheng’en
Dream of the Red Chamber
by Cao Xueqin

The last on this list, Dream of the Red Chamber, is also the most recent, written in the 18th century. Before its time, another book called The Plum in the Golden Vase by Lanling XiaoXiao Sheng was considered the fourth great novel. However, the book’s sexually explicit content led to it being replaced by Dream of the Red Chamber and it has subsequently been banned in China for some time.

Of these four classical Chinese novels, both Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber are considered to be the best and are beloved by their fans. Many of these books’ avid readers like to suggest that they are among the best classic works of literature ever written, both in China and anywhere else.

Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin)Also known as Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传; Shuǐ Hǔ Zhuàn) was written in the 14th century and is one of the oldest works of Chinese literature in existence. Attributed to Shi Nai’an, Outlaws of the Marsh was written almost entirely in vernacular Chinese – a great departure for its time. Based on the legendary Chinese outlaw, Song Jiang and his gang of 36 men, Outlaws of the Marsh is set during the Song Dynasty.

The book follows a gang of 108 outlaws who decide to form an army. The gang consists of former soldiers, imperial aides and ranking officers who, for one reason or another, have all grown tired of the corrupt government and become outlaws. They gather together at the Liangshan Marsh to form their rebel group but are eventually granted amnesty by the emperor. Later, the same emperor recruits the outlaw gang to become his own army, fighting to defeat foreign invaders.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three KingdomsRomance of the Three Kingdoms, or 三国演义 (Sān Guó Yǎnyì) was also written during the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong. Based on both historical fact, as well as myths and legends, this novel tells the story of the battling Han Dynasty feudal lords and the eventual rise of the Three States.

Comprised of 120 chapters, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the longest works of Chinese literature in existence. However, it is also one of the most well-read and has been translated into countless works of popular entertainment, from TV series to comic books and big-budget movies.

Read more about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms here.

Journey to the West

Journey to the WestThis 16th century novel written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) comes later than its earlier two counterparts, but Journey to the West (西游记; Xī Yóu Jì) is still considered a Chinese classic. Journey to the West is attributed to Wu Cheng’en, who wrote it as a fictional version of a Buddhist monk’s tale about his journey to India. The monk is accompanied by three superhero-like companions – Monkey, Pigsy and Friar Sand – who help protect him from evil along the way.

Journey to the West is sometimes known simply as Monkey in English. This is a reference to the now-famous character Sun Wukong, otherwise known as the Monkey King. This mythological character has become an iconic element of Chinese literature and myth around the world today.

Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber Easily the most romantic of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦; Hóng Lóu Mèng) is also the newest. Written by Cao Xueqin and published in 1791, Dream of the Red Chamber is also sometimes referred to as Dream of the Red Mansions. The book follows the story of one family whose rise and fall from prestige mirrors that of the Qing Dynasty in which they lived.

The novel is noted for its numerous characters, of which there are around 40 major characters and 500 minor ones. Cao Xueqin wrote the novel largely in Chinese vernacular – most of the characters speak in a Beijing dialect – with unprecedented smatterings of Chinese poetry thrown in throughout the book.


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