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. Read the rest of this entry »

Unpacking the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms“It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide” (話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分).

These lines open the epic historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature. It is a book that offers incredibly (though perhaps not succinct) insight into the Chinese view of the world, especially history, as the above quote suggests.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in the 1300s by Luo Guanzhong, who is also often attributed with Outlaws of the Marsh, another of the Four Great Novels.

Set in the 2nd and 3rd centuries in China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms chronicles the rough end of the dynasty. It follows the struggles and battles of warlords and nobles as they fought to maintain or gain power. Eventually, three main families come into play, and these become the Wu, Shu and Wei states, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. Read the rest of this entry »