Mar 25, 2013


The Four Great Classical Novels

The Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature are the four novels commonly counted by scholars to be the greatest and most influential in classical Chinese fiction. In chronological order, they are Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Guo Yan Yi) written in the 14th century, Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh) in the 14th century, Journey to the West (Xi You Ji) in the 16th century, and Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng, also known as The Story of the Stone) in the late 18th century.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, is a Chinese historical novel based on events in the turbulent years toward the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220-280).

Three Kingdoms refers to a period of time after the fall of the Han Dynasty in China. It was so named because it was marked by the struggle of three rival kingdoms--the Kingdom of Wei (220-265), the Kingdom of Shu (221-263) and the Kingdom of Wu (222-280)--for control of China. Wei was always the most powerful kingdom and conquered the Shu kingdom in 263. As the Sima clan had effectively wrested control of Wei away from the Cao family, Sima Yan formally seized the throne in 265 and established the Jin Dynasty (265-420). The Kingdom of Wu was later conquered in 280 resulting in the unification of China.

The epic novel Romance of Three Kingdoms was based on this period. The author Luo Guanzhong combines realist and romantic styles in writing the novel. The basic expressive technique is realist, but the arrangement of some plots and the portraying of the historical figures are at times full of romantic color.

The structure of the novel centers on the conflict between the two kingdoms, Shu and Wu, with the plot evolving around the struggles between the three powers, Wei, Shu, and Wu. The kingdom of Shu was lead by Liu Bei, a descendant for the Han nobility with the strongest claim for legitimacy in the pursuit for power. His archenemy is Cao Cao, a ruthless but brilliant, poem-writing general who led the kingdom of Wei (220-265). Liu Bei is aided by Guan Yu, the epitome of chivalry, and Zhang Fei, a fiercely loyal but rash warrior. Rounding out the top players is Zhuge Liang, a taoist scholar and master strategist with almost supernatural abilities.

The novel, while maintaining consistency in the development of plot, is full of complexities and variations. Its structure achieves a combined grandness and compactness rarely seen in Chinese classic novels. The novel describes all types of struggles and warfare among different political cliques through the vivid recounting of a series of intricate stories.

Water Margin


Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh) was written in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by Shi Nai'an.

Water Margin is vaguely based upon the historical bandit Song Jiang and his thirty-six companions. Folk stories about Song Jiang circulated during the Southern Song (1127-1279) and stories about the bandits of Liangshan became popular as subject for Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) drama. During this time the material on which the Water Margin was based evolved into what it is today. Song Jiang's bandits were expanded to number 108, and though they came from different backgrounds, all eventually come to occupy Liangshan. The novel details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the early 12th century.

Water Margin is written as a series of loosely connected stories and therefore may not lose as much from abridgement. 108 superheroes do not all appear at once. In fact the book is about how the bandits get together and join the group one at a time or in small groups to escape some injustice perpetrated by corrupt officials.

People say that the story of heroes of the greenwoods who are leading characters of Water Margin is China's greatest novel of chivalry. Most importantly the novel depicts comrades among these men and the spirit of justice and accordance to the traditional ideals of the peasants. Therefore Water Margin has gained wide acceptances among the city dwellers as well.

Journey to the West


Journey to the West was written in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by Wu Cheng'en (approximately 1500-1582). As one of the four famous novels in Chinese literature, it is referred to as the most brilliant Chinese mythological novel.

Journey to the West tells the story of how Xuan Zang, a Buddhist monk of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), endures countless difficulties imposed by various monsters and demons, and finally traveled west to India assisted by his three disciples:

Journey to the West is the mythological novel retelling the adventures of a Tang Dynasty (618-907) Buddhist Monk Xuan Zhang and his three disciples, Monkey King (Sun Wu Kong), Pigsy (Zhu Ba Jie), and Friar Sha (Sha Wu Jing), as they travel west to India in search of Buddhist Sutra. Xuan Zhang and his disciples have to experience the so-called 81 difficulties to reach the spiritual state of immortal. Monkey King, Pig, and Friar Sha have to guard their master and battle hordes of demons who all want to capture him and eat his flesh for immortality. The story is full of magic, demons, gods, immortals, and scrumptious action and adventure!

The Monkey King is the most brilliant figure in the novel. He loves freedom and has a fighting spirit. He is arrogant and unyielding in the face of gods and Buddha, but at the same time is very obedient and loyal to his master. Xuan Zang's character embodies both the piety of a Buddhist monk and the stubbornness of a feudal scholar. The author criticizes Xuan Zang's timidity and incompetence by contrasting his character to Sun Wukong's bravery and resourcefulness. Pigsy is an important foil in the novel. He is rude and avaricious, and lusts after women. His arrogance and self-pitying behavior brings much comic relief to the novel.

Dream of Red Mansions


Dream of Red Mansions was written in late the 18th century by Cao Xueqin (1715-1763).

The novel is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the fortunes of Cao's own family. As the author details in the first chapter, it is intended to be a memorial to the women he knew in his youth: friends, relatives and servants. Cao was born into a noble and powerful family, which was reduced from extreme prosperity to poverty in his lifetime. The life of luxury in his boyhood acquainted him with the ways of noble families and the ruling class, while poverty in his later life enabled him to observe life more clearly and penetratingly. Based on his own understanding of life and with his progressive ideas, serious attitude, and high craftsmanship, he was able to create Dream of Red Mansions, a book regarded as the pinnacle of the Chinese classical novel.

The novel itself is a detailed, episodic record of the lives of the extended family, which occupies two large adjacent family compounds in the capital. Their ancestors were made Dukes and, at the beginning of the novel, the two houses still comprised one of the most illustrious families in the capital. Originally extremely wealthy and influential, with a female member made an imperial concubine, the family eventually fell into disfavor with the emperor, and had their mansions raided and confiscated. The novel is a charting of the family’s fall from the height of their prestige, centering around some 30 main characters and more than 400 minor players.

The novel is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters (most of them female) and psychological scope, but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of 18th-century Chinese aristocracy.


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