Classic literature that you must read and discover
Written by Juliette Pitt
If you take a look at any Chinese bookshelf in your local library then you’re likely to see a copy of at least one of the Four Great Classical Novels otherwise known as in Chinese 四大名著 (sìdàmíngzhù).
These four books are considered to be the best of Chinese literature and if you are a fan of reading it is great way for you to better understand the history and culture of China.
Indeed, these great classics are those which, in ancient China, laid the foundations for the modern Chinese culture.
So, with that in mind we thought we should provide you with brief summaries of these novels. If you are not a fan of reading or simply too busy to read, there are great television dramas, film adaptations, comic books and even computer games of the original words. But let’s dive in!
#Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义: Sānguó Yǎnyì) was written by Luo Guanzhang (1330-1400 AD). This novel is a historical fiction that tells the story of the political struggles of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu in the period between the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD) and the beginning of the Western Jin dynasty (265 – 316 AD).
Luo based his story on oral traditions that had been passed down by storytellers over generations, as well as actual historical records. The Three Kingdoms has had a great influence on Chinese literature and society and is recognized as a cultural phenomenon which has significantly shaped popular attitudes toward the historical figures, both heroes and villains.
If you don’t have time to read this novel, there are film adaptations namely, the ‘Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon’ and the ‘Red Cliff’ which were released in 2008.
#Dream of the Red Chamber
Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦: Hónglóu Mèng) is a novel written by Cao Xueqin (1715-1763) that tells the story of the rise and fall of the aristocratic Jia family in the Qing Dynasty.
This Chinese love novel is celebrated for its realism, psychological depth and richness of the plot. The book is ranked as the first among the four great classic novels, and some say it is China’s most important novel.
#Fact: There is even a branch of academic studies known as ‘Redology’ 红学 (hóngxué) that is devoted to researching every aspect of the life and work of the author Cao Xueqin.
Again, if you don’t have time to sit and down and read the novel, some of the best films and TV series include Dream of the Red Chamber (1944), A Dream of Red Mansions (1988), and The Dream of Red Mansions (2010).
#Journey to the West
The Journey to the West (西游记: Xī Yóu Jì) is a widely loved novel written by Wu Cheng’en (c.1500-1582) in the Ming Dynasty. It is a fictional re-telling of the seventh century spiritual pilgrimage from China to India made by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang.
Its protagonist is one of China’s most distinctive cultural icons – the Monkey King, a talking monkey with supernatural Taoist powers. The story is quite popular with children due to the comedic nature of the Monkey King and his sidekicks, Pigsy (the talking pig demon) and Sandy (the sand demon).
The Monkey has been a source of inspiration for many dramas, and it has even been represented in the Beijing Opera. Some the most popular film adaptations are Journey to the West (1986), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013), Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017) and The Monkey King 1/2/3 (2014).
Lastly the novel Water Margin (水浒传: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn) was written by Shi Nai’an (1296-1372) in the early days of the Ming Dynasty. The novel tells the story of how a band of 108 brigands from Mount Liang, rebel against justice until they succeed in challenging the emperor.
It is one of the first novels to glamourize a peasant uprising. Its heroes are the 108 outlaws who are forced into hiding by the corrupt Song dynasty government. The outlaws are portrayed as just and righteous who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. There are strong similarities with the legend of Robin Hood in English culture. The best film adaptations are The Water Margin (1972), All Men Are Brothers (2011) and Just Another Margin (2014).
These are great classics of ancient Chinese literature. If you have time do, try to give them a read as they will help to understand better the history and culture of China. Please comment down below of your favorite Chinese novel and why? We would love to hear from you.