This is part of Read Yourself Happy’s #readtheworld series. Every other month, a new country will be selected, and we’ll examine literature and culture for that location. If you would like to participate this month, use the hashtag #readtheworldchina.
When you start learning about Chinese literature, you will undoubtedly come across the Four Chinese Classics – four (very long) books that are essentially the foundation of Chinese literature. I wanted to take a moment today and share some information about those four books, including the one I’m currently reading.
All of these books were written hundreds of years ago, and although each book is contributed to a specific author, in all cases that authorship is somewhat contested.
One of the reasons these four novels are so important is that they use vernacular Chinese rather than Classical Chinese, making the works more accessible. These four novels are still influential today.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong
Written in the 14th century, this novel is about political intrigue during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history at the end of the Han dynasty and follows hundreds of characters.
Although Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fictional novel, the battles detailed in the book are real. At the end of the Han dynasty, the lands were divided up and ruled by three separate rulers: Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan. This novel examines the politics of this era alongside some more fantastical elements, such as avenging ghosts.
Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en
Journey to the West was written in the 16th century and is probably the classic that Americans are most familiar with due to its prevalence in films and popular culture. It was the first novel to put ancient Chinese myths into writing.
The story follows Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk, as he travels on a sixteen-year pilgrimage through western China. It draws on Buddhism, Chinese folktales, mythology, Taoism, and pantheism for its characters, including Xuanzang’s three disciples – a monkey, a pig, and a river ogre.
There are countless adaptions of this novel and aspects of it in both Chinese and American television and film.
Water Margin by Shi Nai’an
Also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, this book was written in the 14th century and was actually the first of these four to be released. This is the book I’m currently reading, after being prompted by my boyfriend who had a copy of all three volumes and loved it when he read it in college.
Set in the Song dynasty, the novel follows a group of outlaws. Before I started reading Outlaws of the Marsh I was incredibly intimidated by its huge cast of characters – 108 in total. After starting it, however, it actually flows incredibly well, and it’s easy to keep track of them all.
Supposedly, this novel is based on a real-life outlaw named Song Jiang who lived during the 12th century, so it is partially based in fact.
I’m not very far into it yet, but what I’ve noticed so far is that many of the characters are not happy with the status quo and actively go against it. The stories are accessible to modern readers because they focus on the people themselves. I’m really enjoying reading my way through this classic novel.
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
Written in the 18th century, Dream of the Red Chamber is the most modern of the four classics. The author, Cao Xueqin, wrote about the financial decay of both his family and the entire Qing dynasty. The novel also examines the Chinese aristocracy, as well as other aspects of Chinese culture such as art and medicine. I’ve seen in compared to Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet in some descriptions because of the love story in it.
Have you read any of these books? Let me know down in the comments!
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