The Four Classic Chinese Novels

Eighteen years ago, I collected a much coveted PS2 system on release, and had to choose a game to go with it. I picked Dynasty Warriors 2 as the best of a limited selection, and ended up rather enjoying. One unintended consequence of this was that I learnt of the existence of the material that inspired it – the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In due course, I read and enjoyed two English translations of ROTK.

A few years later, and I discovered that other Japanese franchises I enjoyed were also inspired by famous Chinese novels. Suikoden was inspired by The Water Margin, whilst Dragonball, of all things, had lifted some ideas from Journey to the West. I made my way through The Water Margin, aka Outlaws of the Marsh, in 2005, and finally got down to tackling Journey to the West in early 2012.

This year, I finally got around to the fourth in the quartet of the so-called Four Classic Chinese Novels – A Dream of Red Mansions. Of course, it was at that point that I learnt that some people view there to be six great Chinese novels – with The Scholars and The Plum in the Golden Vase rounding out the set. I’ve managed to get a copy of The Scholars on Kindle, which I will read in due course, but the infamously raunchy The Plum in the Golden Vase is a massive epic which retails at £125 for five separate volumes – print or Kindle. I intend to read it, but I may have to save up gift vouchers first.

Anyway, since it may well take me another decade to get around to reading those two, I thought I’d write a little about all four of the novels I have read.

Common Threads

Even though their stories are very different, from a Western perspective there are some broad similarities between all four novels.

  • They are long. Each one of these novels is 100-120 chapters each, running to hundreds of thousands of words. For each one I tackled, I set a strict regime of reading 1-3 chapters per day, so that the endeavour didn’t drag on indefinitely.
  • Each chapter is headed up by two sentences that describe the main events of the chapter. This might seem an odd approach, since it can and does spoil the events of the chapter, but you quickly get used to it. Sure, you know what’s going to happen, but you read on because you want to understand the context of how and why it happens.
  • Chapters tend to end with a contrived cliffhanger or enticement to read on. Guess what – it often works!
  • There are lots of characters. ROTK, Water Margin and Dream of Red Mansions all boast massive casts of recurring characters, many with similar names. It’s probably easier for native speakers, but from a Western perspective, it can take a while to get the names and relationships between similarly-named characters all straight.
  • There’s a distinctive narrative style, of course, but as a non-Chinese speaker I can’t say how much is the original flavour of the text, and how much comes from the translation. All of the novels are a few hundred years old, and the English translations commonly available date from the mid to late twentieth century. Fresh translations would no doubt read differently, but I can’t imagine anyone is willing to undertake that work.
  • All of the books are packed with cultural references that will sail right over the head of most people not steeped in Chinese history and literature. Red Mansions, as the youngest of the quartet, even drops in references to the other novels. For my first read of Three Kingdoms, I used an online translation that also had numerous user-contributed footnotes and discussions, which made for a much richer experience. Unfortunately, the print and Kindle editions don’t have this facility, so I had to just accept that there were references I would fail to get. There are also certain points where it’s clear that jokes and humorous asides have had to be abandoned in translation.
  • Alongside the challenge of translating prose, each of these books are also packed with poetry. Many of the characters in these novels are fond of quoting couplets or spontaneously coming up with poems, and they have all been translated – sometimes even with rhyming intact. I can’t say I fully enjoyed all the poetry, but it is definitely integral to the flavour of the novels.
  • All of these novels are obviously “of their time” and also of their culture. In all but Red Mansions, named women are few and far between, and even there their roles tend towards getting married and raising children. Honour, face, and noble self-sacrifice are in abundance – more than a few characters kill themselves over what would seem like trivialities to us.

Three Kingdoms

Also known as: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

A historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms tells the tale of the fall of the Han Dynasty and the ensuing Three Kingdoms period, which took place during the 2nd– 3rd centuries.

Like all historical novels, Three Kingdoms is based on real life characters and events, but with a measure of authorial dramatisation. Luo Guanzhong’s retelling of history has a definite bias towards the kingdom of Shu, who are portrayed as plucky and righteous underdogs. Wei, meanwhile, gets the short end of the stick, with its ruler Cao Cao described right from the start as having “grown up licentious and uncontrolled”.

For these reasons, it’s important not to regard the events of Three Kingdoms as an accurate historical account. But with this caveat in mind, it’s still a good read. As well as bringing us plenty of memorable characters, Three Kingdom is packed with scheming and intrigue, both on the battlefield and in the halls of power. Whether you’re a fan of legendary warriors boldly fighting off wave after wave of men, or of schemers carefully manipulating the tide of events, you’ll find plenty to like here.

Selected spin-offs and adapations: ROTK video game series, Dynasty Warriors video game series, ROTK anime, Koihime Musou franchise, Ikki Tousen

The Water Margin

Also known as: Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, The Marshes of Mount Liang

Another 14th century novel with some basis in history, Water Margin tells the story of 108 outlaws who gather at Liangshan Marsh. The novel begins with various episodes telling the origin stories of the most important characters, before bringing all the threads together in preparation for multiple imperial assaults on the stronghold in the marsh. One side effect of this is that you enjoy each character story in turn, but somewhat forget about them each time the focus shifts – then you have to remember who everyone is and how they got there for the latter half of the novel. Along with Journey to the West, this is probably one of the two easier reads of the four.

Selected spin-offs and adapations: Suikoden

Journey to the West

Attributed to Wu Cheng’en, this sixteenth century work tells the tale of the monk Sanzang and his disciples as they head to India to retrieve sacred scriptures. Sanzang’s companions are an unlikely bunch, featuring Son Wukong (aka Son Goku), the mischievous Monkey King; the river ogre Sha Wujing, and the disgraced Heavenly General Zhu Bajie.

Although Journey to the West was inspired by the journey of a real historical monk, everything else is sheer fiction. Sanzang is contantly getting into trouble at the hands of humans and demons alike, forcing his allies to rescue him and save the day. Meanwhile, the Buddha and various other deities watch over the band, sometimes sending them trials to overcome, sometimes saving the day with a handy bit of deus ex machina. If this novel were an RPG, it would be one long escort mission.

It’s more folk tale than high fiction, but Journey to the West is nonetheless a fun ride. It also doesn’t have the massive numbers of characters that the other novels have, so it’s a good one to start with.

Selected spin-offs and adapations: Monkey, Saiyuki, Dragonball

A Dream of Red Mansions

Also known as: Dream of the Red Chamber, Story of the Stone

A Dream of Red Mansions is probably the least well known of the four novels in the West, and it certainly lacks the same plethora of spin-offs and adaptations as the others. However, it’s also a novel that boasts a rich thread of dedicated academic study, known as “redology”.

Red Mansions is the baby of the family, dating from the eighteenth century. Written by Cao Xueqin, the novel tells the tale about the fall from grace of the rich yet spendthrift Jia family, and is believed to be semi-autobiographical in nature. There’s some debate as to the provenance of the last forty chapters, so much so that I was expecting to hit a jarring change of tone upon finishing the eighty “authentic” chapters. In fact, as a lay person reading a translation, the join doesn’t show.

Red Mansions is essentially a lengthy soap opera about the exploits and interactions of the Jia family and their servants. There are love affairs, intrigues, scandals, tragic deaths, and both drama and melodrama aplenty. A lot of the focus is taken up by the younger members of the family, who live with their servants in the specially commissioned Grand View Garden. Life seems idyllic for them, but even in the earlier chapters there are hints that all is not well with family’s finances.

There’s no real overarching narrative, but A Dream of Red Mansions remains absorbing nonetheless. Although the large cast takes a while to get to grips with, there are some truly memorable and standout characters, such as the feisty Wang Zifeng, playful slacker Baoyu, and the formidable Lady Dowager, to name but a few. After spending weeks reading about their lives and exploits, finishing the novel was like saying farewell to good friends.

Unfortunately, much as I enjoyed reading this, the Kindle edition is clearly a straight OCR of the print edition, which means it’s littered with typos and even has some sections where a few paragraphs have been missed out.

Selected spin-offs and adapations: 1987 TV adaptation, 2010 TV adaptation

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