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Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Traditional Chinese Novel


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetryand looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

1. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Introduction to the Traditional Chinese Novel

2. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

3. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Water Margin

4. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Journey to the West

5. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Plum in the Golden Vase

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

Introduction to the Traditional Chinese Novel

18th century print of 'Dream of the Red Chamber'.

The history of long-form Chinese narratives, often called novels in the Western tradition or xiaoshuo (小说) in Chinese, is a long and complex one filled with cycles of development, the combination of popular and literary culture, and many questions over authorship.

Firstly, when discussing the traditional Chinese novel, it is impossible to avoid the topic of literary and vernacular Chinese. Chinese writing, itself a complex logographic system first documented in oracle bone script dating back to around 1200 BCE, has long been divided into two categories: Literary Chinese, or wenyan (文言), sometimes referred to as Classical Chinese, and the vernacular, or baihua (白话). Since very early in Chinese history, the vocabulary and grammar of Literary Chinese, the written language of Classical Chinese, have been separated from the spoken language. Vernacular writing, as its name indicates, attempted to represent the way the Chinese in its time was spoken. The relationship between Literary Chinese, the vernacular, and the broader Chinese literary tradition is an incredibly interesting one that deserves much more attention.