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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 poetry—and 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.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Li Zhuowu (1527-1602) commentary.

In the context of the traditional Chinese novel, vernacular writing plays a prominent role because the Chinese novel developed out of the rich oral storytelling traditions in China. The early Chinese novel relates most directly to the vernacular stories called huaben (话本), which were a category of popular stories unique for being written in baihua rather than wenyan (Hsia, 1968; Ma, 1986). In fact, the oral relationship between vernacular Chinese, the huaben stories, and Chinese xiaoshuo themselves is hinted at by the words for these categories: baihua and huaben share the character hua (话), which relates to spoken words, and xiaoshuo includes the character shuo (说) which means ‘talk.’ Additionally, Y. W. Ma highlights that the relationship between plays, a spoken and therefore vernacular art form, and the earlier traditional novels was even stronger than the relationship between written huaben and novels.

This relationship between Chinese novels, oral storytelling and drama, and the vernacular are further emphasized in the texts themselves. Though the final forms of the best-known traditional novels are thought to be the product of well-educated literati editors and writers, they often combined Literary Chinese and the vernacular in one text (Plaks, 2015; Ma, 1986). For example, in perhaps the most famous of traditional Chinese novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi 三国演义), the more artistic descriptions of scenes and people are written in a simpler or more terse form of Literary Chinese, with the vocabulary and prose structure of the classical written form, while conversations and speeches from lower-class characters are given in the vernacular (Hsia, 1968; Ma, 1986).

In addition to the use of vernacular Chinese, Chinese novels and huaben stories share a structure largely inherited from Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) Dynasty oral storytellers and dramas. The chapters of traditional novels are episodic in nature and frequently end on cliffhangers reminiscent of the rhetorical devices used by storytellers and dramatists to draw audiences back for the subsequent performance. They also frequently begin with a couplet that summarizes the contents of the chapter (Hsia, 1968; Ma, 1986). The episodic nature of these novels contributes to their impressive lengths, which frequently include more than 100 chapters and hundreds of thousands of words.

Scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Another important characteristic of the traditional Chinese novel that cannot be overlooked is the idea of authorship. Of the Four Great Classic Chinese novels (sida ming zhu 四大名著), two of them are often considered works of composite authorship, though much effort has gone into a more accurate identification of writers and editors (Ma, 1986). Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan 水浒传) are the products of a long cycle of evolution in popular stories, historical chronicles, and dramas; the novel form of these stories is in many ways an edited and embellished compilation of undetermined authorship subsequently commented on and edited by later scholars and publishers.

The earliest extant edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, is a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) work from 1522 and includes a preface, which may or may not be genuine, from 1494 (Lee, 2010). At the same time, however, a variety of markedly different versions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms exist. The most widely read version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an early Qing Dynasty edition from 1679, a work by the father and son duo Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang. They adapted the 240 chapters of the Ming edition into a compressed and heavily edited 120 chapters (Lee, 2010). Water Margin, another of the four classic Chinese novels, has a similarly complex history of development. The earliest extant editions date from the Zhengde (1506-1521) and Jiajing (1521-1567) periods (named after the ruling emperors) of the Ming, and various versions cite Shi Nai’an as the author and Luo Guanzhong as the editor (Ge, 2016; Plaks, 2015). The different versions of Water Margin include 100 to 120 chapters. Journey to the West (Xi you ji 西游记), the third of the Four Great Classic Chinese novels also developed from Yuan and Ming Dynasty stories and dramas but has a more cohesive style which indicates one author and is attributed to Wu Cheng’en (Ma, 1986; Lee, 2010).

Qing Dynasty copy of Dream of the Red Chamber.

The later Ming novel The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin ping mei 金瓶梅) and the Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong lou meng 哼楼梦) also suffer from ambiguous authorship, though for different reasons than the other three novels mentioned. The Plum in the Golden Vase, one of the Four Masterworks of the Ming (mingdai sida jishu 明代四大奇书), was an erotic novel based on characters from Water Margin. The novel’s author remained anonymous and used the penname Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, but not only because of the erotic content. In the Confucian literary tradition, the use of vernacular and writing fiction was generally disapproved of, thus many fiction authors published their works under pen names to avoid association with a lesser genre. Alternately, they justified their writings as tales meant to warn others, or as merely the reporting of facts (Ma, 1986). This depreciative perspective of fiction-writing and novel-writing can be seen in the Chinese name for novels, xiaoshuo, which directly translates into "small talk."

Finally, Dream of the Red Chamber, the fourth and greatest of the Four Classics of Chinese Novels, was begun by Cao Xueqin, also known as Cao Zhan sometime during the mid-18th century, during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) (Ma, 1986; Hsia, 1968; Lee, 2010). Cao, from a well-known family, died before completing the novel. The first 80 chapters of the novel had been read and commented on by Cao’s social circle during his lifetime under the name The Story of the Stone (shitou ji石头记) and are, except for some later revisions, indisputably his work (Hsia, 1986). However, in 1791, about thirty years after Cao’s death, the standard 120-chapter version of Dream of the Red Chamber was published under the editors Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E, creating controversy over the authorship of the last 40 chapters. Scholars differ on whether Gao E forged the last 40 chapters, whether they were completed and revised by Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E according to material by Cao, or whether the editors revised and commented on a version largely completed by Cao (Lee, 2010; Hsia, 1968).

Despite the extremely complex cycles of development and traditions of critical commentary and multiple editions surrounding the most well-known traditional Chinese novels, each of these novels are both a reflections of Chinese culture and incredibly influential within Chinese culture. The rest of this 101 series will delve further into these sprawling works of classic Chinese fiction and discuss their importance in the Chinese literary canon.

Bibliographical References:

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The classic Chinese novel: a critical introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia University Press.

Lee, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia history of Chinese literature. Columbia University Press.

Ma, Y. W. (1986). Fiction. In W. H. Nienhauser (Ed.), The Indiana Companion to Chinese Literature (pp. 31–48). Indiana University Press.

Nienhauser, W. H., & Ma, Y. W. (1986). The Indiana companion to traditional Chinese literature. Indiana University Press.

Plaks, A. H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i-shu. Princeton University Press.

Image References:

18th Century Print of Dream of the Red Chamber. (n.d.) China Daily. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from

Qing Dynasty copy of Dream of the Red Chamber. (n.d.) Jiang Dong/China Daily. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from

Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Li Zhuowu's Critical Commentary. (n.d.) Library of Congress. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from

Scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. (n.d.) Pentabook. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from


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Mary Behan

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