‘The Four Great Classical Novels’ you should read

A total of four classical novels are considered to be the pinnacle of Chinese literature.

“The Great Gatsby”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451”. These novels are great books that deserve a space on your shelf.

For a change of literary scenery, how about looking east instead of west for your next reading material?

China, in particular, has a long and rich literary culture and history that has seen a great number of poems, songs, journals and tales emerge from its writers.

In Chinese culture, four novels in particular are held up as the Four Great Classical Novels, the pinnacle of Chinese literary art.

1. Romance of the Three Kingdoms

“The empire long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been,” begins this novel.

Attributed to Luo Guanzhong, a 14th-century writer, this historical novel is a fictionalised retelling of the events of the real life Three Kingdoms period (169-280AD).

Like GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones, the novel has hundreds of named characters, but it ultimately focuses on the titular three factions that would form, the kingdoms of Shu, Wei and Wu.

Parallels to Game of Thrones can be drawn once again as the novel revolves around the plots, military engagements, interactions and struggles faced by these three feuding states.

800,000 words and 120 chapters in its original form, the novel can be found in bookshelves not only in China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Fans who are fond of bittersweet endings may just enjoy this novel, for it does indeed end the way none, except one, were hoping for.

2. Journey to the West

Frequently adapted into films and television series, this novel was first published in the 16th century.

It is attributed to Ming Dynasty author Wu Cheng’en and tells of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) monk, Xuanzang, and his difficult journey to India to collect Buddhist sacred texts.

Like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the novel is based on real-life events, as Xuanzang really did exist, but Wu added on some fantastical and religious elements to his story.

In the novel, the monk Tang Sanzang, a character based on Xuanzang, is ordained by the Buddha to embark on his quest to India and is given a following of disciples who also act as his bodyguards.

The disciples include the powerful Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King to Western audiences, Zhu Bajie, “Pigsy” in the English translations and Sha Wujing, “Sandy”.

Together Tang and his posse make their way westwards, facing enemies and hardships alike that fail to shake their resolve.

Interestingly, in addition to being a fun adventure story, the novel is also a scathing take on Taoism from a Buddhist perspective and makes light of the traditional Chinese belief in Celestial Bureaucracy.

A good way to learn the long and rich literary culture and history of China is through reading. (Rawpixel pic)

3. Water Margin

Written at about the same time as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this novel is attributed to one Shi Nai’an though some believe that Luo Guanzhong crafted this work as well.

Set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the novel tells of a band of 108 bandits of the Liangshan Marsh and their exploits that ultimately earn them amnesty and accolades from the Imperial government.

Again, this novel takes liberties with actual historical events; in this case, the banditry of an outlaw named Song Jiang and his 108 companions.

Like Robin Hood and his Merry Band, these bandits would become romanticised to be seen as folk heroes rather than petty criminals.

Back then and even now, one of the noticeable themes of the book is to resist corrupt governments just as the bandits did.

The theme was obvious enough for the Ming Emperor Chongzhen to eventually ban the book. Critics on the other hand lambasted its supposedly obscene and explicit language.

4. Dream of the Red Chamber

The youngest of the Four Great Classical Novels, the manuscript for this novel was completed in the middle of the 18th century before being published in 1791.

Written by Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber is said to be partly based on the author’s own family history and also serves as an allegory of the decline of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In the first chapter itself, the author describes how his work is meant to be in the memory of the women he knew throughout his youth, including his friends, relatives and servants.

Essentially a family drama, the novel also offers a valuable look into the daily life and culture of Chinese society back in the 18th century.

Reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, Dream of the Red Chamber tells the tale of the aristocratic Jia clan that eventually crosses the Emperor and loses their wealth.

The protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu has romantic feelings for his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu but is engaged to be married to another cousin, Xue Baochai, a beautiful woman that lacks a connection with Jia.

It is this love triangle, coupled together with the misfortune of the Jia clan, that form much of the plot.