The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today. It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times. I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know! This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
Last week, The Refined Reader looked at the top best-selling novels which included a novel called Dream of the Red Chamber which I had never heard of before. When I read about that book I discovered it was part of a special group of novels in Chinese culture which are seen as the pinnacle of pre-modern Chinese Literature. These four books are extremely influential and popular in China, and I thought it would be interesting to find out why they are culturally so important. The four books are:
The Water Margin by Shi Nai'an (written during the Song dynasty - 14th century)
This book is about a large group of outlaws (over 100!) who fought against the harsh feudal system of the Song dynasty and who repulsed the government troops who tried to subdue them. I read that this book is reminiscent of Robin Hood and features many connected individual tales.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (written during the Yuan (or Ming) dynasty - 14th century)
This book is a semi-historical and semi-fictional account of the Three Kingdoms period in history when the Han dynasty was broken up into rival kingdoms. The story is a complex narrative of dramatic intrigues, battles and corruption.
Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en (written during the Ming dynasty - 16th century)
This is a fantastical tale of a journey by a monk and his protectors - one of whom is a very intelligent monkey, and one who is a dragon prince who takes the form of a white horse. Of course this epic novel is popular as a children's story but it is an allegorical tale of individuals seeking enlightenment.
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (written during the Qing dynasty - 18th century)
As I mentioned in last week's post, this book is a soap opera-ish drama of two ruling clans in the Qing dynasty. "Red Chamber" is a Chinese idiomatic expression for the "sheltered chambers where the daughters of wealthy families lived." This book is also the most recent novel on this list.
There are a few things these four books have in common - they were partially written in vernacular Chinese which made novels written in vernacular much more accepted in Chinese culture. There are disputes for all four books on who exactly wrote them (which is surprising to me!) They are epic, complex novels based in historical events and were breakthroughs in the techniques of the novel by using irony and satire. These books also helped give novels prestige in China, when poems and Classical texts were considered more worthy in the 'literary hierarchy.'
And one last thing - there is a fifth unofficial Great Classical Novel which has been largely banned for it's explicit sex scenes. It's called The Plum in the Golden Vase and was written in 1610.
All of these books are very long and feature a large cast of characters (except perhaps for Journey to the West) which is very daunting to me, but I would like to read them one of these days as I find their history so interesting, and I have not read any Classic Chinese novels.
Are you familiar with any of these four novels? Which one sounds the most interesting to you?