I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Refined Reader (15) The Four Great Classical Novels

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

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?

Sources:
Wikipedia
China Highlights
Expat-China

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29 comments:

  1. I haven't heard of any of these books before, thanks for sharing the info on them!

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  2. The only book that I recognize is The Water Margin. I visited China a few years ago and bought an English version of it for my grandmother. It looked interesting so I finished it myself before I gave it to her and while the details are a bit blurry, I remember there were a LOT of characters and a lot about politics. I was only 12 when I read it and since it was in broken, rudimentary English sentences, I probably didn't grasp the deepest meaning of that book so hopefully in the future I'll revisit with older eyes, I suppose!


    I haven't heard of the other three so thanks for featuring them! Being from China, I always feel like I should take the lengths to learn more about my background and culture but never really do so this is great! I might have to pick up Dream of the Red Chamber, it sounds interesting! Always down for some drama! :)

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  3. Karen - bookertalkJune 30, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    I don't know any of these but since I am going to be in china later this wek I will ask some of my colleagues here for their thoughts.

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  4. You're welcome! I'm glad to share the knowledge, as I hadn't heard of them before either!

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  5. Well with what I perceive as a very complex book, I am impressed that you read it at 12! I don't know if I would have had the patience to read a book so long when I was that age too! :)


    When I started this feature I really wanted to delve into all kinds of history of literature and reading, so I was happy to finally write this post about something other than European history! There's lots of great bookish post ideas I have that revolves around Chinese history though so I know I will write more about it in the future! I am really intrigued by Dream of the Red Chamber too - possibly because it has outsold the other three books!

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  6. Oh it's so cool you are visiting China! I am curious to know what your colleagues think too!

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  7. Man, I *love* ALL of these! Except maybe The Plum in the Golden Vase which I've never heard of... but I guess that's natural, lol. I personally love Romance of the Three Kingdoms most because of all the epic battles and mind games between the strategists. :'D I will recommend Journey to the West if you're just starting out, it's much less daunting compared to the rest, at least that's how I feel. Is it weird if I don't really like Dream of a Red Chamber that much, hahaha, I mean I enjoyed it but I guess I'm not /that/ into drama romance but maybe a revisit will help me appreciate it more. ;D


    LOVE this post!! /squish

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  8. OH and a P.S. I recommend Jin Yong's novels too because he writes some of my favorites. Heheh. :3

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  9. I haven't heard of any of these books. I find it actually interesting that some of the comments on here are from people who have read the books!

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  10. Well your recommendation of Journey to the West makes sense! And the fact that it has fantasy elements is very appealing to me! So I will start with that one first! I am disappointed that you didn't care for Red Chamber as much! I want to like it! :) But I might be more into drama romance so maybe I will. And mind games in Three Kingdoms does sound really interesting! I am so glad you stopped by this post to help give me some advice! Thank you Tory!!

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  11. Do you have one book in particular you recommend? Or I could just read The Book and the Sword since that is his first book. Thank you for the recommendation!

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  12. It's great that I can get more perspective with people commenting than I could with just reading about the books on different websites! Especially since I trust the commenters opinions more! :)

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  13. I would say his Condor Trilogy that begins with The Legend of the Condor Heroes because those are my top favorites from his works! I think there is none or few of his works that wasn't a hit... lmao. /collapses/ And I just remembered there's also The Four Great Constables by Wen Ruian, if you like fantasy AND crime AND I think palace involvement. Ehehehehe~ I'm super excited by this post but I think that's obvious. XD

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  14. I *think* you may love Red Chamber more than I do! It fits well with the english classics, compared to the rest of the above. ;D And you know I'm not a classics girl. (Oops!)

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  15. I'm actually quite familiar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but only because the game Dynasty Warriors is based on it. And I am actually translating a manga about a Japanese girl transported to Ancient China, right in the middle of the three warring kingdoms. Haha. If you're interested in reading that, let me know :) I really want to read the originals now because I liked the premise so much. Plus, it's epic. Chinese epics seem intriguing, to be honest. The Asian setting has a very certain charisma, although it could also be attributed to Chinese movies set in the Ancient times where when they're fighting, they're all almost flying somehow lol!

    Faye at The Social Potato

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  16. I have to be honest....don't throw cabbage at me k? - none of them sound remotely appealing to me but then I'm not a big person that's into classics LOL or hey...maybe I'm not refined!!

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  17. I was totally nervous when I read your subject and then hadn't heard of any of the novels :)


    It's cool to dig into another culture and see the literature that shaped it. And it's interesting that all these novels are based on historical events and the dynamics of the dynasties.

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  18. Excellent post, again, Charlene! I haven't heard of any of these but Dream of the Red Chamber, from your mention in your last Refined Reader post, and that remains the only one that really intrigues me, but I also feel a bit of interest in Journey to the West. I might wait and see if you review it, once you read it, and then see whether I think I would like the sound of it! x

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  19. I'm completely unfamiliar with Chinese literature. And seeing that these ones may be difficult reads..This is about as familiar as I'm going to get!

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  20. LOL, well I always think you just haven't found the right classic story to read! But if I'm wrong about that, I don't ever want to know! :) But it's okay if these don't appeal - there are so many other kinds of classics out there!

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  21. It is great that these books have so much of Chinese culture infused in it - it will make it so interesting to read and see what life was like back then in China. I don't know nearly enough about their culture!

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  22. It looks like Journey to the West will be the one I'll try out first! I hope I like it so I can encourage others to read it too! :)

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  23. Aw, well I'm sure there are many other Chinese books that are not as difficult and also important to shaping Chinese literature! I hope you'll find the right book for that one day!

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  24. Wow not only have I not read these, I haven't even heard of them. I feel really out of the loop :P Looks like I'm missing out on some great reads, I'm particulary interested in Journey to the West but I'll have to check them all out!

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  25. I've only heard of "Journey to the West" because I watched an anime based off it. The anime was Gensomaden Saiyuki and I watched it when I was much younger. :) I do really want to read the novel someday, because it really does sound fascinating! :D

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  26. Rinn (Rinn Reads)July 5, 2014 at 4:46 AM

    The only one of these I've heard of is Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and that is entirely because of the Dynasty Warriors series of video games which is (very loosely) based around it. And obviously nothing like it :P

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  27. Yes, they all sound really interesting! Journey to the West might be the easiest to get into, so you made a good choice I think! I hope it's a great read for you!

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  28. I hope I enjoy the book, because it would be fun to watch an anime adaptation of it after! It would be interesting to see how closely it follows the book. I hope you'll enjoy the book when you get to read it Ana!

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  29. Oh there's a video game based on that book! That is cool! And an interesting way to experience the story somewhat. Hopefully that will help you get into the book more then if you ever decide to read it!

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