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Four Classics

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Four Classics

Not to be confused with Four Books.

The Four Great Classical Novels, or the Four Major Classical Novels (Chinese: 四大名著; pinyin: sì dà míngzhù) of Chinese literature, are the four novels commonly regarded by scholars to be the greatest and most influential of pre-modern Chinese fiction. Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, they are well known to most Chinese readers.

They are among the world's longest and oldest novels[1] and are considered to be the pinnacle of China's achievement in classical novels, influencing the creation of many stories, plays, movies, games, and other forms of entertainment throughout East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.


In chronological order, they are:

English Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Pinyin Author Date
Water Margin 水浒传 水滸傳 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn Shi Nai'an[2] 14th century
Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义 三國演義 Sānguó Yǎnyì Luo Guanzhong 14th century
Journey to the West 西游记 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì Wu Cheng'en 16th century
Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 紅樓夢 Hóng Lóu Mèng Cao Xueqin 18th century


Chinese fiction, rooted in narrative classics such as Shishuo Xinyu, Sou Shen Ji, Wenyuan Yinghua, Da Tang Xiyu Ji, Youyang Zazu, Taiping Guangji, and official histories, developed into the novel as early as the Song Dynasty. The novel as an extended prose narrative which realistically creates a believable world of its own evolved in China and in Europe from the 14th-18th centuries, though a little earlier in China. Chinese audiences were more interested in history and were more historically minded. They appreciated relative optimism, moral humanism, and relative emphasis on the welfare of the society.

With the rise of monetary economy and urbanization beginning in the Song era, there was a growing professionalization of entertainment fostered by the spread of printing, the rise of literacy and education. In both China and Western Europe, the novel gradually became more autobiographical and serious in exploration of social, moral, and philosophical problems. Chinese fiction of the late Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty was varied, self-conscious, and experimental. In China, however, there was no counterpart to the 19th-century European explosion of novels.[3] The novels of the Ming and early Qing dynasties, represented a pinnacle of classical Chinese fiction.

The scholar and literary critic Andrew Plaks argues that Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West, and Golden Lotus collectively constituted a technical breakthrough reflecting new cultural values and intellectual concerns. Their educated editors, authors, and commentators used earlier story-tellers' narrative conventions, such as the episodic structure, interspersed songs and folk sayings, or speaking directly to the reader, but they fashioned self-consciously ironic narratives whose seeming familiarity camouflaged a Neo-Confucian moral critique of late Ming decadence. Plaks explores the textual history of the novels (all published after their author's deaths, usually anonymously) and how the ironic and satiric devices of these novels paved the way for the great novels of the eighteenth century.[4]

Plaks further shows these Ming novels share formal characteristics. They are almost all over 100 chapters in length; divided into ten chapter narrative blocks which are broken into two to three chapter episodes; arranged into first and second halves which are symmetrical; and arrange their events in patterns which follow seasons and geography. They manipulated the conventions of popular story telling in an ironic way in order to go against the surface meanings of the story. Three Kingdoms, he argues, presents a contrast between the ideal, that is, dynastic order, and the reality of political collapse and near anarchy; Water Margin likewise presents heroic stories from the popular tradition in a way that exposes the heroism as brutal and selfish; Journey to the West is an outwardly serious spiritual quest undercut by comic and sometimes bawdy tone. Jin Ping Mei is the clearest and most sophisticated example. The action is sometimes grossly sexual, but in the end emphasizes conventional morality.[5]


The four novels were highly influential in the development of vernacular works in Chinese literary history. Traditionally, fiction and drama were not held in "high regard" in the Chinese or East Asian literary hierarchy,[6] and they were generally not seen as true "literature" by scholars.[1] Writers in these forms would not have the same level of prestige as poets or scholars of Chinese classics would have had.

All four of the novels were written in a style that is a mixture of Classical and vernacular Chinese,[1] with some that are more completely vernacular than the others.[7] For instance, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is known for its mix of classical prose with folklore and popular narratives,[8] while the Dream of the Red Chamber is known for the use of poetry within its mostly vernacular style. These four novels are thought to have popularized, and more importantly "legitimatized" the role of vernacular literature among the literary circles of China.

The "Fifth" Great Classical Novel

Because of its explicit descriptions of sex, The Plum in the Golden Vase has been banned for most of its existence. Despite this, many if not most scholars and writers, including Lu Xun, now place it among the top Chinese novels. [9]


Further reading: general studies

For critical studies of individual novels, see the article for that work.

  • Patrick Hanan, “The Development of Fiction and Drama,” in Raymond Dawson, ed., The Legacy of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964): 115-143.
  • C. T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel: a Critical Introduction (New York; London: Columbia University Press, 1968 (Companions to Asian Studies); rpr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980; 413p. ISBN 0253202582). A key introduction for Western general readers to six novels considered in China to be the classics: Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi yanyi); Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan); Journey to the West (Xiyou ji); Golden Lotus, or Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinpingmei); The Scholars (Rulin waishi); and Story of the Stone (Hongloumeng or Shitou ji)
  • Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. (Foreign Languages Press, 1959 Translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi. Various Reprints). China’s leading early 20th-century writer surveyed traditional fiction in this pioneering survey, based on a series of 1923 lectures, in order to serve as a basis for modern writers.
  • Andrew H. Plaks, Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987. 595p. ISBN 0691067082). A seminal exploration of 'literati novels.' Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin (or, Men of the Marshes), Journey to the West, and Golden Lotus (or Plum in a Golden Vase).
  • Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang, History and Legend: Ideas and Images in the Ming Historical Novel. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990; 279p. ISBN 047210117X). Explores the Ming world of fiction and ideas of historical change; the hero; social, political, cosmic order and morality; and reactions to the growth of imperial despotism.
  • David L. Rolston, ed. How to Read the Chinese Novel. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989. 534p. ISBN 0691067538). Chinese critics of the 17th and 18th century wrote commentaries -- called dufa ("how to read") -- which were interspersed in the text so that the text and the commentary formed one experience for the reader. Scholars in this volume translate and introduce such commentaries for the six now classic novels.
  • Paul Ropp, “The Distinctive Art of Chinese Fiction,” in Paul S. Ropp, ed., The Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. ISBN 9780520064416). Introductory article summarizing scholarship in the field.
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