The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)





China’s four great classical novels


14th century The second great classical novel, The Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, is the story of a band of outlaws who oppose a corrupt ruler.

16th century The third great classical novel, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, tells of a Buddhist monk’s pilgrimage from China to India.

c.1618 Some scholars consider The Plum in the Golden Vase, its author unknown, to be the fourth Chinese classical novel. Although hugely popular, it was suppressed because of its overt sensual realism.

c.1791 The generally accepted fourth great classical novel, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, focuses on the rise and fall of an aristocratic family.

As the first of China’s four great classical novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a hugely significant and influential work of literature. As with the other three works – The Water MarginJourney to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber – it marked a radical departure from the “high style” of Chinese poetic and philosophical literature. Aimed at an audience of common people, it employed techniques akin to oral storytelling, such as the use of vernacular language and songs, and addressed the reader directly. Despite being heavily based on historical texts, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (like the other three classic Chinese texts) is recognizably a novel. It is a feat of imaginative writing sustained over 800,000 words in translation, and featuring more than a thousand characters.


The first novel?

The book describes the collapse of China’s Han Dynasty into three kingdoms in the 3rd century CE, and the 111 years of warfare that followed. Written over a thousand years after the events it describes, it takes as its historical inspiration the History of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 4th century CE.

Scholars believe that Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written nearly 250 years before Don Quixote, which is often regarded as the first great European novel. But, perhaps surprisingly, this early Chinese classic did not spark a profusion of prose literature – indeed, the “four great classics” were published over a period of 400 years. However, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has enduring appeal: it has never been out of print, and its scenes are so well known that they are familiar to Chinese speakers who have not even read the book. Its success is partly assured by its conventional, conservative narrative: villains always get their comeuppance, and order is always restored.

One of the major themes of the book is loyalty. In perhaps the most famous scene, the Oath in the Peach Garden, future ruler Liu Bei persuades two men to join him in an oath of fraternity, thereby going against what was at the time society’s strongest bond: unquestioning loyalty to family. It is a powerful scene that has been invoked by Chinese societies and fraternities of all kinds ever since.

Despite the popularity of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the other classics have not been quite so widely read. Nevertheless, all four have continued to be enjoyed and studied (Journey to the West has been widely acclaimed outside China), and are regarded as the pinnacles of popular Chinese literature.


Many editions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms were richly illustrated, which helped to make the text and stories accessible to ordinary Chinese people, not just the elite.


Although his existence is not in question, very little else can be confirmed about the life of Luo Guanzhong (c.1330–c.1400). He is traditionally regarded as the author of the first of China’s four great classical novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and co-author or editor of the second, The Water Margin. He is also thought to have written story collections that deal with China’s dynastic past, including the fantastical tale The Three Sui Quash the Demon’s Revolt.

But in 14th-century China, attributing authorship to one person may in fact denote that they were the chief compiler and editor of a large number of texts by earlier storytellers.

Other key works

The Water Margin (as editor)

The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt

The End of the Tang Dynasty and the Period of the Five Dynasties

Chronicle of the Sui and Tang Dynasties

See also: The Tale of Genji