Felix Goodbody

Finding your cultural bearings when it comes to an international move can seem daunting, and relocating to a culture as old, vast, and complex as China is especially so! Luckily for new starters to the many seemingly impenetrable sides of Chinese culture, you soon find that there’s a trend for numbering things; be it the number of officially recognized minority ethnic groups in this huge country (fifty-five), distinct regional cuisines (eight), ‘treasures of the study (four), and books and classics of Confucianism (four and five). The most accessible hit list has got to be the Four Classic Novels – some really good English translations (and abridgments, thank goodness!) are available, and these stories are an excellent way to while away the long hours of hotel isolation and quarantine. Already emerged in China and looking for the backstory behind the not infrequent references to a magic monkey chasing a pig? Read on for a short guide to the classics!

Dynasty Warriors: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演) by Luo Guanzhong

An absolute cracker of a novel that one hundred per cent holds its own against The Lord of the Rings and other modern Western adventures, Three Kingdoms is possibly the most famous of the Four Classics and rightly boasts a huge fanbase around the world. The story revolves around the struggles of Liu Bei (also known as Xuande) as he goes from zero to hero with the help of his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei after their oath in the peach garden. The heroes and villains of Three Kingdoms are as ubiquitous as the characters from Shakespeare, and can be a good starting point when it comes to choosing your Chinese name! The Penguin Classics abridged version is a really comfortable translation (with Pinyin naming conventions), and there are countless movies, TV series, videogames and other spinoffs related to the story. Special mention goes to John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008): maximum ponytails, minimum peach gardens.

Written? Ming Dynasty (probably)

Best Character: Cao Cao

Good translation: Martin Palmer for Penguin Classics (672pp, abridged)

Moral of the story: friendship conquers all, trust no one, and have Lu Bu on your team.

Monkey Business: Journey to the West (西遊記) by Wu Cheng'en

Journey to the West, also known as Monkey and Monkey King is the classic novel with the most bang for your buck when it comes to recognising characters out and about in China (the main character is a magic monkey wielding a huge metal pole, go figure). During my first week in China we had seen Sun Wukong (the monkey) on cartons of juice, in art galleries, adverts and t-shirts… we just couldn’t escape the ape! Journey to the West is a mythical telling of the journey taken during the Tang dynasty by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who braved hostile elements, magical adversaries and the peccadilloes of his sidekicks to reach India and bring back precious sutras to China. I picked up an old out-of-copyright version on my Kindle which was a bit of a monster to get through (there’s a huge prologue involving monkey’s celestial back and forth with different gods), but there is a new translation by the excellent Cambridge sinologist Julia Lovell. My Chinese teacher told me there is a much-loved TV adaptation from the eighties – I haven’t watched it, but the screenshots online are… interesting.

Written? Ming Dynasty

Best Character: Pigsy

Good translation: Julia Lovell for Penguin Clothbound Classics (384pp, abridged)

Moral of the story: don’t mess with magic monkeys.

Bad boys for life: The Water Margin (水浒传)by Shi Nai’an

The most swashbuckling of the four classic novels, The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers) is really more of a collection of tall tales surrounding a huge cast of characters that rebel from a corrupt society to establish a sort of gangster’s paradise at Liangshan Marsh. As with Three Kingdoms, many of these characters (such as Wu Song and Song Jiang) pop up in modern Chinese settings, and some of the set pieces and stock characters can be found on the streets of twenty-first-century Shanghai! This is really a novel about shifting morality in an unjust system and teaches that camaraderie, bravery and cunning are each important keys to success. I found a cheap and cheerful old translation by JH Jackson available on the Kindle, it’s definitely one for long layovers and extended isolations at over 800 pages, but a swashbuckler of this quality flows so thick and fast you’ll be itching for more by the end.

Written? Yuan/Ming Dynasty

Best Character: Wu Song

Good translation: JH Jackson for Tuttle Classics (850pp, abridged)

Moral of the story: don’t stop for a drink at the inn near Liangshan Marsh!

Lust, caution: Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) by Cao Xueqin

Full disclosure: I didn’t get anywhere near the end of Red Chamber. This epic story (also known as The Story of the Stone) is a novel of leviathan proportions that is probably best read about – not sure if anyone has been brave enough to try and turn it into a movie or TV series (I certainly wouldn’t be). Basically, there’s this baby born with a piece of jade in his mouth, and he grows up amid the splendour of a high-ranking family, goes to parties that usually end with spontaneous poetry competitions, there are (chaste) romances… That’s pretty much as far as I got. This is an immensely complex book, there’s a whole area of study in China known as ‘Redology’ that picks apart its many themes and characters (oh, there are a lot of characters), and it will probably take a second stint in isolation for me to consider picking up Book Two. Penguin have done a five-volume run of the novel – I threw in the towel after round one, you will have earned my undying respect if you make it any further.

Written? Qing Dynasty

Best Character: Jia Baoyu (in the bit I read anyway)

Good translation: HB Joly for Penguin Classics (book one was 323pp)

Moral of the story: err… don’t accept a dinner date at the Jia residence.

Honourable mentions: Golden Lotus and Chinese Studio

Not officially on the list but definitely worth checking out; The Golden Lotus (金瓶梅, also known as The Plum in the Golden Vase) by an author using the pseudonym ‘The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling’. Golden Lotus is actually a spin-off of Three Kingdoms, chronicling the extra-marital shenanigans of Wu Song’s brother’s wife. Arguably of less literary merit than the big four, but with plenty of sex, violence and partying – the perfect pick me up after Red Chamber anyway! Finally, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. This is a collection of folk stories involving witches, magic, and fox spirits (the jury is still out on whether you want to be visited by a fox spirit or not) collected by the seventeenth-century intellectual Pu Songling from his country retreat. Sort of magical realism meets the Brothers Grimm, definitely worth picking up.

Good luck!

If you’re wired anything like me, you see a list and want to start ticking items off it. While it’s probably easier to spend a fortnight tackling the eight cuisines, it is immensely satisfying to get to grips with these incredibly important works of Chinese literature. You will be surprised how many times you meet these fabled characters in adverts, descriptions of modern figures, and places around China, and it’s really rewarding to be able to connect the dots. Good luck with the list, and if you’re up to it then let me know how Red Chamber ends!

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