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To understand China: Read the Four Classical Novels

Editor: Tong Xinxin 丨CCTV.com

10-16-2015 14:51 BJT

By Tom McGregor, CNTV Commentator

China remains a mystery for much of the world. What is the real China? How could we understand their cultural mindset? Can outsiders uncover more effective means to communicate and cooperate with them?

For those planning to move or to conduct business in China, there’s a key that could unlock the complexities of Chinese society. They should read the Four Great Classical Novels of China - Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber.

 Four Classical Novels

Four Classical Novels

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guangzhong in the 14th Century, stands as one of the greatest historical Chinese novels of all time, depicting the tumultuous years near the end of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Civil wars divided the empire into three warring kingdoms- Cao Wei, Shu Han and Eastern Wu.

The masterpiece details political intrigues, battles and disputes as characters come to life as relentless schemers always squabbling and fighting each other for power and glory.

The main protagonist, Cao Cao, raised a coalition of warlords and soldiers to overthrow Dong Zhou, a corrupt leader of the Han Empire. Despite Cao Cao’s heroic actions at the beginning, he transforms into an evil villain with a lust for power, growing more and more arrogant after winning a series of decisive battles.

Eventually, his former ally, Liu Bei, turns against Cao Cao and defeats him on the war-front. The story demonstrates the complicated nature of governance along with the gruesome realities of war as a soul-corrupting force.

Water Margin

Water Margin, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, composed by Shi Nai’an in the 14th Century, can be deemed a Chinese version of Robin Hood that depicts a band of outlaws residing at Mount Liangshan, who fight against corrupt Song Dynasty troops and officials.

The tale is unique for reversing definitions of good and evil. Some of the outlaws are indeed criminals with violent and treacherous hearts. Yet when united together, they fight to protect and reward the common people, causing the reader to ponder: Should the ends justify the means?

For instance, a group of the ‘Original Seven’ outlaws, led by Chao Gai, robs a convoy of birthday gifts intended for the imperial tutor, Cao Jing. They flee to Liangshan Marsh where they successfully raise an army to combat villainous forces in the Song government.

Journey to the West

The novel, Journey to the West, written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th Century is considered a children’s tale with the main character, Sun Wukong, a monkey king, blessed with magical powers and intellect.

Set during the Tang Dynasty, Sun Wukong gets trapped under a mountain as punishment by the Buddhist female deity, Guanyin, for his prideful rebellion against the heavenly gods. As penance, he’s ordered to protect the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, on his journey to India to bring back Buddhist suttras for the Tang emperor.

Xuanzang is a peace-loving vegetarian, who forbids Sun Wukong and his team of bodyguards - Zhu Bajie, a pig, and Friar Sha Ulijiang, a clumsy but reliable warrior, and the Dragon King of the West Sea - from fighting back when confronted by adversaries, such as demons, monsters and villains during their journey.

Despite Sun Wukong and his fighting clan rarely obeying the non-violence rule, they all remain devoted followers of Xuanzang to the bitter end.

Dream of the Red Chamber

A personal favorite, Dream of Red Chamber, composed by Cao Xueqin in the 18th Century, was actually about the author’s family and their subsequent fall from grace. He gets into the minds of the characters to explain their habits, motives and actions.

The reader feels they have landed into an ancient Chinese soap opera where love and scandals; heroism and treachery; as well as goodness and criminality all merge into the very essence of the lifestyles of the rich and famous families during the Qing Dynasty.

The main characters - the aristocratic Jia family - are portrayed at the height of their wealth and power, but due to constant family squabbling and scheming they lose favor from the Chinese emperor with their mansions getting raided and confiscated by government officials.

Ancient literature meets a modern China

It’s highly-recommended that readers put forth the time and effort to read un-abridged versions of all Four Classical Chinese Novels to gain a deeper understanding of the intricate details of the plot-lines, settings and character development.

China is a land where nothing is as simple as it may seem, but all journeys still have its inevitable simple conclusion. To think about China is to think about a maze. The pathways may appear complex and wrong turns do lead you to dead ends, but if you continue your search, you will eventually reach your destination.

Accordingly, China’s great works of literature provide useful clues to explain the maze that is China.




( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.



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