Friday 24 January 2020

The Four Great Classics of Chinese Literature

Tom Wilkinson-Gamble
BA Modern and Contemporary History
Journey to the West: Arguably the most famous of the four, Journey to the West was published in 16th century and written by the novelist and poet Wu Cheng’en. The novel chronicles the tale of   Tripitaka,  a   Buddhist  monk   tasked  by the Gautama   Buddha   with   collecting   a   series of sutras from ‘the West’ (India) and returning them to China. Tripitaka is joined by a colourful cast of characters; including the impulsive and easily excitable monkey god Sun Wukong, the half-man and half-pig monster Zhu Bajie (Piggy) who was kicked out of the heavens for harassing the lunar goddess Chang’e and the equally hideous Sha Wujing (Sandy), a heavenly general turned sand demon who was also fired from the heavens. Together, the group get caught up in a series of crazy scenarios during their adventure and are often forced to fight some form of demon or monster to progress with their journey. Thematically, the novel is pro-Buddhist and, at times, criticises the two other Chinese systems of belief; Taoism and Confucianism. For example, during the early chapters of the book, the failure of heavenly authorities to keep Sun Wukong in check can be viewed as a criticism of the neo-Confucian doctrine that inspired the imperial Chinese bureaucracy of the time. The novel ends with the group returning to China with the sutras and both Tripitaka and Sun gaining Buddhahood.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Despite being the only book in this group that might have some genuine historical grounding, Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms gives a romanticised and dramatized account of the collapse of the Han dynasty at the end of the 2nd century. The novel begins with the death of Emperor Ling and how his son, Emperor Shao was manipulated by the eunuchs in the imperial court. This division then leads to the rise of the warlord Dong Zhuo and the subsequent coalition of Sun Jian, Liu Biao, Cao Cao and others against him. The novel ends with the war between the three remaining dynasties (Shu, Wei and Wu) and the rise of the new Jin dynasty. Though classed as historical fiction, the novel uses historical records as a basis; including Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms and Liu Yiqing's A New Account of the Tales of the World.
Water Margin: Like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin is a military novel and follows the lives of a group of outlaws during the Song dynasty. At first the outlaws are pitted against the emperor, but they are pardoned and sent a series of military campaigns to suppress rebel movements and foreign invaders. Though the authorship of the novel remains unclear, it is generally attributed to Shi Nai'an but other candidates include the playwright Shi Hui or even Luo Guanzhong.
Dream of the Red Chamber: Written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, Dream of the Red Chamber is the most recent of the classics and was published in 1791. Unlike the two previous books, Dream of the Red Chamber is a love story and focuses on the relationship between three protagonists; Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. Jia is set to marry the woman chosen by his family; the beautiful and graceful Xue. But in reality, he is in love with his melancholic and clumsy childhood-friend. In the background of this, we also witness the decline of two aristocratic families. This has been viewed by scholars as an allegory for the gradual decline of the Qing dynasty.

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