Paul S. ROPP

A scene from a Ming dynasty historical novel, likely to be Romance of the Three Kingdoms, adorns the top of a bamboo lacquered box. FROM THE AVERY BRUNDAGE COLLECTION.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, highly educated literati increasingly used the long fictional narrative as a popular vehicle to engage in sophisticated storytelling. Drawing on historical events and personal experience, and on popular tales, anecdotes, and legends, novels by these authors provide us with some of our most illuminating sources on Chinese life in the early modern period.

The Ming 明 (1368–1644) and Qing 情 (1644–1912) dynasties witnessed a great flowering of long prose narrative fiction, especially from the sixteenth century onward. Despite the relatively low status of fiction as a genre in Chinese culture, especially when compared with poetry, highly educated writers increasingly turned to novels in the Ming period to express their artistic visions and their moral critiques of society. Before the nineteenth century they tended to publish their works anonymously or under pseudonyms, but with the growing prosperity of the late Ming period and the rapid expansion of the printing industry their works of fiction found a large and growing readership. Confucian orthodoxy had long looked down on fiction as frivolous, morally suspect, and likely to lead readers astray with tales of sex, violence, and villainy. By the late Ming period defenders of fiction argued, to the contrary, that because fiction can capture and hold an audience’s rapt attention, it is in fact one of the best vehicles for the spread and popularization of humane and civilized values.

Late Sixteenth Century

In the late sixteenth century a number of great novels appeared, all of them based to some degree on shorter works and popular themes from previous eras; one even appropriates an historic figure, using much artistic license of course, and creates a fantastical group of animals to guide him on his journey.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi yanyi 三國志 演義), a sweeping historical saga in 120 chapters based on actual historical figures and events, tells of China’s division into three competing kingdoms after the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The focus on the story is the rise and fall of states based on the talent, wisdom, luck, and loyalty (or lack of loyalty) of its leading statesmen and generals. It was long popularly assumed in China that the Mandate of Heaven—the belief, dating from the Zhou dynasty in the eleventh century BCE, that a benevolent Heaven grants political power only to the moral leader—went to the most virtuous competitor for power, but in this story virtue is less decisive than ambition, cunning, determination, and at times blind luck or the unpredictable interventions of fate. Although highly fictionalized, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has given many ordinary Chinese their basic understanding of the dynamics of power in imperial Chinese history.

Water Margin

Water Margin (Shui hu zuan, 水滸傳), is a long rambling narrative ranging from 71 to 124 chapters, depending on the edition, based on popular stories about a band of 108 outlaws from the thirteenth century. It has been famously translated in English as Outlaws of the Marshes by Sidney Shapiro in the 1970s, and in an adaptation by Pearl S. Buck called All Men Are Brothers). These rough and ready, larger-than-life heroes are forced into banditry by their impulsive but noble resistance to injustice and to the corruption of the imperial government. Many critics have complained about the violence and brutality in this novel, but most readers have relished the drama of the story and enjoyed its hard-drinking, fun-loving bandits who might murder without a moment’s reflection but who would also gladly give up their lives for their fellow bandits. In a society where young people owed their elders and teachers automatic obedience, Shui hu zhuan has afforded each young generation the vicarious thrill of rebellion and defiance of authority.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (Xiyouji 西遊記) is a fanciful retelling (in one hundred chapters) of the life of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who journeyed to India in 629 CE and returned in 645 CE with hundreds of sacred Buddhist scriptures whose translation he oversaw for the rest of his life. In his fictional incarnation Xuanzang is a timid and fearful soul who succeeds despite himself with the able assistance of four talking divine animal spirits, of whom the most important are the impetuous adventurer Monkey (Sun Wukong) and his lazy sidekick Pigsy. The comic interplay of these contrasting characters is quite captivating as they face a host of demons, ghosts, fallen angels, and monsters on their way through the mountains and deserts of central and Southwest Asia. The novel can be read as a Buddhist allegory of the quest for enlightenment, a gentle Daoist satire of human frailties, or a Confucian call to moderation in all things. However it is interpreted, it is above all a pleasurable adventure story and has enjoyed many modern incarnations in operas, films, and cartoons.

Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei)

Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 (Plum in the Golden Vase or Golden Lotus) is a different kind of novel, an erotic story of a hedonistic urban merchant, Ximen Qing, and his six wives (or to be more precise, one wife and five concubines or maids). The most ambitious of these women is Golden Lotus, who exploits Ximen Qing’s weaknesses to the extreme in order to triumph over her rivals for his affections. The daily lives of these urban pleasure addicts are chronicled with loving care by the narrator, who weaves together popular songs, plays, stories, and poems into a comprehensive portrait that, despite its erotic theme, he can claim as a moral tale because the protagonist dies two-thirds of the way through the story, a victim of his own excesses.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Many other novels appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although only two rivaled the aforementioned four works in their prominence: The Scholars and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Scholars

The Scholars (Rulin waishi 儒林外史), written by a frustrated literati, Wu Jingzi (1701–1754), who failed the civil service examinations, is China’s first great satirical novel. With an unforgettable series of comic villains, heroes, and antiheroes, Wu Jingzi explored the pressures of competing for status in the eighteenth century when one could win fame and fortune by passing the examination—or by a whole variety of alternative strategies, including publishing one’s poetry or writing model examination essays, holding fashionable poetry parties in idyllic settings, selling or giving away one’s paintings, socializing with the successful and prominent, or even impersonating the famous in gullible circles.

Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 紅樓夢), also known as Story of the Stone (Shitou ji 石頭記). is universally recognized as China’s greatest novel and was written by Cao Xueqin (d. 1764) at about the same time as Wu Jingzi worked on The Scholars. A masterpiece of narrative prose, the novel chronicles the gradual decline of the Jia family against the backdrop of a Buddhist-Daoist mythological framework. The novel emphasizes the themes of contrasting and alternating interplay of joy and sadness, good and evil, beauty and depravity, illusion and reality. No other Chinese novel succeeds as well as Dream of the Red Chamber in creating vivid and individualized characters of great psychological depth.

Late Qing Novels

Many other notable novels were published in the late Qing period. Many sequels to Dream of the Red Chamber were written, although most fell far short of Cao Xueqin’s narrative mastery. Flowers in the Mirror (Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣) by Li Ruzhen, a fantasy novel from the early nineteenth century a bit like Gulliver’s Travels, portrays a series of societies that mirrors and/or satirizes Chinese society. In the late nineteenth century several novelists, including Liu E (1857–1909) and Wu Woyao (1867–1910), emulated Wu Jingzi in writing biting satirical portraits of Chinese society in, respectively, The Travels of Lao Cao (Lao Can youji 老殘遊記) and Bizarre Happenings Witnessed over Two Decades (Ershi nian mudu guai xianzhuang 二十年目睹之怪現狀). These exposés, written against the backdrop of China’s humiliating encounters with Western military and economic might, were powerful critiques of Chinese society, foreshadowing the critical and Western-influenced fiction of the May Fourth Movement in the 1920s.

All of these novels are among the most enjoyable and illuminating introductions to Chinese life in the Ming-Qing period.

Further Reading

Cao Xueqin. (1973–1986). The story of the stone (5 vols.) (D. Hawkes & J. Minford, Trans.). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Epstein, M. (2001). Competing discourses: Orthodoxy and engendered meanings in late imperial Chinese fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hegel, R. E. (1981). The novel in seventeenth-century China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The classic Chinese novel. New York: Columbia University Press.

Huang, M. W. (1995). Literati and self representation: Autobiographical sensibility in the eighteenth-century novel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Huang, M. W. (2001). Desire and fictional narrative in late imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

Plaks, A. (1987). The four masterworks of the Ming novel: Su ta ch’i-shu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roberts, M. (Trans.). (1992). Three Kingdoms: A historical novel, attributed to Luo Guanzhong. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Roddy, S. J. (1998). Literati identity and its fictional representations in late imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Roy, D. T. (Trans.). (1993–2006). The plum in the golden vase or, chin p’ing mei (3 vols.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shapiro, S. (Trans.). (1981). Outlaws of the marsh (2 vols.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wu, C. (1957). The scholars (Y. Hsien-yi & G. Yang, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Yu, A. C. (Trans.). (1977–1983). Journey to the West (4 vols.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Any book you open will benefit your mind.


Kāi juàn yǒu yì

Source: Ropp, Paul S. (2009). Ming and Qing Novels. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1479–1482. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Ming and Qing Novels (Míng-Qīng xiǎoshuō 明清小說)|Míng-Qīng xiǎoshuō 明清小說 (Ming and Qing Novels)

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