File last modified:
A Brief Guide to the Most Influential
Yuán 元, Míng 明,
and Qīng 清 Dynasties
(XIIIth to XIXth Centuries)
Part 1: Critical Background
Why Novels Matter in a Largely Illiterate Society. Chinese popular culture, including popular religion, involves the ideas that ordinary people hold about a wide range of topics, ideas that were always influenced by the media of theatricals and storytelling. Theatrical troupes were traditionally hired to present performances in front of temples on the occasion of almost any kind of festival, and many temples had more or less permanent stages built opposite their doors, facing the main altar, so that the gods enshrined in the temple could enjoy the performances.
Most gods would have had difficulty seeing over the heads of the crowd that assembled to join them in this enjoyment, for people, of course, flocked to participate in this break in routine. But in addition traveling theatrical troupes of puppets or human actors performed with "commercial breaks" to sell medicines, soap, or other commodities, or simply to take a collection. In some cases, they performed at private houses celebrating one or another kind of family occasion.
Story tellers roamed the countryside and told tales for money or with commercials. In some cases they were at least semi-literate, and "prompt books" survive that seem to have been intended for their use.
What Chinese Novels Are Like. The tales that circulated in this way were sometimes compiled into episodic "novels" of great length, which were in turn easily broken down again into ready sources of episodes to be presented as stories or theatrical performances. Thus there was for many centuries a constant interaction (churning?) between "the performance media" and "the print media" as novels and playbooks circulated across China, and creative performers borrowed, modified, and created while literate "novelists" collected and refined these variants and assembled them into yet new written works.
We begin to see the emergence of the novel as a distinctive literary form in the later dynasties, and it is then that we learn the names of writers claiming full authorship of one or another work. Although "the Classical novel" as a literary form is particularly associated with the Míng dynasty (period 20), not all novels of that period (or after) have shed their "shared authorship" character, nor did the public suddenly begin to treat them as off-limits for borrowing.
Why You Need to Know This. The influence of many of these stories and their component episodes on the popular imagination was tremendous. Popular religion had a propensity to canonize famous people. Therefore, many of these stories had a major effect on how ordinary people understood the world of miracles and spirits.
It is rarely possible to say that such and such a book directly influenced such and such a belief, but the total impact of this general style of literature on popular belief is undeniable, even though the populace was generally illiterate and could not read the literature itself.
For this reason, each book is at once a summation of popular stories and a stimulus to their representation in other media. (Click here for for the reference to an interesting scholarly article about this topic.)
The Goal of This Page. On this page I have briefly described the most important works of this genre. Most of these works are quite long and are composed of separable episodes, some of them rather repetitive. What the novels lack in plot integration, character development, and psychological sophistication, they make up for in the level of action they exhibit and in their great crispness in laying out who the good and bad guys are and what issues are at stake. In some cases actual authors are unknown or there is no definitive text.
Stories from some of these novels, especially as they have made their way into standardized theatricals, are retold on separate web pages on this site. (Link)
Full Chinese texts of several of these novels are available on-line, although the URLs shift with alarming frequency. I have not found on-line English versions of them. On this page simplified characters are red. When different, traditional characters are given in blue.
Part 2: Listing of Novels
Běiyóu Jì 北遊记 [北遊記] (Journey to the North).
- Author: Authorship is unknown, and a number of variants are in circulation. There is some probability that the commonest text we have of this work is the product of revelations through possessed mediums.
- Comment: The central figure is a god referred to as the True Warrior (zhēnwǔ 真武), eventually canonized as the Emperor of the Mysterious (or Dark) Heavens (Xuántiān Shàngdì 玄天上帝). He is an important figure in the popular pantheon, and one especially associated with spirit mediumship. He is often the patron of mediumistic temples to this day.
Gary SEAMAN 1987 Journey to the North: An Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk Novel Pei-yu Chi. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN: 0-520-05809-7.
Fēng Shén Yǎnyì 封神演义 [封神演義] (Romance of Canonizations).
- Alternative Names (Chinese):
Fēng Shén Bǎng 封神榜 ("Roster of Canonizations")
or Fēng Shén Zhuàn 封神传 [封神傳] (Story of Canonizations)
- Alternative Names (English): "Canonization of the Gods," "Creation of the Gods," "Investiture of the Gods".
- Author: Either LÙ Xīxīng 陆西星 [陸西星] or XǓ Zhònglín 许仲琳 [許仲琳].
- Comment: This novel begins in the closing years of the Shāng 商 dynasty (period 03), when the final king, a vulgar tyrant named Zhòu 纣 [紂], deliberately offends the goddess Nǚwā 女娲 [女媧], who resolves to destroy him, end the dynasty, and establish a new one (the Zhōu 周, period 04) that will be just and godly. The result is a spectacular series of wars, featuring a wide range of miraculous weapons, that results in its human heroes being made gods and being appointed to places in the pantheon.
In many cases the characters described were already canonized at the time the novel was created. In other cases, cults to particular gods may have arisen as a result of the circulation of this material. The Third Prince, for example, is today a very common god possessing spirit mediums in Taiwan, despite the comparative lack of other sources that would have made him "theologically" interesting or would have popularized knowledge of him. This book is arguably the most important influence on popular understanding of Taoism as a religious system.
- Example: For an example of the content of this work, click here.
GU Zhizhong (Tr.) 1992 Creation of the Gods. Beijing: New World Press. 2 Volumes. ISBN: 7-80005-134-X & 7-80005-135-8.
A forty-page summary of this important novel is available on this web site. Link
Hónglóu Mèng 红楼梦 [紅樓夢] (Dream of the Red Mansions).
Author: CÁO Xuěqín 曹雪芹 (1715?-1763) (last third by GĀO È 高鹗 [高鶚]).
- Comment: This novel, more than any other, is regarded as the high point of elite Chinese imaginative literature. Indeed so esteemed is it, that commentaries and scholarship about it have come to be described collectively as "hongology" in English! The work describes the decline of two related wealthy households in Běijīng, each a vast extended family with many servants. At the center of interest is love between a lusty but rather wimpy playboy, JIǍ Bǎoyù 贾宝玉 [賈寶玉], and his cousin. In contrast to its perduring critical acclaim, the book has had relatively few folkloric effects and is of only minor interest to a cultural anthropologist. A common alternative title is "The Story of the Stone" (Shítóu Jì 石头记 [石頭記]), .
Abridged English Translation:
Chi-chen WANG (Tr.) 1958 Dream of the Red Chamber. New York: Doubleday.
Jì Gōng Zhuàn 济公传 [濟公傳] (Tales of Jì Gōng).
Author: GUŌ Xiǎotíng 郭小亭 (early XIXth century) or WÁNG Mèngjí王梦吉 1661-?
According to legend, a "living buddha" (huófó 活佛) appeared among us and became a rather scruffy monk, who died about 1209. He apparently had the religious name of Dàojì 道济 [道濟] ("Salvation Through the Dào") and lived in the general region of ZJ Hángzhōu. Since his death, he has been known to history as Jì Gōng Huófó 济公活佛 [濟公活佛], "Lord Jì, the Living Buddha" or "the Salvationist Living Buddha."
A wide range of trickster tales came to be associated with his memory, as he drank and ate meat and enjoyed women, but always in the service of bringing people to Buddhism, often through miracles that supported the faithful and confounded the vicious. This title typically (but not always) refers to a work by GUŌ Xiǎotíng, here cited as "the" author. The Jì Gōng stories inspired an important cult of this figure that took off in the XXth century, when he became the possessing presence for many spirit mediums, and a major figure in the pantheons of some sectarian societies, as well as the object of various television and movie series, as well as children's books and other retellings.
John Robert SHAW (Tr.) 2014 Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong Tokyo & Rutland: Tuttle. ISBN: 978-0-8048-4322-5.
A work by Meir SHAHAR, Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature. (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-674-17563-8), treats all known variants and develops an argument as to exactly how a literary tradition can affect an illiterate population, which in turn affects the literary tradition. This web site includes a descriptive review of that fascinating book (Link) and an English version of a brief derivative work about a later "living buddha" probably inspired by the Dàojì tradition (link).
Jīnpíng Méi 金瓶梅 (Golden-Vase Plums).
(The English title is sometimes "Golden Plum Vase.")
- Author unknown.
- Comment: This Míng dynasty (period 20) work, probably from the early 1600s, recounts the amorous adventures of a corrupt businessman named XĪMÉN Qìng 西门庆 [西門慶], who eventually marries six wives because of his great sexual appetite. The fifth wife in particular leads him yet further into debauchery. However, the first wife remains virtuous, and her son becomes a Buddhist priest to help to atone for his father's sinfulness. Censored when it appeared, and frequently dismissed as merely pornography, the novel today enjoys prestige as a socially redeeming and morally forceful satire on the period and its degeneracy, and it is appreciated for its fine-grained description of Míng dynasty life.
Several abridged English versions are available (since the book is thought to be erotic). A full rendering is David Tod ROY (Tr.) Plum in a Golden Vase (Princeton University Press), published in five volumes to critical acclaim between 1993 and 2013.
Liáozhāi Zhìyì 聊斋志异 [聊齋誌異] (Strange Tales from a Rustic Studio).
Author: PÚ Sōnglíng 蒲松龄 [蒲松齡] (1640-1715, Qīng dynasty, period 21).
- Comment: This is China's most popular collection of ghost stories, containing over 400 tales of spirits and the supernatural. Pú was born to a poor family formerly noted for scholarly achievement. Thus Pú was modestly educated, and at 19 even passed the entry-level (xiùcái 秀才) exam (see the separate guide to civil service exams on this web site), but spent the rest of his life trying to pass a higher level while working as a private tutor. Through spin-off plays and movies, as well as retellings, the book continues to have great influence especially upon popular notions about ghosts and the paranormal. A few stories from this collection are available on this web site (link).
Abridged English Translations:
Herbert A. GILES (Tr.) 1916 Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh. Frequently reprinted.
Denic C. & Victor H. MAIR (Tr.) 1989 Strange Tales From Make-Do Studio. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Sān Xiá Wǔ Yì 三侠五义 [三俠五義] (Three Heroes and Five Gallants).
Attributed to SHÍ Yùkūn 石玉崑 (1810?-1871), this novel of detection and derring-do collects popular stories about BĀO Zhěng 包拯, a clever and virtuous magistrate (usually called "Magistrate Bāo" in English) of the Northern Sòng dynasty (period 15b), who actually lived from 999 to 1072, and whose vigor in the cause of justice for ordinary people became the subject of plays and stories ever after.
Abridged English Translation:
Susan BLADER (Tr.) 1998 Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants: Selections From Sanxia wuyi. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. ISBN: 962-201-775-4.
This cycle of Magistrate Bāo tales is merely the most famous of several similar ones, which were the inspiration for Robert Van Gulick's delightful Chinese-themed "Judge Dee" English-language mystery novels or the many American films featuring the XXth-century detective Charlie Chan.
Sānguó Yǎnyì 三国演义 [三國演義] (Romance of the Three Kingdoms).
- Alternative Names:
Sometimes also called Sānguó zhi Yǎnyì 三国之演义 [三國之演義] or Sānguó Zhì 三国志 [三國誌], "Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms."
- Author: Attributed to LUÓ Guànzhōng 罗贯中 [羅貫中] (Late Yuán dynasty, period 19, possibly 1330? - 1400？).
- Comment: The action is set in the Three Kingdoms (period 07), and the protagonists are a trio of sworn brothers unsuccessfully seeking the restoration of the ruling house of the preceding Hàn dynasty (period 06), in contention against the expansionist efforts particularly of the kingdom of Wèi (07b), headed by the famous and terrifying warlord CÁO Cāo 曹操. The famous "Peach Garden Oath" unites the three sworn brothers, LIÚ Bēi 刘备 [劉備], GUĀN Yǔ 关羽 [關羽], and ZHĀNG Fēi 张飞 [張飛] as they seek to restore LIÚ to his throne, and it provides the prototype for virtually all later oaths of sworn brotherhood. (Copies of this text have been sworn to and then ceremonially burned in temples in China ever since.) The deeds of GUĀN Yǔ, despite his being killed early in the novel, became the basis of a cult so important that by the end of the XIXth century there were more GUĀN Yǔ temples in China than any other kind, with the possible exception of small land-god shrines.
- Example: For a sampling of some of these stories, click here. For a quick and useful background to the period, click here.
Moss ROBERTS (Tr.) 1991 Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1096pp. ISBN: 0-520-06821-1
Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn 水浒传 [水滸傳] (The Lakeside Tales).
- Alternative names:
Sometimes called "Water Margin" or "Outlaws of the Marsh" in English.
- Author: Attributed to late Yuán dynasty (period 19) author LUÓ Guànzhōng 罗贯中 [羅貫中], author of the Sānguó Yǎnyì, and to early Míng dynasty (period 20) author SHĪ Nài'ān 施耐庵, although the LUÓ's participation is doubted by some scholars.
- Comment: Set in the Sòng dynasty (period 15), this volume celebrates deeds of derring-do by 108 "social bandits," most famously one SÒNG Jiāng 宋江. They are represented as outcasts defending local interests against oppressive central government forces. SÒNG Jiāng and his forces are the model for one common kind of processional element in local festivals.
- Example: For a summary of one of the episodes as performed by a Cantonese opera troupe, click here.
- English Translation:
The most famous English translation is by Pearl BUCK, under the title All Men Are Brothers, but more recent translations have also appeared.
Sōu Shén Jì 搜神记 [搜神記] (In Search of Gods).
Author: GĀN Bǎo 干宝 [干寶] (Eastern Jìn dynasty, period 8c).
- Comment: This is a compilation of religious and ghost tales dating from the period of the Six Dynasties (period 7e), when civil unrest resulted in much migration and the rapid spread of innovations. The discredit into which Confucianism had fallen as a means of managing society led to a great deal of tolerance for popular religion. The tales in this collection seem to have influenced the view of ghosts and miracles taken in later dynasties.
- English Translations:
Kenneth J. DeWOSKIN and James Irving CRUMP (Tr.) 1996 In Search of the Supernatural. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2506-3
HUÁNG Dímíng 黄涤明 2004 Anecdotes about spirits and immortals. (2 volumes). (Trilingual edition with original and modern Chinese and English translation by DĪNG Wǎngdào 丁往道.) Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7-119-03329-8
Wǔ Hǔ Píng Xī 五虎平西 (Five Tigers Pacify the West)
An adventure tale set in the Northern Sòng dynasty (period 15b). The book incorporates the character of Magistrate Bāo —see the entry for Sān Xiá Wǔ Yì— but is also the inspiration for a martial arts troupe sometimes found in religious processions.
- English Translation: I know of no English translation.
Xīxiāng Jì 西厢记 [西廂記] (Chronicle of the West Wing).
Author: WÁNG Shífǔ 王实甫 [王實甫], a dramatist of the Yuán dynasty (period 19), is the author most usually associated with this story, although the underlying novel is of unknown authorship.
- Comment: This is the classic story of two star-crossed lovers in the Táng dynasty (period 12), ZHĀNG Shēng 张生 [張生], a young scholar on his way to take an imperial examination, and CUĪ Yīngyīng 崔莺莺 [崔鶯鶯], a beautiful lass whose father has died and who has fallen on hard times. It is love at first sight when they encounter each other in a monastery where each is virtuously taking shelter as a guest. Love conquers all in the end by means of the energetic efforts of Yīngyīng's maid Hóngniáng 红娘 [紅娘], whose name has now become synonymous with matchmaking. (Nearly all modern matchmakers refer to themselves as hóngniáng, which has become a generic term.)
- Example: For a summary of this work as performed on the stage, click here.
There is no English translation of the novel, so far as I know, but WÁNG Shífǔ's play has been translated:
AI, T.C. & Ed GAMAREKIAN (Tr.) 1973 The Romance of the Western Chamber. Hong Kong: Heinemann Educational Books.
XU Yuanzhong (Tr.) 1992 Romance of the Western Bower. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN: 7-119-0482-X.
Xīyóu Jì 西遊记 [西遊記] (Journey to the West).
Author: WÚ Chéng'ēn 吴承恩 [吳承恩] (1500-1582, Míng dynasty, period 20).
- Comment: A heavily mythologized account of the journey of the monk Xuánzàng 玄奘, also known as "Master Tripitaka" (Sānzàng fǎshī 三藏法师 [三藏法師]), who traveled from China to India to fetch Buddhist scriptures in the Táng dynasty (period 12). This novel, one of the masterpieces of Chinese imaginative literature, introduces a couple of much loved animal companions for the monk, most prominently a magical and mischievous monkey, who came to have a non-literary religious following as the "monkey god" SŪN Wùkōng 孙悟空 [孫悟空]. (His simian manner is easily imitated by an increasing host of spirit mediums, making this one of the most common cults among spirit mediums in Taiwan, Singapore, and elsewhere today.) Together with "Canonization of the Gods" (Fēngshén Yǎnyì), mentioned above, this is probably one of the two novels most influential in the popular understanding of Chinese religion.
- A brief synopsis of this work is available on this site. For copyright reasons, access is password-limited to students in my current China class. (Link)
W.J.F. JENNER (Tr.) 1990 Journey to the West. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. 4 volumes.
Anthony YU (Tr.) 1983 Journey to the West Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. (Available as a complete, 4-volume translation or in an abridged edition.)
KHERDIAN, David 1992 Monkey: A Journey to the West. Boston: Shambhala Publications. (ix+209 pp.) ISBN: 1-57062-581-6
Return to top.