Chinese Novels — Timeline, List, and Brief Introduction
Chinese novels originated as short myths and legends, fables, and historical biographies from the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) to Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and have experienced different developing stages.
In each period, corresponding to a certain background, each Chinese novel had special characteristics and some remarkable masterpieces.
Myths, Legends, Fables, and Historical Biographies — Prior to Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)
The Classic of Mountains and Seas — Myths and Legends
The Classic of Mountains and Seas or Shan Hai Jing, believed written by Yu the Great the founder of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), is a masterpiece that includes ancient geography, states, Mythical Animals, and Wonder Worlds.
Meanwhile, this miraculous book also records stories and legends of deities and historical figures, such as those in Creation Myths.
Zhuangzi, Mengzi, and Hanfeizi — Fables
Fables in those masterpieces are exceptional legacies of Chinese literature and culture.
Hanfeizi was written by Han Fei (about 280 BC — 233 BC), an accomplished philosopher of Legalism.
Mythical Creature Kun Peng from A Fable of Zhuangzi.
The Records of the Grand Historian — Historian Biography
The Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji, written from 104 BC to 91 BC by Sima Qian, is the first biographical history masterpiece in China.
Accurate records and brilliant descriptions of the biographical history of these influential people hold great historical and literary value.
Liexian Zhuan — Biographies of Immortals
Liexian Zhuan, or Biographies of Immortals, believed written by Liu Xiang (77 BC — 6 BC), is the first immortal biographical book in China.
This book systematically records legends of 71 deities, including their life experiences, stories, and various means of becoming immortals.
Deities of Jiangfei (Jiangfei Ernv) from Liexian Zhuan or Biographies of Immortals.
Tales of the Miraculous and Records of Anomalies — Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern & Southern Dynasties (220 — 589)
Shenxian Zhuan — Biographies of the Deities and Immortals
Shenxian Zhuan, or Biographies of the Deities and Immortals, written by eminent Taoist, Alchemist, and Pharmacist Ge Hong (283 — 363), is another masterpiece that records the legends of 92 immortals.
Soushen Ji or In Search of the Supernatural — Anecdotes about Spirits and Immortals
Soushen Ji, or In Search of the Supernatural, written by historical Gan Bao (? — 336), is a story collection about ghosts, monsters, immortals, regional legends, folklores, and supernatural phenomena.
Shishuo Xinyu or A New Account of the Tales of the World — Records of Classy Scholars
Shishuo Xinyu, or A New Account of the Tales of the World, believed written by scholar Liu Yiqing (403 — 444), is a novel collection about elegant intellectuals.
It records stories and anecdotes of about 1500 outstanding literati, scholars, musicians, and artists of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220), Three Kingdoms (220 — 280), and the Jin Dynasty (265 — 420).
Seven Sages of Three Kingdoms and Jin Dynasty in the Bamboo Forest, by Artist Li Shida of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Shanghai Museum
Fictional Legends of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)
Tang Legends or Tang Chuanqi are fictional novels with creative writings, which flourished during the Tang Dynasty and are about love, history, chivalry, morals, spirits, and immortals.
Tale of Ancient Mirror or Gujing Ji, by Wang Du.
Wang Du got an ancient mirror from his respected master before his departure and was told that this mirror could expel all evils and protect him.
Wang Du and his younger brother, under the help of this mirror, had saved many people from evils, defeated monsters, met powerful deities, and witnessed a series of mysterious legends.
Decades later, after a long and deep roaring lament, the mirror disappeared from the jewelry box forever.
Mirror Carved with Auspicious Creatures of the Tang Dynasty — Wuzhong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Legend of Nanke or Nanke Taishou Zhuan, by Li Gongzuo.
A rich person named Chu Yufen fell asleep one day, and in his dream, he was invited to a kingdom, met the king, married a beautiful princess, had seven children, became a good governor for decades, and experienced prosperity and countless wealth.
Years later, he participated in defensive wars but failed, then his wife passed away, and he got demoted and was sent back by the king.
After he woke up, he realized he had experienced a lifetime in a dream. And later he found out that this kingdom in his dream was a huge ant cave near his mansion.
He felt that wealth and power all came from and went to emptiness, and nothing is permanent. Afterward, he quit everything and lived a simple life.
Tale of Liu Yi or Liu Yi Zhuan, by Liu Chaowei.
Liu Yi was a well-educated young man, who met a beautiful woman weeping on his way home. It turned out she was the daughter of Dragon King of the Dongting Lake but was stuck in a horrible marriage.
What's worse, her home Dongting Lake was too far away for her to travel alone, and there was no one that she can trust to send a message to her father.
Liu Yi promised to tell the Dragon King about her tragic encounters, and after a series of adventures, he finally arrived at the Dragon Palace under Dongting Lake.
The Dragon King and his brother saved the Dragon Princess and took her back, and showed sincere gratitude to Liu Yi.
Some years later, Liu Yi moved back to the Dongting Lake area and married a woman who looks exactly like the Dragon Princess.
It turned out that she fell in love with Liu Yi after he saved her, and had been waiting for him the whole time until he moved back as a single person.
Legend of Changhen or Changhen Zhuan, by Chen Hong.
The first half, from their meeting to Lady Yang's death, is mostly history with literary processing.
The second half, however, is full of imagination.
It describes how the emperor missed Lady Yang, and a Taoist finally found she was a fairy living in a mysterious mountain far away.
She remembered everything and gave the Taoist a token to forward to the emperor, and said that the emperor will pass away very soon, but they will be met again somewhere.
Lady Yang in Legend of Changhen, Drawn by Chahuashi Yuan.
Three Love Legends of the Tang Dynasty
They are all about love stories of young and beautiful women who fell in love with a young man, from a better family.
The endings, however, were quite different.
Tale of Huo Xiaoyu, by Jiang Fang (792 — 835).
Huo Xiaoyu was a beautiful and talented courtesan, who fell in love with a young man named Li Yi, and they spent lots of happy times together.
Later, Li Yi, a talented person from a good family, got a good score in Imperial Examination and obtained political power.
Xiaoyu knew that they could never be together because of their social status. So she begged Li Yi to get married a little bit later and spend a few more years with her. Afterward, she will spend the rest of her life in a temple.
Li Yi agreed and promised, but he got married very soon. Xiaoyu was heartbroken and passed away.
However, Li Yi's married life had never been happy. He married three times and had some concubines, but as long as he got close to a woman, something supernatural would happen.
Exquisite Silver Sachet of the Tang Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Story of Yingying or Yingying Zhuan, by Yuan Zhen (779 — 831).
Zhang Sheng saved Yingying's family from chaos and fell in love with her at first sight at the thanks banquet.
After his pursuit, they fell in love and kept writing to each other when he left the city to participate in the Imperial Examination.
Sometime later, Zhang Sheng changed his mind, under the reason that Yingying was too beautiful and would mess up his head, as those beautiful women did to King Di Xin (? — 1046 BC) and King You of Zhou (795 BC — 771 BC).
A few years passed by, and he wanted to meet Yingying again, though they all got married to other people.
Yingying refused and wrote him a poem telling him to cherish what he had now.
Story of Li Wa or Li Wa Zhuan, by Bai Xingjian (776 — 826).
A young man named Zheng Sheng fell in love with a courtesan named Li Wa and spent most of his money to visit her.
Later, when he was broken and poor, he still stayed in the city where Li Wa lived, instead of going back to his rich family.
Li Wa found out this and was quite touching. She bought herself out and stopped all her business, rented a house to live with him, and supported him to prepare for the Imperial Examination.
A year later, Zheng Sheng got a great score and a political position in the government. Li Wa planned to leave him, for their huge social status differences.
But Zheng Sheng begged her to stay and insisted to marry her.
Their relationship later was accepted and blessed by his good family, and they finally got their happy ending.
Silver Hairpin (Chai) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Storyteller's Script the Vernacular Novel — Song and Yuan Dynasties (960 — 1368)
Three Pagodas on West Lake or Xihu Santa Ji.
A young man named Xi Xuanzan saw a lost girl on the street that claimed to know him. So Xuanzan took her home and provided her well.
About ten days later, an old lady came to take this girl back and insisted to invite Xuanzan to their house to show gratitude.
Xuanzan went with them and arrived at a fabulous mansion, later an extremely beautiful lady in a white dress came and invited him to dinner. To his surprise, their dinner was with another young man.
With the help of the girl he saved, Xuanzan escaped from this place but still got haunted from time to time.
Later, his uncle, also a Taoist, suppressed these three monsters under three pagodas in West Lake, and he finally got his peaceful life back.
One of the Three Ancient Stone Towers on West Lake
Foundations of Great Classic Chinese Novels.
There are three storyteller's script novels during this period, which are prototypes of the great Classic Chinese Novels in the successive dynasties.
Sanguozhi Pinghua tells stories about the Three Kingdoms period (220 — 280), which set a foundation for the great Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Datang Sanzang Qujing Shihua describes the pilgrimage trip of Xuanzang (602 — 664) and is the prototype of Journey to the West.
Dasong Xuanhe Yishi records the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) and the establishment of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), and stories of many people's struggles and fights during this chaotic era. It is the prototype of Water Margin.
Serial Novels in the Golden Era of Classic Chinese Novels — Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912)
Meanwhile, novels became commercialized during this period, when more scholars started to write novels as a career, or means to make money.
Though in the entire ancient history of China, the most talented scholars considered poetry, prose, essays, and historians the most elegant kinds of literature.
Among all works of this period, the Four Great Classical Novels are the most famous and influential:
Romance of the Three Kingdoms or San Guo Yan Yi, by Luo Guanzhong (about 1330 — 1400).
Romance of the Three Kingdoms or San Guo Yan Yi is the first long serial novel of China, which writes about the history and people of the Three Kingdoms Period (220 — 280).
The background of this book starts from the fall of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) to the rise and fall of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu), and ends with the establishment of the Western Jin Dynasty (265 — 371).
Over 1100 characters are portrayed in this masterpiece, including their ambitions, accomplishments, struggles, loyalties, and fights, in this chaotic period.
Based on both official historians and folk stories, this novel is generally accurate in history, also with literary creation and imagination in the details.
Agate Decoration of Cao Cao (155 — 220), the Founder of Kingdom Wei — Henan Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Water Margin or Shui Hu Zhuan, by Shi Nai'an (1296 — 1370).
Water Margin or Shui Hu Zhuan is the first vernacular novel about stories of peasant rebellion in the late Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127).
And this novel is about 108 heroes with exceptional martial arts skills that were expelled by society but kept trying to find their way out.
Their braveness, courage, and achievements in battles impressed the government, which offered them amnesty.
After they joined Song's army and were assigned to wars; they won, but most of them were sacrificed, and some of these surviving ones were murdered by treacherous officials.
Only a few extremely lucky or insightful ones escaped and lived a stable and peaceful life after all of the chaos.
This novel doesn't write much about true history, however, the author's personal experiences made sure his writing about battles and common people in the chaotic era are extremely vivid and accurate.
Shi Nai'an was believed to have participated in one of the rebellious troops of the late Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) and played an important part; a few years later his general was defeated by Zhu Yuanzhang the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).
Golden Cap of the General's Mother —Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Journey to the West or Xi You Ji, by Wu Cheng'en (1500 — 1582).
Journey to the West or Xi You Ji is the first long Shenmo (Gods and Demons Fiction) novel in China, which describes the pilgrimage trip of Xuanzang (602 — 664).
During his adventurous journey, Xuanzang and his three disciples, Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing, visited many exotic states, fought against a series of demons, monsters, and ghosts, and experienced many life-and-death moments.
Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng, by Cao Xueqin (about 1715 — 1763).
Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng, also named Story of the Stone or Shi Tou Ji, is the prime of Classic Chinese Novels.
It tells the rise and fall of four noble families and the fates of people from these houses.
It is about humanity, love, feudal society, the extravagant lifestyle of noble families, and brilliant philosophical ideas.
It also describes and praises women, not just their pretty appearances, but their talents, ambitions, and inner beauties.
Female Characters of Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng Writing Poems, Drawn by Sun Wen (1819 — 1891).
What's more, cultural elements, such as poetry, essay, literature, costume, art, food, architecture, traditional medicine, handicraft, and mythology, are all included in this book.
The reason for these rich cultures and deep philosophy in this novel, except that the author was an eminent scholar, is his life experience.
Cao Xueqin was born into a noble family, whose great grandparents and grandparents were trusted imperial guards and officials of Kangxi Emperor (1654 — 1722), but got condemned and lost almost everything during Yongzheng Emperor's reign in 1728, later was pardoned by Qianlong Emperor in 1747.
This book was written by this brilliant author, who had witnessed extravagance and poverty, experienced extreme noble and humility, reached all sides of society, and tasted all flavors of life.
Painting of Daguanyuan or Grand View Garden, Describing A Banquet of Main Characters of the Dream of the Red Chamber, by An Artist of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — National Museum of China
Besides the Four Great Classical Novels, another two novels also are considered eminent works of this golden era, which deeply revealed humanity.
The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus or Jin Ping Mei, by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng (pseudonym).
Jin Ping Mei, translated as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus, describes the life of Ximen Qing and his women.
It presents desires, humanities, the dark sides of society, and the struggles and falls of common people.
The Unofficial History of the Scholars or Ru Lin Wai Shi, by Wu Jingzi (1701 — 1754).
Talented and diligent people with good scores on the exam, could obtain power and change their fates.
This book tells stories of some scholars, before and after they got good grades and power after their exams. From their ambitions and struggles, desires and persistences, humanity and morality are revealed and explicitly discussed.
Test Paper of Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598 — Qingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmiying)
Realism, Wuxia, Xianxia, and Chinese Web Novels — From 1912 to Today
With the fall of the last feudal empire, the Qing Dynasty in 1912, realism novels about normal people became one of the most important types.
These novels describe ordinary people's struggles and fates in that chaotic era that was full of invasive wars and poverty.
With the establishment of The People's Republic of China in 1949, and economic development in recent decades, Wuxian, Xianxia, and Web Novels became popular.
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