Introducing the Classics: Chinese Literature

There are four great classical novels in Chinese literature:

As part of the boys’ education on their own culture and background, we wanted them to be familiar with these texts. Originally written in Chinese, these books have several translations into English. As an introduction for children, these easy-reading children’s versions are a great place to start:

Journey to the West

Wu Cheng’en ( 1500-1582) was a novelist and poet of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and is believed to be the original author of this story.

In ancient China a magical monkey appears, creating chaos everywhere he goes. The only way to put his tricks and talents to good use is to make him protector of Xuanzang, a young and handsome monk determined to travel from China to India in search of the precious scriptures. Monkey and his fellow disciples, Piggy and Sandy, have to protect Xuanzang from monsters and demons who think they can live forever just by taking a bite out of the monk. Can Xuanzang and his loyal disciples reach India safely and find what they are looking for? Do they have enough confidence and courage to conquer the demons, both those lurking around them and those within their own hearts? Full of humor and adventure, Journey to the West is a story of self-discovery and the pursuit of excellence. Written by Chinese scholar Wu Cheng’en more than four hundred years ago, it reflects everyone’s pilgrimage towards truth, peace and beauty.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400) is the Chinese writer who has traditionally been credited as the author of the classic Chinese novels Sanguozhi yanyi (Three Kingdoms) and Shuihuzhuan (Water Margin, or All Men Are Brothers).

The great empire of China is in turmoil. As the government becomes increasingly incompetent, warlords and nobles battle for power. In the north is the Kingdom of Wei, headed by cunning and manipulative Cao Cao. In the southeast is the Kingdom of Wu, ruled by masterful and charismatic Sun Quan. In the west is the Kingdom of Shu, commanded by kind-hearted and humble Liu Bei. Cao has committed murder and betrayal on his way to glory, only to see his family’s throne overthrown by other scheming crooks. Sun and his advisor Zhou Yu have established a military stronghold, but are no match against Liu’s military strategist Zhuge Liang, who wisely advocates tolerance and mutual respect. Full of thrilling action, sophisticated stratagems, passionate brotherhood and loyalty, The Three Kingdoms sums up all the most important lessons of history.

Water Margin

Shi Nai’an (1296―1371) was a classical Chinese author attributed as the first compiler of Water Margin from Suzhou. Some modern scholars doubt that Shi actually existed, and believe his was a teacher of Luo Guanzhong, who was attributed as a main compiler of Romance of Three Kingdoms.

Although Song Jiang is only a lowly local government official, he is loyal to the emperor and kind to all the citizens in his care. But Song is in trouble. A series of unfortunate incidents have led to him being arrested, and his political enemies are keen to see him sentenced to death. There is still hope, however. One hundred and eight brave bandits from Mount Liang have heard of Song’s good name – they are willing to rescue him as long as Song will lead them in rebelling against the corrupt government. Will Song agree to become an outlaw? Will he be able to tread the narrow path between right and wrong? Will justice eventually prevail over corruption and the misuse of power?

Dream of the Red Chamber

Cao Xueqin was a Qing Dynasty Chinese writer and believed to be the original author for this story.

Baoyu has always believed that he will marry his childhood sweetheart, Daiyu. Daiyu is beautiful and talented, very sensitive, and physically fragile. It is a huge shock to him when he learns that his parents want him to marry Baochai instead, a healthy and considerate girl. Baoyu’s family is fast losing its fame and fortune. One by one, Baoyu’s female friends, relatives and servants are being married off or sold, and he realizes just how much he values the qualities of the women in his life. Will Baoyu surrender to life’s harsh realities and give up his true love? What can he do to protect the women he loves from violence, neglect and abuse? Full of a fiery passion for love and beauty, Dream of the Red Chamber is the story of a young man in search of what is truly important to him.

These titles that are terrific for teaching children about Chinese culture and customs. We believe it is important for the children of today – whatever their background – to learn about their history and heritage so that we do not lose the rich cultures of our ancestors.

About Read Reads

Real Reads are accessible texts designed to support the literacy development of primary and lower secondary age children while introducing them to the riches of our international literary heritage. Each book is a retelling of a work of great literature from one of the world’s greatest cultures, fitted into a 64-page book, making classic stories, dramas and histories available to intelligent young readers as a bridge to the full texts, to language students wanting access to other cultures, and to adult readers who are unlikely ever to read the original versions.