20 Essential Chinese Novels

Because of China’s ancient history and massive geography conducive to hosting myriad cultures and subcultures, capturing its entire novelistic history in only 20 reads proves quite a daunting, admittedly impossible task. But the following sample — which should be digested as such rather than a definitive meal — covers a few different eras and philosophies that have irreversibly shaped the nation. Here in the States, students rarely get the chance to explore historical and cultural phenomena outside North America and Europe. Those piqued by the prospect of gathering new ideas and insights, regardless of whether or not they necessarily agree with or relate to them, might want to pick up a few of these novels. And then, of course, explore all the other facets of Chinese literature if they so desire.

  1. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th Century) by Luo Guanzhong:

    Myth and history collide in this riveting fictional account of the Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms’ inevitable waning. Literary types and history scholars consider Romance of the Three Kingdoms one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels — an essential read that ensured previously oral-only traditions survived the centuries.

  2. Water Margin (14th Century) by Shi Nai’an:

    Another book lauded with the Four Great Classical Novels label, Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin (which goes by several different names in English, including Outlaws of the Marsh) relays folktales of the outlaw Song Jiang. His band of 36 men — later swelling to 108 — thrives and falls as the Song Dynasty rages onward.

  3. Fengshen Yanyi (16th Century) by Lu Xixing and Xu Zhonglin:

    Fantasy and religion buffs will undoubtedly find plenty to love about the gods, goddesses, spirits and other mystical, mythical figures around which this narrative centers. As the Shang Dynasty ends and the Zhou Dynasty begins, traditional Taoist deities, immortals and heroes decide to intervene in mortal affairs, forever altering China’s (and the world’s) history.

  4. Journey to the West (1590s) by Wu Cheng’en:

    One of the most beloved epics of all time — and probably the only Four Great Classical Novels with significant international familiarity — follows Monkey King Sun Wukong’s mounting experiences, education and power levels. But simultaneously swelling pride and recklessness eventually prove his undoing, as he brashly rises up against Taoist gods and goddesses.

  5. Dream of the Red Chamber (18th Century) by Cao Xueqin:

    The last of the Four Great Classical Novels, Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber not only revolutionized Chinese vernacular literature, it even spawned its own scholarly field, known as “Redology!” Here, a pair of wealthy families watch their wealth, reputation, loves and lives ebb and flow based partly on the author’s own experiences and observations.

  6. The Scholars (1750) by Wu Jingzi:

    Wu Jingzi took a naturalistic approach to satirizing Ming academics, infusing the story with Confucian themes and warnings against taking studies so seriously, everything else ends up precluded. The Scholars is also notable for its depiction of female characters as equally capable as their male counterparts and the rebuilding of a beloved family temple.

  7. The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants (1870s?) by Shi Yukun:

    Yu Yue helped kick-start the wuxia (martial arts) literary genre, choosing to adapt popular performer and storyteller Shi Yukun’s riveting adventure tales. Justice Bao Zheng, a very popular Song Dynasty official, acts the hero and carries out his detective work in the most ass-kicking manner possible.

  8. The Family (1933) by Ba Jin:

    First of the Torrents Trilogy, The Family sheds some excellent light on the fengjian form of government, showcasing its impact on three very different brothers. The author never considered the originally-serialized novel as purely autobiographical, but did pull from his own feudal system experiences to write it.


  9. Midnight (1933) by Mao Dun:

    This novel is often touted as one of the most important of communist Chinese literature, offering up a very sensitive portrayal of impoverished workers in Shanghai. It also helped nurture the then-nascent revolutionary sentiment — hardly surprising, considering the author eventually worked for Mao Zedong as the Minister of Culture.

  10. Rickshaw Boy (1937) by Lao She:

    Follow the eponymous character as he embarks on a fascinating series of adventures (and misadventures) involving some very interesting individuals. He simultaneously wrestles with whether or not he wants to own his own rickshaw business or continue working for someone else.

  11. Tracks in the Snowy Forest (1957) by Qu Bo:

    Considered one of the quintessential Chinese novels of the post-revolution period, Tracks in the Snowy Forest takes readers on a perilous journey through the wintry wilderness. Soldiers intensely struggle against a deadly assignment taking them to the mountains in search of some very dangerous outlaws.

  12. Song of Youth (1958) by Yang Mo:

    Taking place between the September 18th Incident (1931) and December 19th Movement (1935), this bestseller explored the Communist Party of China’s heavy impact on youth culture. Both triumphs and tragedies end up relayed here, inspired by Yang Mao’s own coming of age during a particularly volatile historical period.

  13. Lust, Caution (1979) by Eileen Chang:

    Lust, Caution boasts a sexy, steamy tale of love and espionage during World War II — a perfect read for spy genre aficionados. A fetching young actress emerges from retirement to participate in a Japanese man’s assassination, but doesn’t anticipate actually falling for him.

  14. Soul Mountain (1990) by Gao Xingjian:

    Gao Xingjian’s haunting experiment blending folktales, autobiography and various literary genres and devices helped earn him 2000’s Nobel Prize for Literature — the first Chinese author to ever earn such a laudable distinction. Here, a man decides to hunt for Lingshan, a mountain existing only in fables, and tries to find some life answers along the way.

  15. Big Breasts & Wide Hips (1996) by Mo Yan:

    Big Breasts & Wide Hips boasts two different literary distinctions, the Kiriyama Prize and a Man Asian Literary Prize nominations. Its narrative takes seven decades to fully unfold, revolving around rural Chinese life during one of the nation’s most pivotal, violent and internationally game-changing centuries.

  16. A Dictionary of Maqiao (1996) by Han Shaogong:

    This novel explores the titular Hunan village in a structurally fascinating way, containing 115 encyclopedia entries about different facets of its life and history. Penned by a fictional student conducting research for Down to the Countryside, all of the different entries end up working together as an entire unit as well as separately.

  17. Private Life (1996) by Chen Ran:

    Although none of Chen Ran’s books have yet to be outright banned by the Chinese government, she certainly elicits quite the controversy amongst readers who consider her oeuvre far too personal and self-centered. Private Life probably stands as her most widely-debated, relaying a highly personal, frequently sexual bildungsroman about a college girl who loses her lover in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

  18. K: The Art of Love (1999) by Hong Ying:

    An international bestseller praised for its intense emotion and eroticism, Hong Ying’s most celebrated book dreams up a scintillating affair between a British man and a Chinese woman. While Japan invades its massive neighbor, the two struggle against their feelings and prevailing social stigmas against interracial relationships.

  19. Shanghai Baby (1999) by Zhou Weihui:

    Shanghai Baby ended up banned in China for its extremely frank depictions of sexuality and drug use, though the author considered Americans and Europeans her target audience anyways. The novel’s controversy also mirrors that of Private Life, inciting scandal because for its deeply intimate, personal nature — dismissed as arrogant and frivolous.

  20. Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke:

    Another book banned by the Chinese government, this time for its fictionalized exposure of the nauseating, inhumane treatment of AIDS. In the eponymous town, citizens who once sold their blood fall one by one from the devastating disease — one that officials decide to cover up rather than address.