Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties Essay - Critical Essays

Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties


Novels of the Ming and Early Ch'ing Dynasties

Genre of realistic fiction with popular appeal that developed around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in China.

The Chinese novel as a genre and art form flowered in the late Ming and early Ch'ing Dynasties, roughly between 1550 and 1800. Its roots can be traced to a long storytelling tradition throughout the Middle Ages, especially as storytelling became a favored entertainment for the leisure classes in urban centers in the Sung era (960-1279). Lengthy storytelling performances came to require notes or outlines, called hua-pen, and these sometimes developed into booklets to be read separately from the storytelling experience. The following Yuan Dynasty, however, was not an auspicious time for fiction: Chinese society was less stable, and the Mongols threw their support behind the development of the drama. The stability and prosperity brought by the Ming in the mid-fourteenth century, however, could sustain a variety of arts, and written stories in the vernacular language again became popular. By the mid-sixteenth century, moreover, technological advances had greatly increased the capacity for printing, and international trade had expanded the size of the known world. Scholars also increasingly accepted popular art forms—such as novels and drama—as valid literary genres worthy of serious consideration. These factors set the stage for what has sometimes been called the golden age of the Chinese novel.

The father of the movement is often considered to be Lo Kuan-chung, whose San-kuo-chih yen-i (Romance of the Three Kingdoms; ca. 1400-1500) stands as the earliest historical novel in China, written during the early Ming Dynasty. Like many Ming and Ch'ing novels that followed it, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a mix of accurate history and imaginative fiction; it is an epic story involving hundreds of characters, focusing closely on warring factions and political strife. Lo is also assumed to be the editor of Shui-hu chuan (Water Margin; sometimes translated as All Men are Brothers or Outlaws of the Marsh; ca. 1400-1500), which was possibly authored by Shih-Nai-an. The publication history of Water Margin reflects the episodic nature of the early Chinese novel as well as the lack of emphasis on the original voice of the author. Editors of versions published throughout the Ming and Ch'ing eras deleted and added material, reordered sections, and rewrote portions of the work. The Kuo Wu-tin version of the sixteenth century is very nearly an entirely new work, improved (according to some) in style and substance. An expanded version of the Kuo Wu-tin Water Margin appeared in the last years of the Ming era, and early in the Ch'ing era the most popular edition was published, with thirty of the original one hundred chapters cut from the end.

The Wan Li period of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620) saw the publication of two more of the great masterworks of the Chinese novel, each a representative of a distinct genre of fiction. Hsi-yu chi (Journey to the West; ca. 1573-1620) is a novel of magic and the supernatural, quite distinct from the historical fictions preceding it. The journey of the title is one to find Buddhist sutras, and it is punctuated by encounters with monsters and demons. The story suits the tenor of its times, when the Taoist Emperor Wan Li appointed alchemists and magicians to high office. The realism of Chin p'ing mei (The Golden Lotus; 1610), the other major novel of this period and among the most important Chinese novels in history, stands in contrast to the fantasy of Journey to the West, but is nonetheless similarly a product of late Ming culture. Graphic descriptions of the corruption and decadence of the ruling class characterize The Golden Lotus, which despite its often pornographic tone has been hailed as a major artistic achievement.

Even with the eroticism of works like The Golden Lotus and such later Ch'ing examples as Jou p'u-t'uan (Carnal Prayer Mat; 1705), novels of the Ming and Ch'ing eras were characteristically concerned with moral correctness and traditional Chinese culture and values. The Ch'ing satire Ju-lin wai-shih (The Scholars; 1750), considered by some the best of its kind, similarly emphasizes a strict moral vision in its portrayal of corrupt society.

Most Ming and Ch'ing novels tie together several story lines involving hundreds of characters in order to represent a broad tableau of Chinese culture. The importance of understanding the individual in terms of his network of relationships reflects the philosophical underpinnings of the genre, which diminish the value of individualism and celebrate loyalty to family and respect for authority. Hung-lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber; 1791), the Ch'ing novel often highlighted as the culmination of the Ming-Ch'ing flowering of the novel form, often presents its hero Pao-yü with a choice between attaining his own desires and remaining steadfast to his family and community. Pao-yü's eventual decision to cut himself off from his society is thus his tragedy—no matter how corrupt or cruel that society may be.

English-language scholarship on the Chinese novel has generally sought to make the texts accessible to the Western reader. Only a small fraction of novels are available in English translations, which requires the scholar to provide extensive translations and paraphrases in order to convey to the reader a sense of the text. Differences in morality, characterization, and poetics challenge readers accustomed to a Western emphasis on psychological portraiture and individuality. Generic studies have sought to explain the aims of Chinese fiction, focusing on subcategories such as the military romance and the historical novel. Only toward the late twentieth century did scholarship begin to focus on interpreting the works from a cultural studies perspective, including the representation of women. Despite cultural barriers, however, Western readers have appreciated both the epic scope and the attention to realistic details that mark the classical Chinese novel.

Representative Works

*Chin p'ing mei [The Golden Lotus] (novel) 1610

Li Yu
Jou p'u-t'uan [Carnal Prayer Mat; Prayer Mat of Flesh] (novel) 1705

Lo Kuan-chung
San-kuo-chih yen-i [The Romance of the Three Kingdoms] (novel) ca. 1400-1500

Shui-hu chuan [The Water Margin; All Men Are Brothers; Outlaws of the Marsh] (novel) ca. 1400-1500

Ts'ao Chan
Hung-lou meng [The Dream of the Red Chamber] (novel) 1791

Wu Ch'eng-en
Hsi-yu chi [Monkey; Journey to the West] (novel) ca. 1573-1620

Wu Ching-tzu
Ju-lin wai-shih [The Scholars; Unofficial History of Officialdom] (novel) ca. 1750

*Some scholars propose Xu Wei or Wang Shizhen as the author of Chin p'ing mei.

†Shih-Nai-an is suggested as the author, but cannot be substantiated. Later editors made changes and improvements significant enough to be considered authorial—the author of the Kuo Wu-tin version (possibly Wang Tai-han; ca. 1522-1566) and later Chin Sheng-t'an (ca. 1610-1661—thus complicating the question of the date of the work. Lo Kuan-chung has been suggested as the author of the last thirty chapters of the earliest 100-chapter edition.

‡Ts'ao Chan wrote the first 80 chapters of this novel before his death in 1763, when Kao E provided the last 40 chapters.

Criticism: Overviews And Historical Development

Ch'en Shou-Yi (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Ch'en Shou-Yi. “Hua-Pen to Novel.” In Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction, pp. 479-497. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1961.

[In this essay, Ch'en outlines the historical development of the Chinese novel, beginning with the prose fiction and romances of the Sung and T'ang Dynasties. Ch'en discusses early novelists' use of legend, history, and everyday diction to create a popular, if not highly regarded, literary style.]

The evolution of p'ing hua seems to have paralleled the development of southern drama. Both types of literature appealing to the populace began making their appearance during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Both...

(The entire section is 8790 words.)

John L. Bishop (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Bishop, John L. “Some Limitations of Chinese Fiction.” In Studies in Chinese Literature, pp. 237-47. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

[In this essay, Bishop discusses the difficulty of understanding and enjoying Chinese fiction from a Western perspective. Using the masterworks of the Western literary tradition as a standard, Bishop finds early Chinese fiction deficient in characterization, morality, and rationality.]

One wonders what the general reading public has made of the translations of traditional Chinese fiction which have recently appeared in bookstores, in several instances in paper-bound series usually devoted to up-to-date novels...

(The entire section is 4565 words.)

Robert E. Hegel (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Hegel, Robert E. “Maturation and Conflicting Values: Two Novelists' Portraits of the Chinese Hero Ch'in Shu-pao.” In Critical Essays on Chinese Fiction,, edited by Winston L. Y. Yang and Curtis P. Adkins, pp.115-150. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1980.

[In this essay, Hegel focuses on the frequently appearing character of Ch'in Shu-pao, also known as Ch'in Ch'iung, a military hero of the seventh century. Hegel examines depictions of this historical figure in novels from both the Ming and Ch'ing eras to demonstrate key philosophical changes reflected in the development of the novel. Note that in the following essay, Chinese characters have been silently removed.]...

(The entire section is 18261 words.)

Criticism: Major Works—Overview

Liu Wu-chi (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Liu Wu-chi. “Great Novels by Obscure Writers.” In An Introduction to Chinese Literature, pp. 228-46. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1966.

[In this essay, Liu provides an overview of the major novels of the late Ming and early Ch'ing dynasties: Journey to the West, The Golden Lotus, Dream of the Red Chamber, and The Scholars. With the exception of Journey to the West, Liu finds that an unflinching, even graphic realism characterizes the masterworks of the early Chinese novel.]

Contemporaneous with the short story, the Chinese novel flourished from the middle of the Ming dynasty to the end of the Ch'ing (sixteenth to early...

(The entire section is 10353 words.)

C. T. Hsia (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “Chin P'ing Mei.” In The Classic Chinese Novel, pp. 165-202. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

[In this excerpt, Hsia uses the story of Lotus, a novel within the novel Chin P'ing Mei (The Golden Lotus), to illuminate the strengths and the moral attitude of the text. The extreme obscenity of some portions of the novel are, for Hsia, a key aspect of its forceful “moral realism,” and they represent some of the best writing in the work.]

One cannot expect a work to possess ideological or philosophical coherence when it manifests such obvious structural anarchy. Yet, before one can properly appreciate the finer aspects of...

(The entire section is 9965 words.)

David T. Roy (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Roy, David T. “Chang Chu-p'o's Commentary on the Chin p'ing mei.” In Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Andrew H. Plaks, pp. 115-23. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

[In this essay, Roy suggests that Chang Chu-p'o's commentary on Chin p'ing mei (The Golden Lotus) represents an early Chinese poetics of the novel. Chang Chu-p'o's assessment of the novel focuses on the style, structure, and technique of the work and de-emphasizes the issues of allegory and morality for which The Golden Lotus was notorious.]

In 1644 Chin Sheng-t'an (d. 1661) published an edition of the Shui-hu chuan, the...

(The entire section is 3772 words.)

Winston L. Y. Yang, Peter Li and Nathan K. Mao (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Yang, Winston L. Y., Peter Li, and Nathan K. Mao. “Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin,” and “Journey to the West and Flowers in the Mirror.” In Classical Chinese Fiction: A Guide to Its Study and Appreciation, pp. 39-51, 71-78. London: George Prior Publishers, 1978.

[In these excerpts, Yang, Li and Mao first outline the importance of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin as foundational texts in the history of the Chinese novel. They address the evolution of the texts through the seventeenth century and the differing approaches to history taken by each author. They also note the varying interpretations...

(The entire section is 11418 words.)

C. T. Hsia (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “A Dream of Red Mansions.” In Approaches to the Asian Classics, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, pp. 262-73. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[In this essay, Hsia introduces Hung-lou men, translated often as The Dream of the Red Chamber or as A Dream of Red Mansions, to a Western reading audience. Hsia argues that the novel is the culmination of the development of the Chinese novel through the Ming and early Ch'ing period, drawing from earlier landmark works including Chin p'ing mei.]

The Chinese novel Hung-lou meng is customarily known in English as The Dream of the Red Chamber...

(The entire section is 4029 words.)

Criticism: Genre Studies

C. T. Hsia (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Hsia, C. T. “The Military Romance: A Genre of Chinese Fiction.” In Studies in Chinese Literary Genres, edited by Cyril Birch, pp. 337-78. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1974.

[In this excerpt, Hsia attempts to define the genre of the military romance, distinguishing such novels from historical novels that focus on a popularized retelling of events. Hsia bases his arguments on novels from the Ming and Ching dynasties that detail, with some embellishment, the battles of the T'ang and Sung eras. Note that Chinese characters in the following essay have been silently removed.]

Students of traditional Chinese fiction have customarily divided...

(The entire section is 17864 words.)

Y. W. Ma (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Ma, Y. W. “The Chinese Historical Novel: An Outline of Themes and Contexts.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (February, 1975): 277-93.

[In this essay, Ma examines examples of historical novels in order to determine the themes that appear most often within the genre, including dynasty building and national security. Ma also notes an emphasis on self-abnegation and on instruction in the genre.]

In China, as in the West, fiction is a late development in the literary scene and serious fiction criticism is correspondingly a recent endeavor.1 The similarity goes further in the case of the historical novel, which critics of Chinese and Western...

(The entire section is 10677 words.)

Robert Hessney (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Hessney, Robert. “Themes.” In Beautiful, Talented, and Brave: Seventeenth-Century Chinese Scholar-Beauty Romances,, pp. 158-96. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1979.

[In this excerpt, Hessney considers the themes of love and courtship, poetry and wine, and Confucian morality in the novel genre of scholar-beauty romances. Works studied include Western Chamber Romance, The Green Peonies, Yü chiao li, and Haoch'iu chuan. Note that Chinese characters in this essay have been silently removed.]

In this chapter I propose to discuss the themes of scholar-beauty romances. Although the following chapter is devoted to...

(The entire section is 11621 words.)

Criticism: Cultural And Social Themes

Robert E. Hegel (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Hegel, Robert E. “Man as Responsible Being: The Individual, Social Role, and Heaven.” In The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China,, pp 105-39. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

[In this essay, Hegel examines the portrayal of individualism and self-indulgence in novels, including The Merry Adventures of Emperor Yang and Forgotten Tales of the Sui. Hegel finds that themes of fatalism and responsibility to the larger community counter individual expression for seventeenth-century Chinese authors.]

Loyalty and integrity are lost in times of chaos; uprightness and honor become obscured. Today a subject of this contender,...

(The entire section is 18168 words.)

Yenna Wu (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Wu, Yenna. “Condemnation: Other Fiction.” In The Chinese Virago: A Literary Theme, pp. 106-23. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

[In this excerpt, Wu focuses on cruel, violent women in seventeenth-century novels, including The Saga of Emperor Wu of the Liang, Marriage Destinies, and The Forgotten History of Buddhists. Such women contradict the social values of Confucian and Buddhist morality with outrageous and grotesque crimes, but many authors drew a complex portrait of the virago that was not without sympathy.]

While cruel palace women and officials' wives often appear in fictionalized histories, viragos from among the common...

(The entire section is 9398 words.)

Further Reading


Berry, Margaret. The Chinese Classic Novels: An Annotated Bibliography of Chiefly English-language Studies. New York, Garland Publishing, 1988, 302 p.

Bibliography of recent Western scholarship and editions of six major Chinese novels from 1600-1800 includes a glossary of terms and a short history of the novel's development in China.

Hightower, James Robert. Topics in Chinese Literature: Outlines and Bibliographies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966, 141 p.

Outlines the major works in the history of Chinese fiction and other popular literature, with a brief introduction and an annotated list of...

(The entire section is 569 words.)