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Top 5 Works of Chinese Literature You Must Know


1. Analects (simplified Chinese: 论语; pinyin: Lún Yǔ)


The Analects, also known as the Analects of Confucius, is the fundamental text of Confucianism.

It is a collection of the sayings of the great Chinese thinker and philosopher Confucius as recorded by his students and, in turn, by their followers during the Spring and Autumn (770 BC - 446 BC) and Warring States periods (475 BC - 221 BC).

Some of the 20 chapters of the Analects were translated into Latin by Western Christian missionaries in the late 16th century. The work has since been translated into many languages, most notably into English by James Legge, Arthur Waley, Charles Muller, and William Edward Soothill.

Wide-ranging and profound, concise yet comprehensive, the Analects was regarded as a textbook on how to live by the Chinese people, and continues to have enormous influence on Chinese and East Asian thought and values.


2. Outlaws of the Marsh (simplified Chinese: 水浒传; pinyin: Shuǐ Hǔ Zhuàn)


Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as The Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers is one of the four great Chinese classic novels together with The Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Written by Shi Nai'an more than 600 years ago, Outlaws of the Marsh is based on the story of the outlaw Song Jiang and his 36 companions, and details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty. It has been compared to the tales of Robin Hood.

Full of legendary stories, the novel describes in vivid and expressive language a total of 787 characters, more figures than any other novel in the world.

There have been many translations of the work, including versions by Pearl Buck and Sidney Shapiro, an American Jewish scholar who later took Chinese nationality.


3. Journey to the West (simplified Chinese: 西游记; pinyin: Xī Yóu Jì)


Journey to the West was written by Wu Cheng'en in the 1570s and is based on the epic journey of the Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang (602 – 664) to India to collect Buddhist scriptures.

The novel revolves around Xuanzang's mythical disciple - the impetuous and powerful Monkey King, Sun Wukong - who captures readers' hearts with his bold, rebellious and mischievous personality. Wu Cheng'en's version of the story is a thinly-disguised satire on Chinese society.

Tales from the Journey to the West are part of growing up for all children in China and throughout East Asia. One reason for the novel's enduring popularity is that it works on multiple levels: it is an adventure story, a source of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India stands for the individual journeying toward enlightenment. An abridged translation by Arthur Waley, called Monkey, is regarded as one of the best English translations. There is also an excellent complete version in three volumes by Professor William Jenner.


4. A Dream of Red Mansions (simplified Chinese: 红楼梦; pinyin: Hóng Lóu Mèng)


A Dream of Red Mansions, also referred to as The Story of the Stone, is another of the four great Chinese novels. Written by Cao Xueqin sometime in the middle of the 18th century, it is generally acknowledged to be the pinnacle of classical Chinese novels and has had a profound influence on later generations.

The masterpiece is comprised of 120 chapters, only the first 80 of which were written by Cao Xueqin. The work was completed by Gao E. A Dream of Red Mansions is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the fortunes of the author Cao Xueqin's own family. As the author explains in the first chapter, it is intended as a memorial to the women he knew in his youth: friends, relatives and servants.

The novel is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters and psychological scope, but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of the 18th-century Chinese upper class. It has generated a huge volume of scholarship, and has given rise to its own specialized field of study known in China as Redology. Probably the finest English translation is by the husband and wife team of Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.


5. The Art of War (simplified Chinese: 孙子兵法; pinyin: Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ)


The Art of War is one of those rare works that transcend time. Though it was written more than 2,000 years ago, it is remains arguably the most important work ever written on the subject of strategy.

Written by the brilliant Chinese named Sun Wu, The Art of War was intended for the military elite of his time.

However, his treatise would later be absorbed by other leaders including Mao Zedong, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, and General Douglas MacArthur, all of whom claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work.

The Art of War is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare. The text is pragmatic and universally applicable to any situation that requires absolute victory. It has been adopted as a bible by shrewd business leaders of the 21st century. English versions are available worldwide.