The Somewhat Less Than Critical Commentaries

A Series of Websites Devoted to Chinese Classical Novels

More Classical Chinese Literature


Here is a brief list of a few Chinese Classical Novels, which have English translations. These books are roughly listed in terms of how much I enjoyed reading them. The first five all rank as literary masterpieces so their order is arbitrary.

  1. Outlaws of the Marsh
  2. Journey to the West
  3. Creation of the Gods
  4. Three Kingdoms
  5. The Story of the Stone
  6. Records of the Grand Historian
  7. Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio
  8. The Sorceror's Revolt
  9. Golden Lotus
  10. Jou Pu Tuan
  11. The Scholars
  12. Journey to the North
  13. Yasushi Inoue
  14. Louis Cha
  15. Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants
  1. Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai'An (ca. 1290-ca. 1365) & Luo Guanzhong (ca. 1330-ca. 1400)

    Outlaws of the Marsh describes the events which lead 108 people (105 men and 3 women) to abandon lawful society and band together as leaders of the outlaw fortress on Mt. Liang in the Liangshan Marsh. Many of the men are forced into banditry because of ill treatment by corrupt local government officials. Some of the men join because of crimes committed in the heat of the moment. Other men join because they are framed for various crimes by the outlaws and, knowing that they will receive no justice from a corrupt government, have no choice but to become outlaws themselves. Many of the men join simply to be associated with the gallant leaders of the outlaw band. Finally, some of the men join simply because they are hardcore criminals with a flagrant disregard for the sanctity of other people's lives.

    The world of outlaws is called the "gallant fraternity". Virtuous outlaws are expected to obey the laws of chivalry: rob only the rich, support the poor, kill only the evil, have mercy on the innocent. In addition noble outlaws are expected to display the virtues of filial piety, complete loyalty to other members of the gallant fraternity, and respect for the precepts of Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as respect for the emperor. The apparent contradiction between obeying the emperor and breaking the laws of the empire is justified by the presence of corrupt local government officials, who trick the emperor and keep him ignorant of their graft.

    At face value, Outlaws of the Marsh is simply an extremely well-written action novel, with moments of comedy and moments of tragedy. What elevates Outlaws of the Marsh to the level of a classic of world literature is the depth of the characters who lead the band of outlaws. The best characters in the novel are multi-dimensional. They strive to obey the unwritten laws of the "gallant fraternity", while at the same time they are forced by circumstance (and sometimes simply weakness) to break them. It is in the portrayal of individuals seeking to balance their lives between the noble goal of "cultivating virtue" and the horrific reality of butchering their enemies that Outlaws of the Marsh rises to the level of great literature.

    This book is available in several formats:
    • Outlaws of the Marsh (3 Volumes, 100 Chapters) trans. Sidney Shapiro, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1980. This is a complete translation.
    • The Marshes of Mount Liang (5 Volumes, 100 Chapters) trans. Alex Dent-Young & John Dent-Young, The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 1997-2002. This is a complete translation.
    • All Men Are Brothers (1 Volumes, ? Chapters) trans. Pearl S. Buck, Grove Press, New York, 1937. This is a complete translation by a Nobel Laureate.

  2. Journey to the West by Wu Ch'êng-ên (1505-1580 A.D.)
    This book details the travels of a monk, Tripitaka Tang, from China to India in the seventh century to obtain Buddhist Scriptures and return them to the Emperor of China. The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin sends three supernatural disciples to protect Tripitaka Tang along his journey. First and foremost among these disciples is Monkey, the "Great Sage Equal to Heaven" as he likes to call himself. This work can be enjoyed as a very funny action comedy (ignoring the fact that it is filled with Buddhist philosophy).
    This book is available in several formats:
    • Journey to the West (4 Volumes, 100 Chapters) trans. Anthony C. Wu, University of Chicago, 1977. This is a complete scholarly translation, with abundant endnotes and lyrical translation of poems.
    • Journey to the West (3 Volumes, 100 Chapters) trans. W.J.F. Jenner, (first published by Beijing People's Literature Publishing House, 1955), (published by Foreign Languages Press, hardback 1982, paperback first edition, 1993, second edition 1997). This is a complete translation.
    • Monkey (1 Volume, 30 Chapters: 1-15, 18, 19, 22, 37-39, 44-49, 98-100) trans. Arthur Waley, Grove Press, New York, 1943. This is a very enjoyable version of a few of Monkey's selected exploits.
    • The Monkey King (1 Volume, 39 Chapters) trans. George Theiner, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1964. This is an easy-reading version of a few of Monkey's selected exploits.

  3. Creation of the Gods by Unknown Author(s) during the Ming Dynasty (c. 1368-1644 A.D.)
    This book details the demise of the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1700 to 1100 B.C.) and the rise of the Zhou dynasty (1066 to 256 B.C.) from a mythological point of view.
    This book is available in the following format:
    • Creation of the Gods (2 Volumes, 100 Chapters) trans. Gu Zhizhong, New World Press, Beijing, 1992. This is a complete translation.

  4. Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400 A.D.)
    This book is a novel of historical fiction, describing the events that lead to the collapse of the Han Empire (220 A.D.) in an era known as the period of the three kingdoms. The novel is attributed to Luo Guanzhong, to whom "Outlaws of the Marsh" is also partially attributed. Three Kingdoms is a much more difficult novel to read than "Outlaws of the Marsh" because interspersed between the personal stories of the protagonists (Liu Xuande, Lord Guan, Zhang Fei, and Kong Ming) there are extremely lengthy accounts of military actions, featuring hundreds of names, which come and go without introduction. It takes a careful reading (or multiple careful readings, at least it did for me) to begin to appreciate the depth of the characters in the novel and to recognize it as a literary masterpiece.
    This book is available in the following format:
    • The Three Kingdoms (3 Volumes, 120 Chapters) trans. Moss Roberts, Foreign Languages Press, 1991. This is a complete translation.

  5. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsueh-chin) (1715-1763 A.D.)
    This book has been called a "novel of manners". It describes life within an aristocratic family in seventeenth century China. The families fortunes are on the decline. The novel describes the social, political, and economic troubles, both external and internal. At the center of this novel is Jia Bao-Yu, the son of the family head, and Lin Dai-Yu, an orphaned cousin. In a previous incarnation, Lin Dai-Yu was a plant. When she was feeling dehydrated, the previous incarnation of Jia Bao-Yu brought over some water and spread it on her leaves. For this, Lin Dai-Yu now strives to repay this debt, using the water of her tears. This underlying karmic destiny clouds the blossoming romance between Bao-Yu and Dai-Yu.
    This book is available in several formats:
    • The Story of the Stone (5 Volumes, 120 Chapters) trans. David Hawkes, Penguin Books, New York, 1973. This is a complete translation.
    • Dream of the Red Chamber (1 Volume, 60 Chapters) trans. Chi-chen Wang , Twayne Publishers, 1958. This is an abridged translation.

  6. Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145-89 B.C.)
    This book is actually a piece of nonfiction from roughly 100 B.C., describing events from China's prehistory to detailed accounts of the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty up to 100 B.C. It contains numerous biographies of famous personages of the time. Written by the Emperor's Historian and his son, Sima Qian, it reads like an epic narrative.
    This book is available in this format:
    • Records of the Grand Historian (3 Volumes: (i) Qin Dynasty, (ii) Han Dynasty I, (iii) Han Dynasty II) trans. Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1961, 1993. This is an incomplete translation, but it is the most complete translation available.

  7. Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling (1640-1715 A.D.)
    This book is a collection of ghost stories. Some of the most famous ghosts of the stories include beautiful were-foxes. Most of the stories were folk stories and thus were interpreted and put down by Pu Songling but not created by him.
    This book is available in this format:
    • Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio (1 Volume, 51 Stories) trans. Denis C. & Victor H. Mair, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1991. This is not a complete translation; it is a selection of 51 stories from a total of approximately 500 stories.

  8. The Sorceror's Revolt (Ping Yao Zhuan) by Feng Menglong (1574-1645 A.D.)
    This book has only recently been translated into English. I haven't finished reading it yet; I will update these notes when I do finish.
    This book is available in this format:

  9. Golden Lotus (Chin P'ing Mei) by Wang Shih-chêng (1526-1593 A.D.)
    This book is a spin-off of Chapter 24 of Outlaws of the Marsh. In this version of the story, Golden Lotus escapes death and moves in Ximen Qing. This novel is described as a "moral erotic novel".
    • Golden Lotus (4 volumes, 100 chapters) trans. Clement Egerton, Kegan Paul International, New York, 19??) This translation reads very literally. There is no music to it.
    • Golden Lotus (4 volumes, 100 chapters) trans. Clement Egerton, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1939, 1957) This translation is an earlier publication of the same translation above, but all of the lengthy paragraphs with explicit sexual content have been rendered in Latin. This is called an expurgated version.
    • Chin P'ing Mei (2 volumes, 49 chapters) trans. No translator is named but probably Bernard Miall translating from the German translation by Franz Kuhn, Intro by Arthur Waley, Putmans, 1940) This is an abridged translation.
    • The Plum in the Golden Vase (1 volume, 20 chapters) trans. David Tod Roy, Princeton University Press, 1993) This is clearly the best translation but has only the first 20 chapters. Rumor is that the remaining 80 are NOT forthcoming.

  10. Jou Pu Tuan (The Prayer Mat of Flesh) by Li Yü (1611-1680 A.D.)
    Like "Golden Lotus", which preceded "Jou Pu Tuan" by roughly 70 years, this novel is a moral erotic novel. However the pedantic moralism of the novel is pretty much isolated to the final two chapters of the novel. The bulk of the novel is simply an easy reading narrative describing an intelligent, good-looking young man who decides to sample the world's carnal delights before devoting himself to the life of a Buddhist recluse. His flagrant excesses eventually bring about his ruin. The novel does contain graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, which in the Western world only have an equal in pornography. While some have cited Boccaccio's "Decameron" as an analog of "Jou Pu Tuan" in the world of Western literature, the similarities are superficial and the degree of explicit sexual content is not remotely comparable.
    • Jou Pu Tuan: The Prayer Mat of Flesh (1 volume, 20 chapters) trans. Richard Martin from the German translation by Franz Kuhn, Grove Press, New York, 1963)
    • The Before-Midnight Scholar (1 volume, 20 chapters) trans. Richard Martin from the German translation by Franz Kuhn, Andre Deutsch, London, 1965) This is the same translation as the book above.

  11. The Scholars by Wu Ching-tzu (1701-1754 A.D.)
    This book describes the life of a civil servant in seventeenth century China. As such, it is a sort of political satire, unveiling the corruption inherent in the institution.
    • The Scholars (2 volumes, 55 chapters) trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Foreign Languages Press, 1964)

  12. The Journey to the North (Pei-yu Chi) by Unknown (first published circa the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644))
    This book has typically appeared as one of four parts of a book entitled The Four Journeys (Ssu-yu Chi), respectively entitled The Journey to the North, The Journey to the South, The Journey to the East, and The Journey to the West. The part of this novel entitled The Journey to the West has some of the same content as the more famous epic of the same title, listed above. The Journey to the North relates the occurences which befell one of the Jade Emperor's three souls when he petulantly wished one day to return to the mortal realm. All of Heaven lends a hand in helping the soul, The Venerable Teacher, not fall prey to the world of the red dust, but rather to be able to attain The Way and return to its original form.
    • The Journey to the North An Ethnohistorical Analysis and Annotated Translation of the Chinese Folk Novel (1 volume, 24 chapters) trans. Gary Seaman, University of California Press, 1987)
      In addition to the translation of the novel, the book also contains a forty page essay on the novel by the translator.

  13. Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991 A.D.)
    Yasushi Inoue was a twentieth century Japanese scholar and novelist who had a particular interest in historical China. His novels read very much like Outlaws of the Marsh and Three Kingdoms. Listed below are a few novels by Inoue that I read and enjoyed, and which take place in ancient China
    • Wind And Waves (Futo) (trans. James T. Araki, University of Hawaii Press, 1963, trans. 1989)
      This novel describes Kubilai Khan's attempts to invade Japan told from the point of view of the King of Korea, from whose peninsula the attack is to be launched.
    • Confucius (Koshi) (trans. Roger K. Thomas, Peter Owen Publishers, London, 1989, trans. 1992)
      This is a historical biography in novel form of Confucius. This novel can teach you more about Confucius than reading the Analects directly.
    • Tun-Huang (trans. Jean Oda Moy, Kodansha International, 1959, 1978)
      This novel describes how the trove of Buddhist Scriptures that were a major archeological and cultural find at the beginning of the twentieth century came to be hidden in the Thousand Buddha Caves in the area of China called Tun-Huang in the years between 1023 and 1033 A.D.
    • Lou-lan and Other Stories (trans. James T. Araki, Kodansha International, 1979)
      This novel describes the ephemeral existence of a small city-state bound between larger states in ancient China. The interesting thing about this novel is that it is told knowing beforehand, the fate of the city from archeological records. Thus, the characters in the novel seem to be fated to meet their doom.

  14. Louis Cha (1924 A.D.)
    A lot of Chinese friends (and a variety of websites as well) have indicated that a person who likes "Outlaws of the Marsh" and "Three Kingdoms" would like the writings of Louis Cha, a modern day novelist and, according to the sleeves of his books, "the most widely read novelist in the Chinese-speaking world". On this advice, I first read "The Deer and the Cauldron" then "The Book and The Sword". I avoided "Fox Volante" due to the unanimous condemnation of the inadequacy of the translation. Notes below.
    • The Deer and the Cauldron (trans. John Minford, Oxford University Press, trans. 1999)
      This novel is a three-volume translation of a five-volume original. One assumes therefore that only 60% of the material appears in the English translation. This abridgement is painfully obvious. The unevenness in the novel due to serial origin and episodic nature of story is further exacerbated by the fact that some episodes are missing. While attempts have been made to mend sections with intermediate material missing, the end result is jumpy, awkward, and discontinuous. In one paragraph, a party is traveling out of the capital and in the next they have embarked on a nautical voyage hundreds of miles away to a distant island, with no transition between. The abrupt appearance and disappearance of characters is also probably made more difficult to follow due to the incomplete translation. I preface my following comments with this initial remark on the effects of the incompleteness of the translation.
      Incompleteness aside, this novel has some mildly entertaining story to it. As an action novel, it, at times, does have the capability to get the reader engrossed. But by and large, it is a story of infantile omnipotence, tempered only by the protagonist's nearly complete ineptness at martial arts. There is really no comparison between classics like "Outlaws of the Marsh" and "Three Kingdoms" and this novel, "The Deer and the Cauldron". Louis Cha may be analogous to Tom Clancy in the West, a widely popular writer of action novels, but to compare Louis Cha to Luo Guanzhong is like comparing Tom Clancy to Shakespeare. The comparison doesn't exist. Since the quality of writing is not an accurate basis of comparison, one wonders where the recommendation (if you liked "Outlaws of the Marsh", you will like Louis Cha) came from. Even the content of the novels is not very similar. The classics follow hundreds of characters around. In "Outlaws of the Marsh", it is true that Song Jiang is the protagonist, and in "Three Kingdoms", Xuande is the primary protagonist, but a relatively small percentage of the text is devoted to describing their actions and words. In contrast, virtually all of "The Deer and the Cauldron" remains in the immediate vicinity of the protagonist, Trinket Wei. The classics are grand-ranging descriptions of national politics, made into a narrative through the attention to the personalities of the characters involved. While "The Deer and the Cauldron" does have some international political settings, it is largely a slapstick adventure novel of an individual, who through the coincidences so unlikely that Charles Dickens himself would have been ashamed to pen them, ends up in the middle of a variety of situations of national impact. The end result is a novel that is more targeted at juveniles. Certainly, no one would say the same of "Outlaws of the Marsh" and "Three Kingdoms". While these classics can be read by young people, they are not the primary audience. Young people can probably read the classics strictly on the literal level of an adventure novel. The difference between the classics and "The Deer and the Cauldron", is that in the latter, a second, more substantial level doesn't exist.
    • The Book and The Sword (trans. Graham Earnshaw, Oxford University Press, trans. ????)
      Despite my rather lackluster reaction to "The Deer and the Cauldron", I decided to read another novel by Louis Cha, in which the entire work was available in translation. Comments will be posted at a later date.

  15. Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants by ???
    This book describes the life of a civil servant, Magistrate Bao (999-1072) who is aided in dispensing justice through the intercession of a group of gallants trained in the martial arts. While I was annoyed by the incompleteness of the the translation of the "The Deer and the Cauldron", that was nothing compared to my reaction to this incomplete translation. At least in the case of the Cha novel, there was an attempt to patch together the chapters between which material had been omitted. This does not appear to the be case for "Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants". As one reads it, it appears that each chapter has been translated faithfully with no regard for the fact that the final product will contain only 44 of more than 100 chapters. As such, the novel gets progressively more and more difficult to read, as an increasing number of episodes are omitted and the number of references to completely unknown people and events multiply. In fact, by the end of the book, this fragmentary retelling is so difficult to follow, that I simply put down the book in frustration, skipping the last chapter, as a personal and (admittedly meaningless) show of protest against the poor product of this publishing house. This should be compared with the brilliant abridged translation of "Journey to the West" by Arthur Waley in which 30 of the 100 chapters are translated and presented in a delightful and coherent story.
    The content of "Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants" appears to contain a very entertaining story that will be worth reading if it every appears in a complete translation, or at least in an abridged form in which the translator has made some attempt to account for the missing material.
    • Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants (1 volumes, contains portions of 44 chapters) trans. Susan Blader, The Chinese University Press, 1998)


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Outlaws of the Marsh: When the outlaws finally take Daming, the city is pillaged and over 30,000 government troops are killed.