"Journey to the West", "Outlaws of the Marsh", "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", and "Dream of the Red Chamber" are universally accepted by all Chinese people as their greatest novels. Even the illiterate Chinese are intimately knowledgeable with the plot and the main characters of these novels because they have been the sources of much popular entertainment, whether it was the traveling opera of old or the contemporary movies and TV serials. In terms of how well the story is told, "Three Kingdoms" and "Red Chamber" are vastly superior to the other two works. In fact each of their fans, Chinese and foreign, consider their respective novel the best novel ever written. Anywhere. "Three Kingdoms" is the best novel in the strategy and action/adventure category while "Red Chamber" is the greatest romantic novel.
These novels are long, some being over 3,000 pages long, depending on the edition. Abridged versions are available but we strongly recommend against reading just the abridged versions of "Three Kingdoms" and "Red Chamber", because you'll want to read the full version sooner or later. On the other hand, "Journey to the West", "Outlaws of the Marsh", and "The Scholars" are written as a series of loosely connected stories and therefore may not lose as much from abridgement.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Written by Luo Guanzhong, ca 1330-ca 1400
Translated by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor
Charles E. Tuttle Co., 2002
2 volumes (sold separately)
Rating:Many fans consider it the greatest novel ever written This is a historical fiction about events occurring around 150AD when the ruling Han dynasty was crumbling and China was divided into three competing kingdoms. This is a fascinating novel about military supremacy, a real life game of Risk played with the whole of China as the gameboard. There are many encounters between fierce warriors, brilliant military strategies, and suspenseful intrigues but ultimately the novel is about human motivation, loyalty, and greed for power.
The Dream of the Red Chamber
aka The Story of the Stone
Written by Cao Xueqin (1717-1763) and Gao E, ca 1750
Translated by David Hawkes and John Minford
Penguin Books, 1973
5 volumes (sold separately)
This is the other contender for best novel ever written. The story is about Jia Baoyu, a teen boy from a rich and powerful family who lives in an idyllic garden surrounding by his female cousins and maids. Baoyu is hopelessly in love with his cousin Lin Daiyu but, unbeknownst to either of them, Baoyu is tricked into marrying another cousin. The book has a very large cast of characters but each of them, including the many maids, is developed with great attention to detail. Volumes have been written around the hidden symbolism in the novel (such as the two girl cousins representing different aspects of the ideal woman). Traditional fans have been women because of the subject matter but it is a great romantic novel for everyone who has ever had a childhood crash.
aka Outlaws of the Marsh
Written by Shi Nai-an (ca 1290-ca 1365) and Luo Guanzhong, (ca 1330-ca 1499)
Translated by Sidney Shapiro
Acacia Press, 2001
4 volume set, 2149 pages
One of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, this one is called a Robin Hood story because it tells the exploits of a group of outlaws who steals from corrupt officials to give to the poor. However, I find more like the "Justice League" of DC Comics. Except that there are 108 superheroes. But not to worry. They do not all appear at once. In fact the book is about how the bandits get together and join the group one at a time or in small groups to escape some injustice perpetrated by corrupt officials.
The Journey to the West
Written by Wu Ch'eng-en, ca 1500- ca 1582
Translated by Anthony Yu
University of Chicago Press, 1980
4 volumes (sold separately)
This is another of the four classic novels of Chinese literature. Narrates the pilgrimage of Tripitaka, a real-like Tang dynasty monk who traveled to India in search of Buddhist sutras. His companions include Monkey, Pigsy and Friar Sand, three supernatural but flawed heroes who protect the monk from evil monsters in the ultimate road trip. Monkey, or Sun Wukong, has become a favorite character of Chinese acrobatic operas because of his fantastic powers, agility, wit, and irreverence.
Written by Wu Ching-Tzu, 1701-1754
Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang
Columbia University Press, 2001
The dream of generations of Chinese males was to succeed in the Confucian examination system in order to gain prestige as a government official. The Scholars is a satire that exposes the corruption and hypocrisy of many scholars. The novel is basically a collection of tenuously linked stories about would-be officials who pursue success through bribery and favors as well as the shattered dreams of those who fail. The novel, unfortunately, takes too long to make its point.