This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious, in this article, of the danger of causing offense by grossly simplifying a national history.
Fiction, in China, was held in low esteem for a very long time. The very term for fiction ‘xiao shuo’ literally means ‘small talk’. The novel was a particular latecomer to China and did not appear until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).
The first Chinese novel is the Sanguo yanyi (1522) or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, often attributed to Luo Guanzhong. This text covers a century of history of early Imperial China. Another early novel is the Shuihu zhuan (1614), translated as Water Margin. This novel charts the course of a set of philanthropic robbers in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126). Early Chinese novels, according to Yang, p. 19, did not have anything like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to act as intertextual reference points for their work.
As might be indicated by the subject of Sanguo yanyi, history and fiction are blurred categories in Ancient Chinese literature. History and fiction are all included under a word that might be translated as “pattern”. Hence, much early Chinese writing is historical, with a narrative nature. For instance the Shu jing (Book of Documents) is a record of historical political speeches. The Zuo zhuan is the earliest narrative history.
One of the most important ancient Chinese histories, but regarded as a work of literature, is Sima Qian’s Shi ji or Historical Records. Significantly, this work focuses on people, rather than just charting historical events, hence lending it the literary quality. This work could be compared to Herodotus’s Histories or Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War.
Works of philosophy also sometimes have a narrative structure. For instance, the Lun yu is a book about Confucius but does so through a documentation of the conversations he had with his pupils.
The novel arises in China from the Ming dynasty onwards. Famous early examples include the Xiyou ji (or Journey to the West) from 1592. There is also the well-known Jin ping mei (Plum in the Golden Vase) from 1617, a 100-chapter novel of anonymous authorship, focusing on the daily life of an urban family. These paved the way for other texts, such as Cao Xueqin’s Shitou Ji or Honglou meng, which is “widely acknowledged as the greatest Chinese novel of all time” from the eighteenth century.
Further reading: Yang, Ye, ‘Ancient Narratives of China’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 18–28