Classics of Chinese Literature Advice needed: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, etc.

I’ve lately become fascinated with the basic classics of chinese literature, and want to read each one. They’re pretty daunting - each of them seem to be available as 4-book boxed sets clocking in at about 2,000 pages each - so I want to make a really informed decision before I read each one in regards to translation and so on.

From what I’ve deduced so far, these are the major ones, and the ones that sound most interesting to me:

  • The Three Kingdoms / Romance of the Three Kingdoms - this is the same story with a differing name based on translation, right? This one seems to be the epic.

  • The Water Margin / Outlaws of the Marsh - Sounds super-fascinating.

  • The Red Chamber / A Dream of Red Mansions / The dream of the red chamber - this one sounds particularly beautiful

  • Journey to the West - this one sounds super-weird.

What specific editions or translations should I look for for these? As a complete neophyte to reading feudal Chinese literature, which would be a good introduction, and which should be tackled later on?

I’m particularly curious about the translations; from what little I know about Chinese, Western translations of names tend to be very confusing and phonetically incorrect; something like “Cao Cao” would not be pronounced “Cow Cow,” but more along the lines of “Sow Sow,” so some translations try to write it out as “T’Sao T’Sao” rather than “Cao Cao.” My gut reaction is that I’d like to read something that comes reasonably close to matching what the actual name or sounds are like, so that I don’t end up saying “Cow Cow” and embarrassing myself further down the line.

I’d also prefer something that favors readability and cross-cultural translation of puns or concepts over literal, but legally more correct translations. In other words, I’d rather the translator take liberties with his translation to preserve the humor in a pun or entendre than just come out with something nonsensical (though literally and legally correct) like “he has a great romance in his bowels!”

Thanks for any help!

You could just play the Koei video games Romance of the Three Kingdoms XLVII or Dynasty Warriors CCCXCIV. Sure, they might lack the rich historical and mythical details of the original, but they have cheesy voice acting. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

Honestly - and this is pretty embarrassing - but it’s those games, and Dynasty Warriors, that actually planted the seed of this interest of mine.

You know how to make that sound for a sizzle? Like tssssssssss? Take that, and add an Ow. The first Tsao is in the second tone, the second Tsao in the first.

I remember hearing Cow Cow in a game cutscene. Laughed off an asscheek.

This was made into the classic 80’s TV show monkey magic if you feel like watching many hours of overwhelming camp.

Journey to the West was the inspiration for a whole crapload of stuff, including, if Monkey Magic doesn’t appeal, Gensomaden Saiyuki.

Wikipedia has a pretty good guide to pinyin pronunciation. Put English pronunciations out of your mind, and I think you’ll get pretty close.

The reason some translations use one spelling over another (Tsao Tsao vs. Cao Cao) is because they are using different transliteration systems, Wade-Giles (Tsao Tsao) vs. Pinyin (Cao Cao). I find once you know how it works, Pinyin is the easier of the two. It’s also currently the preferred system, though older translations tend to use Wade-Giles. BTW, the “C” in “Cao” is pronounced like the “ts” in “cats”. You may want to pick up a book on learning Chinese since the first chapter will probably start out teaching how to pronounce Pinyin, then you’ll be able to correctly read any names you’ll find.

I have all 4 of the box sets you mentioned and all of them are culturally significant to the Chinese. They are considered the four great classics of Chinese literature. I’ve read Journey to the West and Three Kingdoms, and have recently started on Red Chamber. The translations were fairly good, and they have extensive footnotes to help explain things like puns and wordplay that are lost in translation. Three Kingdoms also has extensive historical footnotes, as it is based on a true story (it’s part history and part legend).

If you’re anything like me (and I know I am), I would start with either Journey or Kingdoms. Journey is a tale of epic fantasy that is probably as famous in Asia as Grimm’s fairy tales are here. Just as everyone in the West knows who Cinderella and Snow White is, all Chinese know the Monkey King and Pig. It’s probably the easiest read since once you get past the opening chapters and to the journey itself, it’s told as a series of episodes usually 3-5 chapters long with few references between them so it’s easy to put the book down and return to it later.

Kingdoms is interesting in that it’s an account of historical fact, though to be fair it’s also about 70% legend. The best analogy I can use to describe it is that it would be like a novelized account of the American Civil War. It’s not all sword-slashing either. The weilding of political power in the highest offices has as much, if not sometimes greater, impact as military might.

Red Chamber so far is proving to be a difficult read. I actually had to start over seven chapters into it and take notes to keep the characters straight. It has the most puns and wordplay of them all. For example, most character’s names are a phonetic play on words that is significant to understanding the character. Fortunately the footnotes help explain them, though I’m sure some of the impact is still lost.

The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.

Just so you know, if you get the time, you might want to see if you can find a translation of the Sanguozhi, the history that the Romance is based on.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Lots of people to keep track of and political intruigue up the wazoo. I generally skip the boring parts and just read about the battles. :stuck_out_tongue:

Water Margins - Depressing as hell. And also gay. (Or at least loaded with subtext.)

Journey to the West - The most interesting, IMHO, is the segment at the beginning where Son Wukong gains his kickass skills and more or less starts a war with the forces of Heaven. The actual Journey itself can be summarized thusly: 1) Sanzang gets kidnapped by Demon, 2) Monkey comes to rescue in some generally violent manner, 3) Monkey gets yelled at for not following proper Buddist behavior.

Red Chamber - Lots of buddist philosophy in this one. There’s also a couple different versions depending on the ending.

Most of these also have numerous live-action/animated adaptations that are worth checking out.

Some other literature:
Fenshen Yanyi (Taoist mysticism, semi-historical fantasy set at the transition between Shang and Zhou)
Record of the Warring States (history, politics, and philosophy; some of it is pretty chilling)
Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (stories of ghosts, trickster spirits, demons, etc.)

…ah, heck, just read through this list to see what might interest you.

First of all I want to thank you for starting this thread… I’ve been wanting to start a thread about this for a long time.

Th Dynasty Warriors games really generated an interest in me in the Three Kingdoms time period.
The voice acting is alarmingly appaling but the games themselves are excellent.(atleast 2 and 3 I haven’t cared for the later ones)

Similar thread popped up a few months ago and someone posted a link to webiste that was something like a study guide for the Three Kingdoms period.

Could that site be this message board? Or maybe this site? The former is more of a scholarly forum concerning the book and history of the Three Kingdoms period, while the latter is more of a reference for the games, though with much historical background.

<I>Journey to the West</I> is a fascinating story. Really delightful and really odd. I was lucky to see a stage production of it once; it’s helped me understand lots of cultural references ever since.

The Anthony C. Yu translation seems to be one of the more respected ones, but it looks very scholarly to me–not sure it’s what you’re looking for. I have it, but I never got far in it.

Arthur Waley did an abridged, very readable version called <I>Monkey</I> that’s very useful for getting the basic plot down. He wrote a yet-more-abridged one called <I>Dear Monkey</I> for children. I enjoyed them both. Sure, they’re sort of training wheels, but most of us didn’t start on Greek mythology by reading Homer, either.

i like romance the best. i’ve been to a lot of the areas.

water margin/brothers is the only one i’ve read several chapters in chinese. it’s less epic than romance. romance has some awesome characters like cao cao (china wife’s family name) and zhu geliang. brothers is a lot more linear, and the ending is quite disappointing to me. probably had several endings & that was the politically correct one when first transcribed

no one has mentioned the pornographic classic jing ping mei or golden lotus. well, it’s pornographic along the lines of lady chatterly’s lover, and isn’t that good of a read.

i never got into journey.

search on louis cha (jing yong) & the deer & the cauldron. not sure if all 5 volumes are translated into english. much better than any of the classics.

louis cha may be the most famous person in china & probably the most published. kinda james michner. except his body of about 40 books covers most of the chinese dynasties in swords & swashbucking, and is the basis for just about every flip kick chinese kungfu movie ever made.

loius cha is an amazing guy that originally grew up in ningbo with a classic education. went to hong kong and started writting these serial kungfu novels for one of the chinese newspapers while working as an editor.

his translator is john minford, who taught chinese to college students for years at the chinese university of hong kong. i’ve got an autographed edition of the first volume. the translation is a magnitude better than any of the classics out there.

i’m posting from a pda but iirc there are some other translations out there.

it is not an exaggeration to say that every chinese person under the age of 60 has read most if not all of his books. they all have their favorite series.

Oooo, I was waiting for someone to mention Jin Yong! In Hong Kong they pretty much make a TV soap out of one of his series every year. I’ve heard that they’re teaching passages from his books in some high schools here now, but I’ve always found his strength to be in his characters and, of course, the mysticising of the kungfu. China Guy doesn’t exaggerate. Everyone’s either read his books or seen TV series or movies based on the books. My mom, as a child, read it in fricking Indonesian, man.

Wiki entry

Foreign Languages Press does most of those classics-in-four-volumes translations, as I remember; I have all four of theirs, at any rate. Their translations of The Journey to the West and The Outlaws of the Marsh are very good. I’m not entirely sure about their scholarship, but the translators paid a lot of attention to the language they were using, so it comes off quite well. The other two, not so much; they feel much more mechanical.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is very beautiful, if awfully convoluted in places. The Foreign Languages Press version is workable, though I’m convinced that there has to be a better one out there (I distinctly remember reading excerpts from one, but I can’t remember who did it).

You forgot 1.5) Pig gets himself into trouble for thinking with his stomach (or dick).