CHIN 403                                                                           Essay 2                                                                5 October, 2005

Ray Brownrigg


The Genesis of the Chinese Novel


Abstract: This essay examines the birth of what is generally recognised as the novel in traditional Chinese literature.  The first stage of this process is to identify just what is considered to be a Chinese novel.  This then leads to delineating the historical events which led to the rise and eventual acceptance of this literary genre.  Finally some comparisons and contrasts with the almost parallel development of the Western novel are offered.



The novel in China arose almost simultaneously with, but perhaps a little earlier than, that in the West.  A direct time comparison is difficult because early Chinese novels differ from their Western counterparts in a number of ways, such as authorship, the use of verse, the intended audience, the motives of the author, and the perceived literary value of the result.  Nevertheless, there are many similarities in the process by which the Chinese and Western novels as literary genres arose, became accepted and flourished.


This essay will examine the history of the development of the Chinese novel, identify the historical, political, cultural and economic influences which applied to this development and compare and contrast this development with that of the Western novel.


What is the Chinese novel?

Early Chinese literature existed for many centuries BC.  Early writings were primarily Confucianist and Daoist doctrines, written in the classical language.  These were followed and augmented by historical records, also in the classical language.  From as early as the Six Dynasties period (220-589), classical language short stories have been written in the zhiguai and zhiren genres. These were essentially fiction, although classified at the time as historical, for want of a better label.  The earliest known writings not in the classical language are the bianwen or transformation texts dating from the 8th century.  The Song dynasty (960-1279), saw the development of stories in the vernacular language.  Being primarily short stories, they lacked the characterisation and plot necessary to be considered as novels.  These vernacular short stories continued to be popular during and beyond the birth and maturity of the true novel.


From the early 14th century there started to appear printed copies of historical texts in the vernacular language, often augmented by fictional embellishments.  The most notable example of this is Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its various versions, undergoing revision both before and after emerging in its most popular novel form.  These were the beginnings of the fictional novel, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the novel had developed to the point where the direct ties to historical writings were broken, genuinely original works came to be written, and the genre as we now know it came to be.  This is not to undermine the creative talent of the early authors who turned historical records or disjointed legends into full length creations which to this day retain their value as literary works.  The Chinese novel can thus be defined as a full-length fictional story in the vernacular language, providing a complex plot and strong characterisation.


Influences on the Development

Major influences on the development of the novel in China include the popularity of vernacular short stories, the popularity of drama, changing economic circumstances, the spread of basic literacy in general and the development of the elite literati culture.  It could be argued that these are all interrelated and therefore difficult to identify as either cause or effect.  These will be discussed more in the following section.


It is worth noting here that as far as the Chinese situation is concerned, the rapid spread and development of the printing industry during the early 16th century may not have influenced directly the development of the novel itself because, at this time, the novel in China tended to be part of the literati culture only [Plaks, 23].  However the spread of printing and publishing cannot be ignored as a feature of the popularity of vernacular short stories.  Similarly, and for the same reasons, the spread of basic literacy (i.e. the improvement of the literacy of the masses) may not have had a direct bearing on the genesis of the Chinese novel, but it too would have allowed a wider audience for vernacular short stories.  Another potential influence notable by its absence is the influence of Western ideas.  Chinese literature remained basically free from Western influence at least until the 19th century [Ropp, 310], by which time the Chinese novel was well established in its own right.


Comparisons with the West

In comparing the development of the Chinese novel with that in Western literature, there are several aspects to be considered.  Some of these highlight similarities, but mostly there exist some differences which can be identified.  The aspects considered below are the timing of the development, the subject matter used by the authors, the various influences upon the development and the motives driving the individual authors.



 The Chinese novel is generally considered to have first appeared in the mid to late 14th century with the original version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong.  This gradually developed into a late 16th century maturity, represented by Journey to the West and Jin Ping Mei.  Western equivalents are perhaps a little more difficult (for this author) to identify, but contenders include the writings of Boccaccio (in vernacular Italian rather than Latin), Malory (in Early Modern English) and Cervantes (in Spanish) in the 14th, late 15th and early 17th centuries respectively.  It is generally accepted that the Western novel came of age in the 17th century, just a little after the Chinese novel (Wikipedia; Ropp, 310-311).


Subject Matter

Paul Ropp succinctly summarises the similarity of subject matter development in Western and Chinese novels as:

  “In both cultures there has been a general development from shorter to longer works, from an earlier emphasis on myths and folk tales to a later emphasis on the individual experience and observations of particular authors.  As fiction became more sophisticated and self-conscious in both cultures it also evolved from an earlier tendency to endorse wholeheartedly the society’s common values and moved instead to a more ironic stance that questioned or criticised the dominant values of the civilisation.”  [Ropp, 310]

Historically however, literature was substantially different in China from in the West.  Early Western written literature was primarily religious in nature whereas in China, and for a much longer period, in addition to the religious doctrines, literature was motivated by a desire to record history.



The heading here may better be stated as influences and coincidences since it is not necessarily clear which of the following had a direct influence on the development of the novel, which were influenced by the development of the novel and which were mere coincidental developments.  Of course, most of the following are interrelated, and thus proving a cause and effect relationship is fraught with difficulty.  Nevertheless it is generally accepted that in both China and the West, the development of the novel was associated with urbanisation, commercialisation, the development of the publishing industry and increased literacy [Hegel, 230-231].  Hegel continues to identify the rise of a distinct middle class as a driving factor for the development of the Western novel, but not paralleled in the development of the Chinese novel, which tended to be more written for and by the literati.  Further, while it seems too much of a coincidence to not be able to attribute some of the development of the Western novel to the invention and development of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century, printed material had existed in China for many centuries before then, and while the publishing industry may have expanded, perhaps along with the general economic and commercial expansion of the time, this seems to have had no great influence on the Chinese novel, which was much less widely distributed than other printed materials [Plaks, 23; Huang, 24].  In fact it could be argued that the mature Chinese novel’s particular personal and intimate character within the elite literati arose in spite of the availability of wide-spread publishing.  On the subject of literacy, it is hard to conclude that widespread improvements in literacy had no direct bearing on the development of the novel in the West but, it as already indicated, in the Chinese situation the influence, if any, was not because of a larger potential audience, but an indirect influence related to the lack of jobs available to the growing highly educated elite literati, thus resulting in a larger pool of potential authors.  Another aspect of literacy that is hard to ignore is the transition from the use of the difficult classical language to the vernacular in several forms of fictional writing.  This move occurred in the West (the move from Latin or Middle English to vernacular Italian and Early Modern English respectively) as well as in China.  A further aspect of literacy that does highlight a difference between China and the West is the early motivation for literacy.  In the West literacy was historically motivated by religion – from the Middle Ages, literacy was a pre-requisite for religious callings.  By contrast, in China from the 7th century onwards, the desire for literacy was motivated by economic and political aspirations, the Imperial Examinations provided wealth and status to those who succeeded and were awarded jobs in the government.



A final aspect to be considered is that of the motive for writing.  Just what drove authors to write these novels?  The subject matter, of both Chinese and Western fiction in general, indicates that the prime twin motives of the authors were to instruct and to entertain [Ropp, 310].  That this is particularly true in the Chinese situation is demonstrated by Confucian values permeating plots, often resulting in the demise of the tyrant or unfaithful and a happy ending for the hero and heroine.  However other motives can be identified based on the lack of tangible rewards available to authors.  Martin Huang writes:

  “The glaring disparity between what a novelist could gain materially from his work and the amount of energy and time he had to invest in writing (few eighteenth century novelists produced more than one novel) calls attention to the special gratification that a novelist must have derived from this otherwise unrewarding labour”.  [Huang, 24-25]

This indicates that perhaps a sense of redemption can be identified as a driving motive for the Chinese novelist.  Further, to some extent in the West, primarily during the early stages of the novel’s development, but to a much greater extent in China, until as recently as the 20th century, the novelist suffered from a relatively low social status.  In this situation one might identify a sense of rebellion as a motivational force in putting brush to paper.  The novelist is putting his creative energy into something that he may cherish in spite of the criticism and low social standing that results.


While the Chinese novel developed in parallel with, although a little in advance of, its Western counterpart, and there are many similarities to be identified in these developments, there are as well some substantial differences between the two.  The similarities can be summarised as the use of the vernacular language in written work, the similarity of subject matter, the (initially anyway) low social status afforded writers of fiction, and the general influence of economic and commercial growth.  The differences can be summarised as the previous history of literature in general, the different nature of the influence of improving literacy, the effect of the development of the publishing industry and, to a lesser extent, the motivation of the author.



Chang, H. C. Chinese Literature. V 1: Popular Fiction and Drama. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1973)

Hegel, Robert E. The Novel in Seventeenth Century China. (New York: Columbia UP, 1981)

Huang, Martin W. Literati and Self-Re/Presentation: Autobiographical Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century Chinese Novel. (California: Stanford UP, 1995)

Mair, Victor H. ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. (New York: Columbia UP, 2001)

Plaks, Andrew H. The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1987)

Ropp, Paul S. “The Distinctive Art of Chinese Fiction”, in Heritage of China, ed. Paul S. Ropp, (Berkeley: U California P, 1990), pp309-334

Wikipedia, (accessed October 2005)