The Four Chinese Classics

Chinese refer to these as the Four Classics, although technically there are actually five books but one is banned:

  • Dream of the red chamber
  • Outlaws of the marsh (The water margin)
  • Romance of the three kingdoms
  • Journey to the West (Monkey)
  • The plum in the golden vase or Jin Ping Mei (Banned Chinese erotica)

Dream of the red chamber or Hong lou meng [Hồng lâu mộng]

For more than a century and a half, Dream of the red chamber has been recognized in China as the greatest of its novels, a Chinese Romeo-and-Juliet love story and a portrait of one of the world’s great civilizations. It is a masterpiece that has been called the ‘book of the millennium’, and it is high time it receives the attention it deserves. It is to the Chinese as Proust is to the French or Karamazov to the Russians.

This famous novel is also sometimes referred to as A dream of red mansions, or by another name, The story of the stone [Thạch đầu ký].

This is perhaps the most highly revered of all the great classical works and is often portrayed via Chinese opera. More recently it has found many variations in film and TV, often being used as the basis of a modern or period drama.

Cultured Chinese people often employ quotations from the book to elucidate a point, drawing meaning from its use within the context of the writing.

It was written by Cao Xueqin [Tào Tuyết Cần] sometime in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty [Nhà Thanh]. It is a masterpiece of Chinese vernacular literature and is generally acknowledged to be the pinnacle of classical Chinese novels. “Redology” [Hồng học] is the field of study devoted exclusively to this work

The work first appeared in manuscript form in Beijing during Cao Xueqin’s lifetime. In 1791, almost 30 years after his death, the novel was published in a complete version of 120 chapters prepared by Cheng Weiyuan [Trình Vĩ Nguyên] and Gao E [Cao Ngạc]. Uncertainty remains about the final 40 chapters of the book; they may have been forged by Gao, substantially written by Cao Xueqin and simply discovered and put into final form by Cheng and Gao, or perhaps composed by an unknown author.

Red Chamber is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the fortunes of author Cao Xueqin’s own family. As the author details in the first chapter, it is intended to be a memorial to the women he knew in his youth: friends, relatives and servants. The novel is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters and psychological scope, but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of 18th-century Chinese aristocracy.

Main characters

See the graphic that shows the relationships of main characters.

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  • Jia Baoyu [Giả Bảo Ngọc]: the main protagonits. The adolescent son of Jia Zheng and his wife, Lady Wang, and born with a piece of luminescent jade in his mouth, Baoyu is the heir apparent to the Rongguo House. Frowned on by his strict fater, Baoyu read dramatic books like Story of the Western wing [Tây sương ký] on the sly, rather than the Four Books [Tứ Thư] of classic Chinese formal education. Baoyu is highly intelligent, but dislikes the fawning bureaucrats that frequent his father’s house. A sensitive and compassionate individual, he has a special relationship with many of the women in the house.
  • Lin Daiyu [Lâm Đại Ngọc]: Jia Baoyu’s younger first cousin and his primary love interest. She is the daughter of Lin Ruhai [Lâm Như Hải] and Lady Jia Min [Giả Mẫn], Baoyu’s paternal aunt. She is sickly, but beautiful in a way that is unconventional. She also suffers from a respiratory ailment. The novel proper starts in Chapter 3 with Daiyu’s arrival at the Rongguo House shortly after the death of her mother. Fragile emotionally, prone to fits of jealousy, Daiyu is nevertheless an extremely accomplished poet and musician. The novel designates her one of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling [Kim Lăng thập nhị thoa chính sách], and describes her as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure. Daiyu is the reincarnation of a flower from the frame story, and the purpose of her mortal birth is to repay Baoyu with tears for watering her in her previous incarnation.
  • Xue Baochai [Tiết Bảo Thoa]: Jia Baoyu’s other first cousin. The only daughter of Aunt Xue [Tiết Phu nhân], sister to Baoyu’s mother, Baochai is a foil to Daiyu. Where Daiyu is unconventional and hypersensitive, Baochai is sensible and tactful: a model Chinese feudal maiden. The novel describes her as beautiful and intelligent, but also reserved and following the rules of decorum. Although reluctant to show the extent of her knowledge, Baochai seems to be quite learned about everything, from Buddhist teachings to how not to make a paint plate crack. She is not keen on elaborately decorating her room and herself. The novel describes her room as being completely free of decoration, apart from a small vase of chrysanthemums. Baochai has a round face, fair skin, large eyes, and, some would say, a more voluptuous figure in contrast to Daiyu’s willowy daintiness. Baochai carries a golden locket with her which contains words given to her in childhood by a Buddhist monk. Baochai’s golden locket and Baoyu’s jade contain inscriptions that appear to complement one another perfectly. Her marriage to Baoyu is seen in the book as predestined.
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Jia Yuanchu [Giả Nguyên Xuân]
  • Jia Yuanchun [Giả Nguyên Xuân]: Baoyu’s elder sister by about a decade. Originally one of the ladies-in-waiting in the imperial palace, Yuanchun later becomes an Imperial Consort [Đức phi], having impressed the Emperor with her virtue and learning. Her illustrious position as a favorite of the Emperor marks the height of the Jia family’s powers. Despite her prestigious position, Yuanchun feels imprisoned within the four walls of the imperial palace.
  • Jia Tanchun [Giả Thám Xuân]: Baoyu’s younger half-sister by Concubine Zhao [Triệu Di Nương0. Extremely outspoken, very capable in household management. She is also a very talented poet. Tanchun is nicknamed “Rose” for her beauty and her prickly personality.
  • Shi Xiangyun [Sử Tương Vân]: Jia Baoyu’s younger second cousin, Grandmother Jia’s beloved grandniece. Orphaned in infancy, she grows up under her wealthy maternal uncle and aunt who treats her unkindly. In spite of this Xiangyun is openhearted and cheerful. A comparatively androgynous beauty, Xiangyun looks good in men’s clothes (once she put on Baoyu’s clothes and Grandmother Jia thought she was a he), and loves to drink. She is forthright and without tact, but her forgiving nature takes the sting from her casually truthful remarks. She is well educated and as talented a poet as Daiyu or Baochai. Her young husband dies shortly after their marriage. She vows to be a faithful widow for the rest of her life.
  • Miaoyu [Diệu Ngọc]: A young nun from Buddhist cloisters of the Rong-guo house. Extremely beautiful and learned, while also extremely aloof, haughty and unsociable. She also has an obsession with cleanliness. She was compelled by her illness to become a nun, and shelters herself under the nunnery to dodge political affairs.
  • Jia Yingchun [Giả Nghênh Xuân]: second female family member of the generation of the Jia household after Yuanchun, Yingchun is the daughter of Jia She [Giả Xá], Baoyu’s uncle and therefore his elder first cousin. A kind-hearted, weak-willed person, Yingchun ihas a “wooden” personality and seems rather apathetic toward all worldly affairs. Although very pretty and well-read, she does not compare in intelligence and wit to any of her cousins. Yingchun’s most famous trait is her unwillingness to meddle in the affairs of her family.
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    Wang Xifeng [Vương Hy Phượng]
  • Wang Xifeng [Vương Hy Phượng, Phượng Ớt]: Baoyu’s elder cousin-in-law, young wife to Jia Lian [Giả Liễn] (who is Baoyu’s paternal first cousin), niece to Lady Wang [Vương Phu nhân]. Xifeng is hence related to Baoyu both by blood and marriage. An extremely handsome woman, Xifeng is capable, clever, humorous, conversable and, at times, vicious and cruel. Undeniably the most worldly woman in the novel, Xifeng is in charge of the daily running of the Rongguo household and wields remarkable economy as well as political power within the family. Being a favorite of Grandmother Jia, Xifeng keeps both Lady Wang and Grandmother Jia entertained with her constant jokes and amusing chatter, playing the role of the perfect filial daughter-in-law, and by pleasing Grandmother Jia, rules the entire household with an iron fist. One of the most remarkable multi-faceted personalities in the novel, Xifeng can be kind-hearted toward the poor and helpless. On the other hand, Xifeng can be cruel enough to kill, earning her the nickname “Phuong Chilli”. Her feisty personality, her loud laugh, and her great beauty contrast with many frail, weak-willed beauties of 18th-century Chinese literature. She makes a fortune through loan sharking and brings downfall to the family.
  • Jia Xichun [Giả Tích Xuân]: Baoyu’s younger cousin from the NingguoHouse, but brought up in the Rongguo House. A gifted painter, she is also a devout Buddhist. She is the young sister of Jia Zhen [Giả Trân], head of the Ningguo House. She is the second youngest of Jinling’s Twelve Beauties.
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Qin Keqing [Tần Khả Khanh]
  • Qin Keqing [Tần Khả Khanh]: daughter-in-law to Jia Zhen. Of all the characters in the novel, the circumstances of her life and early death are amongst the most mysterious. A very beautiful and flirtatious woman, she carried on an affair with her father-in-law. Her bedroom is bedecked with priceless artifacts belonging to extremely sensual women, both historical and mythological. In her bed, Baoyu first travels to the Land of Illusion [Thái hư ảo cảnh] where he has a sexual encounter with Two-In-One, who represents Xue Baochai and Lin Daiyu. Two-in-One’s name is also Keqing, making Qin Keqing also a significant character in Baoyu’s sexual experience.
  • Li Wan [Lý Hoàn]: Baoyu’s elder sister-in-law, widow of Baoyu’s deceased elder brother, Jia Zhu [Giả Châu]. Her primary task is to bring up her son Jia Lan [Giả Lan] and watch over her female cousins. A young widow in her late twenties, Li Wan is a mild-mannered woman with no wants or desires, the perfect Confucian ideal of a proper mourning widow. She eventually attains high social status due to the success of her son at the Imperial Exams.
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Land of Illusion [Thái hư ảo cảnh]


The novel is a blend of realism and romance, psychological motivation and fate, daily life and supernatural occurrences.

The novel provides a detailed, episodic record of the two branches of the wealthy and aristocratic Jia clan [họ Giả] – the Rongguo House [Phủ Vinh Quốc] and the Ningguo House [Phủ Ninh Quốc] – who reside in two large, adjacent family compounds in the capital. As the novel begins the two houses are among the most illustrious families in the capital. There are two brothers who are both dukes in the clan: Duke Ningkuo [Ninh quốc công] and Duke Rongkuo [Vinh quốc công] – the second line is larger.

One of the clan’s offspring is made an Imperial Consort, and a gigantic landscaped interior garden, named the Grand View Garden [Đại Quan Viên], is built to receive her visit. The novel describes the Jias’ wealth and influence in great naturalistic detail, and charts the Jias’ fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones.

Hong lau mong
The Grand View Garden

Duke Rongkuo’s son Jia Tai-shan [Giả Đại Thiện] marries the daughter of Marquis Shih [Sử hầu], aka Lady Dowager [Giả Mẫu]). They have two sons, Jia Sheh [Giả Xá], Jia Zheng [Giả Chính], and a daughter, Jia Min [Giả Mẫn].

Jia Zheng [Giả Chính] marries Lady Wang [Vương Phu nhân], and they have two sons, Jia Chu [Giả Châu], Jia Baoyu [Giả Bảo Ngọc], and a daughter, Jia Tanchun [Giả Thám Xuân] (by concubine Lady Chao [Bà Triệu]).

Jia Min [Giả Mẫn] is married to Lin Ruhai [Lâm Như Hải], but dies young, leaving a daughter, Lin Daiyu [Lâm Đại Ngọc]. Upon her grandmother Lady Dowager’s invitation, Daiyu comes to live with the Jia family. Lady Dowager dotes on both Baoyu and Daiyu.

Daiyu & Baoyu [Đại Ngọc & Bảo Ngọc]
As the Jia family is a wealthy and powerful, aristocratic family and the household is a vast one, Aunt Hsueh and her daughter, Xue Baochai [Tiết Bảo Thoa], come to join the household. Baoyu, in his innocent and naive fashion, loves both girls equally, although his strongest attachment is to Daiyu.

When Baoyu’s sister Jia Yingchun is chosen as an Imperial Consort (Hiển Đức phi), the Jia family grows even more affluent and influential. They build Grand View Garden [Đại quan viên] to honor and entertain Yuan-chun when she comes back for a visit; it is a vast, beautiful setting where the whole family can dine together in great happiness.

Baoyu clearly has a preference for feminine company and spends most of his time with his girl cousins and young maid-servants. Not surprisingly, his father, Jia Zheng, is very strict with him and often criticizes him for spending so much time with the girls instead of studying the classic works that he will be tested on during the all-important official examination. Baoyu, however, is a rebellious character. Contrary to feudal ethics, he isn’t interested in an official career. What he cares for most is playing freely with innocent girls and writing poems while yearning for the freedom to love and marry whomever he chooses.

Because of the concept of feudal fatalism, the Jia authorities — represented by Lady Dowager, Jia Zheng, Lady Wang, and Wang Xifeng — decide to choose Baochai as Baoyu’s bride — instead of the lovely, but sickly (and rebellious) Daiyu. In their opinion, Baoyu and Baochai are a perfect couple. Their marriage will be a symbolic union between a “precious jade” and a “golden locket.”

The outward magnificence of the Chia family cannot disguise its decline and deterioration forever. The Chia family members are accustomed to living in luxury, and certain parasitic landowners are nothing but dissolute and dissipated people. In order to enjoy a life of extravagance, they put increasing pressure on the peasants and extract heavy taxes from their tenants. Relying on their wealth and political influence, they bully innocent citizens and maids by contemptible and cruel methods. Therefore, tragedy begins to overshadow the family’s splendor.

There are many conflicts undermining the network of this enormous household — conflicts between masters and servants, between wives and concubines, between lineal descendants and sons and daughters by concubines. All these internal struggles lead to plotting against each other and several suicides.


* The Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (author),  Chi-chen Wang (translator), Mark Van Doren (Preface)
Goodreads: 4.1
Edition language: English
Paperback, 352 pages
Published 1958 by Anchor (first published 1791)
ISBN 0385093799 (ISBN13: 9780385093798)

* The Dream of the Red Chamber (Selection), Cao Xueqin (author),  David Hawkes (Translator)
Goodreads: 3.9
Edition language: English
Paperback, 96 pages
Published 1995 by Penguin Books
ISBN 0146001761 (ISBN13: 9780146001765)

Outlaws of the marsh – [Thủy Hử]

Also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, Men of the marshes, or The marshes of Mount Liang, this classic novel was written in the fourteen century. Attributed to Shi Naian [Thị Nại Am], it is a fictional account of twelfth-century events and the novel details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty [Nhà Tống] period of Chinese history.

One by one, 108 men and women are forced by the harsh feudal officialdom to take to the hills. They band together and defeat every attempt of the government troops to crush them. Within this framework we find intrigue, adventure, murder, warfare, romance… in a connected series of fascinating individual tales told in the suspenseful manner of the traditional storyteller.

History and development

Water margin is a novel based on the outlaw Song Jiang [Tống Giang] and his 36 companions. The group was active in the Huai River region and surrendered to the government in 1121. They were recorded in History of the Song Dynasty [Tống Thư] of the Twenty-four histories [Nhị thập tứ sử]. The name of “Song Jiang” appeared in the chapter of Emperor Huizong of Song [Tống Huy Tông] while the activities of the outlaw group were mentioned in the chapter for Zhang Shuye.

Stories about the outlaws of Mount Liang [Lương Sơn] became a popular subject for Yuan Dynasty [Nhà Nguyên] drama. During this time, the material on which The water margin was based evolved into what it is today. The number of outlaws increased to 108. Even though they came from different backgrounds (including scholars, fishermen, imperial drill instructors etc.) all of them eventually came to occupy Mount Liang. There is a theory that The water margin became popular during the Yuan Dynasty as the common people (predominantly Han Chinese) resented the Mongol rulers. The outlaws’ rebellion was deemed “safe” to promote as it was supposedly a negative reflection of the fallen Song Dynasty.

Concurrently, the rebellion was also a call for the common people to rise up against corruption in the government. The Chongzhen Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, acting on the advice of his ministers, banned the book to suppress rebellions.


The opening episode in the novel is the release of the 108 Spirits, imprisoned under an ancient stele-bearing tortoise.

The next chapter describes the rise of Gao Qiu [Cao Cầu], one of the primary antagonists of the story. Gao abuses his status as a Grand Marshal [Thái Úy] by oppressing Wang Jin [Vương Tiến]. Wang Jin flees from the capital with his mother and by chance he meets Shi Jin [Sử Tiến], who becomes his apprentice. The next few chapters tell the story of Shi Jin’s friend Lu Zhishen [Lỗ Trí Thâm], followed by the story of Lu’s sworn brother Lin Chong [Lâm Xung]. Lin Chong is framed by Gao Qiu for attempting to assassinate him, and almost dies in a fire at a supply depot set by Gao’s henchmen. He slays his foes and abandons the depot, eventually making his way to Liangshan Marsh [Lương Sơn Bạc], where he becomes an outlaw.

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Lu Zhishen [Lỗ Trí Thâm] uprooting a tree
Meanwhile, the “Original Seven”, led by Chao Gai [Tiều Cái], rob a convoy of birthday gifts for the Imperial Tutor [Thái Sư] Cai Jing [Thái Kinh], another primary antagonist in the novel. They flee to Liangshan Marsh after defeating a group of soldiers sent by the authorities to arrest them, and settle there as outlaws with Chao Gai as their chief. As the story progresses, more people come to join the outlaw band, including military personnel and civil officials who grew tired of serving the corrupt government, as well as men with special skills and talents. Stories of the outlaws are told in separate sections in the following chapters. Connections between characters are vague, but the individual stories are eventually pieced together by chapter 60 when Song Jiang succeeds Chao Gai as the leader of the band after the latter is killed in a battle against the Zeng Family Fortress [Tăng Gia Phủ].

Outline of Chapters

This work should be considered as a collection of interrelated stories rather than a novel, although common themes link all the separate tales.

The opening episode is the release of the 108 spirits, imprisoned under an ancient stele-bearing tortoise. The next chapter describes the rise of Gao Qiu [Cao Cầu], the main antagonist of the 108 heroes. Stories of the outlaws are told in separate sections in the following chapters. Connections between characters are vague, but the individual stories are eventually pieced together by chapter 40 after Song Jiang becomes the leader of the outlaw band at Mount Liang [Lương Sơn] (Liangshan Marsh) [Lương Sơn Bạc].

The plot further develops by illustrating the conflicts between the outlaws and the Song government after the Grand Assembly [Tụ Nghĩa đường]. Song Jiang strongly advocates making peace with the government and seeking redress for the outlaws. After defeating the imperial armies, the outlaws are eventually granted amnesty by the emperor. The emperor recruits them to form a military contingent and allows them to embark on campaigns against invaders from the Liao Dynasty [Nhà Liêu] and suppress the forces of several rebels including Fang La [Phương Lạp] within the Song Dynasty’s domain.

Yang’s 120-chapter edition includes other campaigns of the outlaws on behalf of Song Dynasty, while Jin’s 70-chapter edition omits the chapters on the outlaws’ acceptance of amnesty and subsequent campaigns.


* Outlaws of the Marsh, by Shi Nai’an,  Luo Guanzhong, Sidney Shapiro (Translator) Goodreads: 4.1 Published August 1st 2001 by Foreign Languages Press Edition Language: English Paperback, 4-Volume Boxed Set, 2149 pages ISBN 7119016628 (ISBN13: 9787119016627)

* Water Margin, by Shi Nai’an,  J.H. Jackson (Translator) Goodreads: 4.0 Hardcover, 478 pages Published 1963 by The Commercial Press Limited Edition Language: English

Romance of the three kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms [Tam quốc diễn nghĩa], written by Luo Guanzhong [Lưu Quán Trung] in the 14th century, is a Chinese historical novel based on the events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, starting in 169 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280. In fact, the novel should have been entitled Romance of the three empires, since the three perons ruling over the three regions of China proclaims themselves emperors.

In Chinese culture, the era of the Three Kingdoms (AD 168–280) has achieved the status of legend. Retold in novels, celebrated in operas and echoed in modern media, from television to video games, it permeates Chinese consciousness like no other. It was an era of chaos, of conflicts so bloody that the country’s population fell by almost 50 million. But it was also a time of ideological change, with the rise of Buddhist ideals and Taoist principles that rejected the tumult and violence of the warring dynasties. It is from this rich strand of history that Luo Guanzhong’s Three kingdoms emerged.

The story (part historical, part legend, and part myth) chronicles the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who tried to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty or restore it. While the novel actually follows literally hundreds of characters, the focus is mainly on the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han Dynasty, and would eventually form the three states of Cao Wei [Đại Ngụy], Shu Han [Thục Hán], and Eastern Wu [Đông Ngô]. The novel deals with the plots, personal and army battles, intrigues, and struggles of these states to achieve dominance for almost 100 years. This novel also gives readers a sense of how the Chinese view their history as cyclical rather than linear (as in the West). The opening lines of the novel summarize this view: The world under heaven, after a long period of division, will be united; after a long period of union, will be divided.

Three Kingdoms map

Romance of the three kingdoms has a total of 800,000 words and nearly a thousand dramatic characters (mostly historical) in 120 chapters. It is arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China.


One of the greatest achievements of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel contains numerous secondary stories. The following consists of a summary of the central plot, and well-known highlights in the story.

Yellow Turban Rebellion

In the final years of the Han Dynasty, incompetent eunuchs deceive the emperor and persecute good officials, and the government becomes extremely corrupt on all levels, leading to widespread deterioration of the empire. During the reign of the penultimate Han sovereign, Emperor Ling [Linh Đế], the Yellow Turban Rebellion [Giặc Khăn Vàng] breaks out under the leadership of Zhang Jue [Trương Giác].

The rebellion is barely suppressed by troops under the command of He Jin [Hà Tiến], General-in-Chief of the imperial armies. Fearing his growing power, the eunuchs led by Zhang Rang [Trương Nhượng] lure He Jin into the palace and murder him. He Jin’s stunned guards, led by Yuan Shao [Viên Thiệu], respond by charging into the palace to kill all eunuchs for revenge, which turns into indiscriminate slaughter. In the ensuing chaos, the child Emperor Shao [Thiếu Đế] and the Prince of Chenliu [Trần Lưu vương] disappear from the palace.

Dong Zhuo’s reign of terror

The missing emperor and prince are found later by soldiers of the warlord Dong Zhuo [Đổng Trác], who proceeds to seize control of the capital city Luoyang [Lạc Dương] under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dong later deposes Emperor Shao and replaces him with the Prince of Chenliu, who becomes known as Emperor Xian [Hiến Đế]. Dong usurps state power and starts a reign of terror in which innocents are persecuted and the common people suffer. Cao Cao [Tào Tháo] attempt to assassinate Dong Zhuo but both fail.

Cao Cao manages to escape and issues an imperial edict in the emperor’s name to all regional warlords and governors, calling them to rise up against Dong Zhuo. Under Yuan Shao’s [Viên Thiệu] leadership, eighteen warlords form a coalition force in a campaign against Dong Zhuo, but undermined by poor leadership and conflict of interest, they only manage to drive Dong from Luoyang to Chang’an [Tràng An]. Dong Zhuo is eventually betrayed and killed by his foster son Lü Bu [Lữ Bố] in a dispute over the beautiful maiden Diaochan [Điêu Thuyền].

Conflict among the various warlords and nobles

In the meantime, the empire is already disintegrating into civil war. Sun Jian [Tôn Kiên] finds the Imperial Seal [Ngọc Tỷ] and keeps it secretly for himself, further weakening royal authority. Without a strong central government, warlords begin to rise and fight each other for land, plunging China into a state of anarchy. In the north, Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan [Công Tôn Toản] are at war, and in the south, Sun Jian and Liu Biao [Lưu Biểu]. Many others, even those without title or land, such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, are also starting to build up power.

Tam quoc_Uong ruou luan anh hung 3
Cao Cao asked Liu Bei: “Among the warriors, who are heroes?” His answer: “Only you and I deserve to be call heroes.”

Cao Cao rescues Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo’s followers, then proceeds to defeat his rivals such as Lü Bu [Lữ Bố] and scores a tactical victory over Yuan Shao in the Battle of Guandu [Trận Quan Độ] despite being vastly outnumbered. Through his conquests, Cao unites the Central Plains [Trung Nguyên] and northern China under his rule, and the lands he controlled would serve as the foundation for the state of Cao Wei [Đại Ngụy] in the future.

Sun Ce builds a dynasty in Jiangdong

Meanwhile, an ambush had violently concluded Sun Jian’s life in a war with Liu Biao [Lưu Biểu], fulfilling Sun’s own rash oath to heaven. His eldest son Sun Ce [Tôn Sách] delivers the Imperial Seal as a tribute to the rising royal pretender, Yuan Shu, in exchange for reinforcements. Sun secures himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong [Giang Đông], on which the state of Eastern Wu [Đông Ngô] will eventually be founded. Tragically, Sun Ce also dies at the pinnacle of his career from illness under stress of his terrifying encounter with the ghost of Yu Ji [Vu Cát], a venerable magician whom he had falsely accused and executed in jealousy. However, his younger brother Sun Quan [Tôn Quyền], who succeeds him, proves to be a capable and charismatic ruler. Sun, assisted by skilled advisors Zhou Yu [Chu Du] and Zhang Zhao [Trương Chiêu], inspires hidden talents such as Lu Su [Lỗ Túc] to join his service, and builds up a strong military force.

Liu Bei’s ambition

Liu Bei [Lưu Bị], along with his sworn brothers Guan Yu [Quan Vũ] and Zhang Fei [Trương Phi], swear allegiance to the Han Dynasty in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden [Lời thề Vườn đào] and pledge to do their best for the country. However, their goals and ambitions are not realized until the later part of the novel. Liu is not recognized for his efforts in quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion and is merely appointed as a junior magistrate. They join Gongsun Zan [Công Tôn Toản] and participate in the campaign against Dong Zhuo. Liu Bei becomes the governor of Xu Province after Tao Qian passes on the post to him. Liu loses the province when Lü Bu [Lữ Bố] seizes control of it with the help of a defector and he joins Cao Cao in defeating Lü at the Battle of Xiapi. While Cao Cao subtly reveals his intention to usurp state power, Liu Bei is officially recognised by Emperor Xian as the Imperial Uncle [Hoàng thúc] and seen as a saviour to help the emperor deal with Cao.

Ket nghia vuon dao B
Oath of the Peach Garden [Kết nghĩa Vườn đào]
Liu Bei leaves Cao Cao eventually and seizes Xu Province [Từ Châu] from Cao. In retaliation, Cao attacks Xu Province and defeats Liu, forcing Liu to seek refuge under Yuan Shao for a brief period of time. After leaving Yuan, Liu is defeated by Cao Cao’s forces once again. He retreats to Jing Province [Kinh Châu] to join Liu Biao [Lưu Biểu] and is placed in charge of Xinye [Tân Dã]. At Xinye, Liu recruits the genius strategist Zhuge Liang [Gia Cát Lượng] personally and builds up his forces.

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Liu Bei recruits Zhuge Liang

Battle of Red Cliffs

Cao Cao declares himself chancellor [thừa tướng] and leads his troops to attack southern China after uniting the north. He is defeated twice at Xinye by Liu Bei’s forces but Liu loses the city as well. Liu leads his men and the civilians of Xinye on an exodus southwards and they arrive at Jiangxia [Giang Hạ] where Liu establishes a foothold against Cao Cao.

To resist Cao Cao, Liu Bei sends Zhuge Liang to persuade Sun Quan to form an alliance. Zhuge succeeds in his diplomatic mission and remains in Jiangdong as a temporary advisor to Sun Quan. Sun places Zhou Yu [Chu Du] in command of the armies of Jiangdong [Giang Đông] (Eastern Wu) in preparation for an upcoming war with Cao Cao. Zhou feels that Zhuge will become a future threat to Eastern Wu and he tries to kill Zhuge on a few occasions but he fails and decides to co-operate with Zhuge for the time being. Cao Cao is defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs [Trận Xích Bích] by the allied forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei and he is forced to retreat north.

Sun Quan and Liu Bei begin vying for control of Jing Province [Kinh Châu] after their victory and Liu seizes the province from Cao Cao after following Zhuge Liang’s strategy. Sun Quan is unhappy and sends emissaries to ask Liu Bei for Jing Province, but Liu dismisses the envoys each time with different excuses for “borrowing” the land. From this story there is an idiom of “Liu Bei borrows Jing Province” [Lưu Bị mượn Kinh Châu] as borrowing something then giving excuses to postpone the return.

Sun uses some strategies proposed by Zhou Yu to take the land, of which the most famous is the “Beauty Scheme” [Mỹ nhân kế]. Sun intends to lure Liu Bei to Jiangdong to marry his sister Lady Sun [Tôn Phu nhân] and hold Liu hostage to exchange his freedom for Jing Province, but the plot fails and the newly-wed couple return home safely. Zhou Yu tries to take Jing Province repeatedly but his plans are foiled three times by Zhuge Liang. Zhou Yu is so infuriated the last time that he coughs blood and dies.

Liu Bei’s takeover of Yi Province

After Zhou Yu’s death, relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan gradually deteriorate but not to the point of open conflict. In accordance with Zhuge Liang’s Longzhong Plan, Liu Bei leads his troops into Yi Province [Ích Châu] in the west and takes over the land from the incompetent noble Liu Zhang [Lưu Chương]. Guan Yu is assigned to rule over Jinh Province with the famous strategy advised by Zhuge Liang: North fight Cao Cao, East tolarate Sub Quan. Guan Yu  promises Zhuge Liang to keep this strategy in his heart, but as it will turn out later, he fails to keep his words, with disastrous consequences.

By then, Liu Bei rules a vast area of land from Jing Province to Yi Province in the west, which will serve as the foundation for the future state of Shu Han [Thục Hán]. He proclaims himself “King of Hanzhong” [Hán Trung Vương].

At the same time, Cao has also been granted the title of “King of Wei” [Ngụy Vương] by the emperor. In the east, Sun Quan and Cao Cao’s forces clash with victories and defeats for both sides. The situation among the three major powers reaches a stalemate after this until Cao Cao’s death.

Death of Guan Yu

Meanwhile, Sun Quan plots to take Jing Province after tiring of Liu Bei’s repeated refusals to hand the land over. He makes peace with Cao Cao and becomes a vassal of Cao with the title of “King of Wu” [Ngô vương]. Guan Yu, who is in charge of Jing Province, leads his troops to attack Cao Ren [Tào Nhân] in the Battle of Fancheng [Trận Phàn Thành].

Sun Quan sends Lü Meng [Lữ Mông] to lead his troops to seize Jing Province while Guan is away, as part of his secret agreement with Cao Cao. Guan is caught off guard and loses Jing Province before he realizes it. He retreats to Maicheng [Mạch Thành], where he is heavily surrounded by Sun Quan’s forces, while his army gradually shrinks in size as many of his troops desert or surrender to the enemy. In desperation, Guan attempts to break out of the siege but fails and is captured in an ambush. He is executed on Sun Quan’s orders after refusing to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bei.

Shortly after Guan Yu’s death, Cao Cao dies of a brain tumour and his son Cao Pi [Tào Phi] usurps the throne by proclaiming himself emperor, effectively ending the Han Dynasty and Cao renames his new dynasty “Cao Wei” [Đại Ngụy].

In response, Liu Bei proclaims himself emperor, to carry on the bloodline of the Han Dynasty. While Liu Bei is planning to avenge Guan Yu, his other sworn brother Zhang Fei is assassinated in his sleep by his subordinates, who have defected to Sun Quan.

Battle of Xiaoting

As Liu Bei leads a large army to attack Sun Quan to avenge Guan Yu, Sun attempts to appease Liu by offering him the return of Jing Province. Liu’s advisers, including Zhuge Liang, urge him to accept Sun’s tokens of peace, but Liu persists in vengeance. After initial victories, a series of strategic mistakes due to the impetuosity of Liu leads to the cataclysmic defeat of Shu Han in the Battle of Xiaoting [Trận Hào Đình]. Lu Xun [Lục Tốn], the commander of Sun Quan’s forces, refrains from pursuing the retreating Shu Han troops after encountering Zhuge Liang’s Stone Sentinel Maze [Thạch Trận Đồ].

Liu Bei dies in Baidicheng [Bạch Đế Thành] from illness shortly after his defeat. In a moving final conversation between Liu on his deathbed and Zhuge Liang, Liu grants Zhuge the authority to take the throne if his successor Liu Shan [Lưu Thiện] proves to be an inept ruler. Zhuge refuses and swears that he will remain faithful to the trust Liu Bei had placed in him.

TQ_Liu Bei finds a guardian for his heir at Baidi City
On stamp: Liu Bei in death bed saying last words to Zhuge Liang

Zhuge Liang’s campaigns

After Liu Bei’s death, as advised by Sima Yi, Cao Pi induces several forces to attack Shu Han, in coordination with a Cao Wei army. Zhuge Liang manages to send the five armies retreating without any bloodshed. An envoy from Shu Han named Deng Zhi [Đặng Chi] subsequently persuades Sun Quan to renew the former alliance with Shu Han.

TQ_Khong Minh
Zhuge Liang

Zhuge Liang personally leads a southern campaign against the Nanman barbarian king Meng Huo [Mạnh Hoạch]. Meng is defeated and captured seven times, but Zhuge releases him each time and allows him to come back for another battle, in order to win Meng over. The seventh time, Meng refuses to leave and decides to swear allegiance to Shu Han forever.

Meanwhile, Sun Quan proclaims himself Emperor.

After pacifying the south, Zhuge Liang leads the Shu Han army on five military expeditions to attack Cao Wei in order to restore the Han Dynasty. However, Zhuge’s days are numbered as he had been suffering from chronic tuberculosis all along, and his condition worsens under stress from the campaigns. His last significant victory over Cao Wei is probably the defection of Jiang Wei [Khương Duy], a promising young general who is well-versed in military strategy. Zhuge Liang dies of illness while leading a stalemate battle against his nemesis, the Cao Wei commander Sima Yi [Tư Mã Ý]. Before his death, Zhuge orders his trusted generals to build a statue of himself and use it to scare away the enemy in order to buy time for the Shu Han army to retreat safely.

Zhuge Liang executes Ma Su for defeat at Jieting
Zhuge Liang executes Ma Su due to defeat at Jieting

End of the Three Kingdoms

The long years of battle between Shu Han and Cao Wei sees many changes in the ruling Cao family in Cao Wei. The influence of the Caos weakens after the death of Cao Rui and the state power of Cao Wei eventually falls into the hands of the Sima clan, headed by Sima Yi’s sons Sima Shi [Tư Mã Sư] and Sima Zhao [Tư Mã Chiêu].

In Shu Han, Jiang Wei inherits Zhuge Liang’s legacy and continues to lead another nine campaigns against Cao Wei for a bitter three decades, but he fails to achieve any significant success. Moreover, the ruler of Shu Han, Liu Shan [Lưu Thiện], is incompetent and places faith in treacherous officials, further leading to the decline of the kingdom. Shu Han is eventually conquered by Cao Wei. Jiang Wei [Khương Duy] attempts to restore Shu Han with the help of Zhong Hui [Chung Hội], but their plans are exposed and both of them are killed by Sima Zhao’s [Tư Mã Chiêu] troops.

After the fall of Shu Han in 263, Sima Zhao’s son Sima Yan [Tư Mã Viêm] forces the last Wei ruler, Cao Huan [Tào Hoán], to abdicate his throne in 265, officially ending the Cao Wei dynasty. Sima Yan, having already been proclaimed the King of Jin [Tấn Vương] in the previous year, then formally establishes the Jin Dynasty [Nhà Tấn].

In Eastern Wu, there has been internal conflict among the nobles ever since the death of Sun Quan, with Zhuge Ke [Gia Cát Khác] and Sun Lin [Tôn Lượng] making attempts to usurp state power. Although stability is restored temporarily, the last Wu ruler Sun Hao [Tôn Hạo] appears to be a tyrant who does not make any efforts to strengthen his kingdom. Eastern Wu, the last of the Three Kingdoms, is finally conquered by Jin after a long period of struggle in the year 280, thus marking the end of the near century-long era of civil strife known as the Three Kingdoms period.

Journey to the West – or Xi You ji [Tây Du Ký]

Better known as Monkey, or more accurately as The Monkey King [Hầu Vương] and loosely based on the true story of Xuanzang, this is perhaps the best known of the classics outside of China, and certainly the most adapted for general television, and so much so that it would be normal for one of the many channels to be showing this at any time you turn on the TV!

Originally published anonymously in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty [Nhà Minh], its authorship has been ascribed to the scholar Wu Cheng’en [Ngô Thừa Ân] since the 20th century.

The novel is an account of the legendary pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang [Tam Tạng]. The monk travelled to the “Western Regions” during the Tang Dynasty [Nhà Đường], to obtain sacred texts (sūtras). The Bodhisattva Guan Yin [Phật Bà Quan Âm], on instruction from the Buddha, gives this task to the monk and his three protectors in the form of disciples — namely Sun Wukong [Tôn Ngộ Không], Zhu Bajie [Trư Bát Giới] and Sha Wujing [Sa Ngộ Tĩnh] — together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuanzang’s [Long Vương] steed, a white horse. These four characters have agreed to help Xuanzang as an atonement for past sins.

In movie: Sha, Xuanzang, Zhu, Sun


Journey to the West has a strong background in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology and value systems; the pantheon of Taoist immortals and Buddhist bodhisattvas is still reflective of some Chinese religious beliefs today. Enduringly popular, the tale is at once a adventure story, a spring of spiritual insight, and an extended allegory in which the group of pilgrims journeying toward India represents individuals journeying toward enlightenment.

In the modern times, the vices mentioned are still valid in many societies, for example, bribery. Even the Lord Buddha’s disciplines demand money from Xuanzang, and when cannot get any money they gave sacred text books of blank pages. When this problem is reported to Lord Buddha, he just smiles and mentions that it is regular!


The novel comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1–7, is really a self-contained introduction to the main story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun Wukong, a monkey born from a stone nourished by the Five Elements [Ngũ Hành], who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformations, combat, and secrets of immortality, and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qitian Dasheng [Tề Thiên Đại Thánh], or “Great Sage Equal to Heaven”. His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sūn’s rebellion against Heaven, during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain, sealing the mountain with a talisman for five hundred years.

Only following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuanzang [Tam Tạng], introduced. Chapters 8–12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that “the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins”, the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Guan Yin [Phật Bà Quan Âm] to search Tang China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of “transcendence and persuasion for good will” back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Xuánzàng becomes a monk and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by Emperor Taizong of Tang, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official).

The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–99, an episodic adventure story in which Xuanzang sets out to bring back Buddhist scriptures, but encounters various evils along the way. The section is set in the sparsely-populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan, and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuanzang departs Chang’an, the Tang capital, and crosses the frontier, he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give immortality to whoever ate it), with the occasional hidden monastery or royal city-state amidst the harsh setting.

Episodes consist of 1–4 chapters and usually involve Xuanzang being captured and having his life threatened while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuanzang’s predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be earthly manifestations of heavenly beings (whose sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal-spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.

Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuanzang’s disciples, who, inspired or goaded by Guan Yin, meet and agree to serve him along the way in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.

The first is Sun Wukong, or Monkey, previously “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” [Tề Thiên Đại Thánh], trapped by Buddha for rebelling against Heaven. He appears right away in Chapter 13. The most intelligent and violent of the disciples, he is constantly reproved for his violence by Xuanzang. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic Tightening-Crown [vòng Kim Cô] that the Bodhisattva has placed around his head, which causes him unbearable headaches when Xuanzang chants the Tightening-Crown spell. From this story, the idiom “Tightening-Crown” indicates strict discipline to the point of slavery.

The second, appearing in chapter 19, is Zhu Bajie [Trư Bát Giới] as Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tianpeng [Thiên Bồng Nguyên soái], commander of the Heavenly Naval forces, banished to the mortal realm for flirting with the Princess of the Moon Chang’e (Hằng Nga]. A reliable fighter, he is characterized by his insatiable appetites for food and sex, and is constantly looking for a way out of his duties, which causes significant conflict with Sun Wukong.

The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river-ogre Sha Wujing [Sa Ngộ Tĩnh], also translated as Friar Sand [Sa Tăng]. He was previously the celestial Curtain-lifting General [Quyển Liêm Đại tướng], banished to the mortal realm for dropping (and shattering) a crystal goblet of the Heavenly Queen Mother [Tây Vương mẫu]. He is a quiet but generally dependable character, who serves as the straight foil to the comic relief of Sun and Zhu.

The fourth disciple is the third prince of the Dragon-King [Long Vương], Yulong Santaizi, who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father’s great pearl. He was saved by Guan Yin from execution to stay and wait for his call of duty. He appears first in chapter 15, but has almost no speaking role, as throughout most of the story he appears in the transformed shape of a horse that Xuanzang rides on.

Chapter 22, where Sha Wujing is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river that the travelers cross brings them into a new “continent”. Chapters 23–86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterized by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom ruled by women, a lair of seductive spider-spirits, and many other fantastic scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four brave disciples have to fend off attacks on their master and teacher Xuanzang from various monsters and calamities.

It is strongly suggested that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha, as, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped heavenly animals belonging to bodhisattvas or Taoist sages and spirits. Towards the end of the book there is a scene where the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Xuanzang is one short of the eighty-one disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood.

In chapter 87, Xuanzang finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87–99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane (though still exotic) setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken fourteen years (the text actually only provides evidence for nine of those years, but presumably there was room to add additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, where, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Xuanzang receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.

Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Tang Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang achieve Buddhahood, Sha Wujing becomes an arhat, the dragon horse is made a nāga, and Zhu Bajie, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars)


  • The Journey to the West, 4 volumes (The Journey to the West #1) by Wu Cheng’en, Anthony C. Yu (Translator)
    GoodReads Rating: 4.3
    Published 1980 by University of Chicago Press
    ISBN 0226971503 (ISBN13: 9780226971506)
    Edition language: English
  • Monkey: The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en,  Arthur Waley (Translator/Adapter), Hu Shih (Introduction)
    GoodReads Rating: 4.0
    Paperback, 306 pages
    Published 1994 by Grove Press (first published 1986)
    ISBN 0802130860 (ISBN13: 9780802130860)
    Edition language: English

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