Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou (1598–1652); small leaf album paintings like this one first became popular in the Song dynasty.

Literature, painting, poetry, music, and Chinese opera of various types flourished during the Ming dynasty, especially in the economically prosperous lower Yangzi valley.

The most striking literary development was the vernacular novel. Literati scholars edited or developed major Chinese novels into mature form in this period.

The Four Classic Novels include Romance of the Three KingdomsJourney to the WestWater Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber, and the Six Classic Novels add Rulin waishi and Jin Ping Mei to this list. These are among the world’s longest and oldest novels, and they are the most read, studied and adapted works of pre-modern Chinese fiction.

These Ming novels share formal characteristics. They are almost all over 100 chapters in length; divided into ten chapter narrative blocks which are broken into two to three chapter episodes; arranged into first and second halves which are symmetrical; and arrange their events in patterns which follow seasons and geography. They manipulated the conventions of popular storytelling in an ironic way in order to go against the surface meanings of the story.

Three Kingdoms presents a contrast between the ideal, that is, dynastic order, and the reality of political collapse and near anarchy; Water Margin likewise presents heroic stories from the popular tradition in a way that exposes the heroism as brutal and selfish; Journey to the West is an outwardly serious spiritual quest undercut by comic and sometimes bawdy tone. Jin Ping Mei is the clearest and most sophisticated example; the action is sometimes grossly sexual, but in the end emphasizes conventional morality.  (literary critic Andrew H. Plaks)

Because of its explicit descriptions of sex, The Plum in the Golden Vase has been banned for most of its existence. Despite this, many if not most scholars and writers, including Lu Xun, place it among the top Chinese novels.

Chinese audiences were more interested in history and were more historically minded. They appreciated relative optimism, moral humanism, and relative emphasis on collective behavior and the welfare of the society.

The four novels were highly influential in the development of vernacular works in Chinese literary history.

In the later years of the dynasty, Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu innovated with vernacular short fiction. Theater scripts were equally imaginative. The most famous, The Peony Pavilion, was written by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), with its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.

Edited by staff


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