If you start getting into the Chinese classics, you’re going to want to check out the spots they’re set in.
Like Harry Potter fans taking selfies at London’s Kings Cross Station, or Game of Thrones fans pretending to be Lannisters in Croatia, four of China’s enduring classics have sent endless tour groups to a few key spots in China.
China’s “Four Greats” are: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chambers.
Where to start? Here is a guide to getting your literary scavenger hunt on.
Obviously, you’re going to end up with the inevitable proliferation of tourist traps, with operators eager to cash in on the fandom.
Take for example Water Margin, a novel about a band of outlaws and their conflicts with officials during the Song Dynasty era.
Fans can rough it out and hike up Liangshan, the relatively untouched mountain stronghold of the outlaws in the Shandong province. But if they are to approach tour operators, they would often be directed to the tourist trap that is the Water Margin Theme Park in Wuxi, where they filmed the television series adaptation of the novel.
Not surprisingly, there is little authenticity amid the re-created buildings and re-enacted battle scenes inside the park.
Dream of the Red Chamber
This tragic story of family demise during the Qing Dynasty period, on the other hand, does not have a defined historical location, even though it is widely regarded as a semi-autobiographical tale.
Nonetheless, the novel—widely revered as one of China’s literary pinnacles—is so richly detailed that it inspired two beautiful landscape gardens in Beijing and Shanghai (both called Da Guan Yuan), sculpted according to the book’s descriptions. Both have since become popular sightseeing spots in the heart of the two metropolises, easily reached via public transport.
Journey to the West
Many have compared this classic to the Lord of the Rings trilogy in English literature, and there are definite similarities. Both involve a long arduous journey, a motley group of heroic protagonists and plenty of demonic characters and supernatural beings.
One would think that it is impossible to find the places mentioned in this rip-roaring adventure story from the 16th century Ming dynasty. It’s got impassable rivers, a kingdom with an all-female population and lair of seductive spider spirits all too fantasy-tinged to be believable locations on Earth.
But surprise: the Flaming Mountains, where the traveling monk and his disciples battled an intimidating wall of fire, actually do exist. They lie amid the Tian Shan mountain range in far-flung Xinjiang, near the city of Turpan.
There are no flames though, just barren, red sandstone hills. Nonetheless, there is a Cultural Gallery of Journey to the West in the scenic area, should you make the arduous trip to the mountains.
The second key spot is in the bustling historical city of Xi’an, where the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda stands. Built during the Tang Dynasty, its first abbot Xuanzang made a 17-year pilgrimage to India, brought back Buddhist sutras and spent the rest of his life translating them from their original Sanskrit language.
And since Journey to the West is inspired by Xuanzang’s pilgrimage, fans of the book will appreciate the pagoda as an important monument to visit.
When I visited the pagoda last month, I found it useful to hire one of its knowledgeable guides, who can provide anecdotes of Xuanzang’s considerable influence on Buddhism in China. It can, however, feel a little disjointed connecting the zany, whimsical tone of the Chinese classic, to the austere religious surroundings.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
This war epic based on historical events has inspired numerous movies, TV series, comics, and tons of video game franchises—the Dynasty Warriors series has been running for an incredible 21 years, for example.
China’s Three Kingdoms era (about 220-280 AD) marked a time when the country had three large rival states, each with rulers fighting to be the sole emperor of the country.
Most fans start at Wuhou Shrine in the heart of the Sichuan city of Chengdu. Although crowded and touristy, the shrine is perhaps the prime location to understand the historical characters of Shu, one of the three kingdoms.
These include the ruler Liu Bei, and his most trusted generals Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, and most famous of all, his military adviser Zhuge Liang.
After the Wuhou Shrine, you can visit Chibi City, a two-hour drive south of Wuhan, where the famous Battle of Red Cliffs was fought along the Yangtze River, and contemplate Zhuge Liang’s battle tactics, that tricked his rivals into a humiliating defeat.
But perhaps the most evocative location lies along the provincial borders of Sichuan and Shaanxi. This is where Zhuge Liang tried in vain to conquer a strategic terrain in Shu’s battle with the rival Wei kingdom, and died of exhaustion after failing for a fifth time.
Before he died, he had asked to be buried near the Dingjun Mountain outside the small town of Mianxian, a five-hour trip north from Chengdu. There you will find a quiet shrine by the mountain, housing the man’s humble tomb—a fittingly poignant tribute to a tragic, heroic character in one of Chinese literature’s most beloved classics.