Is it necessary to read the so-called classics?

There are some well-known works that I simply cannot appreciate In fact, I even find some niche books to be better

Answer by Yu Hua on this question.

During an interview, Teacher Yu Hua once gave a response to this question:

Reading Interpretation: An Effective Way to Cultivate Interest in Classics

I think it’s better for you to first read some articles that interpret the literary classics, such as the answer on Zhihu that interprets the central ideas of “Water Margin”. You can also buy some books specifically for interpreting classic works.

Reading some interpretations first might spark your interest in classic works. Whether or not to read them depends on your own needs.

The Initiative of Classic Novels

If you are a casual reader, feel free to read whatever you like.

However, as your reading volume and sophistication increase, you will inevitably encounter a question: you will become curious about the author’s motivation for writing and the origins of their style. If you want to dig deeper, you will inevitably come across classic works.

For example, if you read books by Keigo Higashino, there is a high chance you will also read Sherlock Holmes;

If you read Yu Hua, Mo Yan, and other Chinese modern writers, it’s hard to bypass Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”;

In summary, it’s not necessary to exclusively focus on classic works, but classic works often come looking for you on their own.

The Cao family’s fantasy novel lacks authenticity and practicality. The characters' behavior and settings are unrealistic and exaggerated, making the story unreliable and untrustworthy.

“Classic works” are all fabrications made by book merchants - the emperor’s new clothes. The world is so big, go and see it quickly. Why bother caring about the grievances of people who don’t love bathing and are idle and worried?

For example, “Dream of the Red Chamber”, which emerged in an era with a literacy rate of less than 1‰ in rural areas, was praised in the era when “masters” earnestly encouraged pens and pencils, and was crowned as a “encyclopedia”, yet the national illiteracy rate still reached 90%.

Replacing colorful with black and white on paper was an inevitable result of the impoverished times; replacing speculation and fantasy with practical knowledge was the sour pride of staying at home; replacing hard study behind a closed window with observation and experimentation was the impractical pursuit of a small-scale agricultural economy; replacing immortals and ghosts with interstellar orbits was the fooling of the feudal dynasties.

“Dream of the Red Chamber”, thousands of words summed up in one sentence: “What is Lanling’s laughter compared to? My ancestors are much richer than you!”

Cao Xueqin spent a considerable amount of space boasting directly, boasting clothes, boasting furniture, boasting decorations, boasting extravagance, and detailed listing of things obtained through exploitation during the Spring Festival - these boasts were all piled up with words, like directly transcribing from other books or ledgers.

The large number of maidservants of Bao Yu is surprising, but what are their respective duties? Cao Xueqin did not make it clear, why didn’t he describe it in detail like Fen Jie’s eggplant? Moreover, the names of most maidservants are vague and not developed into characters at all. Therefore, the purpose of these maidservants is not to create artistic value, but only to boast, and the simplest way is to boast “one as ten”. The numbers in “Dream of the Red Chamber” are not trustworthy - they cannot be studied as a “encyclopedia”.

What Cao Xueqin boasted about were all things he had heard of, with no description of sensory perception, because experience requires reality, and he had never experienced those things at all - the characters in Cao Xueqin’s pen never brushed their teeth, causing fans in the 21st century to panic and “brush their teeth” anxiously, while “The Carnal Prayer Mat” explicitly mentioned brushing teeth; it seems that Jia Bao Yu did not wash his feet every day, and his frequency of washing his hair was not high either. Taking a bath was a grand event that required several maidservants to serve him; even more obviously, Cao Xueqin did not describe kissing, indicating that he had no personal experience.

“Ptui” - this is a daily behavior of characters in “Dream of the Red Chamber”, done by both men and women - this cannot possibly be a noble pastime, it can only be a vulgar habit of the common people, regardless of the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, or Qing dynasties.

The jokes in “Dream of the Red Chamber” all revolve around “feces and urine”. This can never be an elegant taste in any society. A large group of women, giggling because of “monkey urine”, are they really noble women from a big family? And there are also differences in status between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law?

The contradiction in the description of food is the most powerful evidence of Cao Xueqin’s boasting -

Food is an important part of “Dream of the Red Chamber”, with nearly 200 dishes, it is said - but analyzing it from a different perspective, the loopholes become immediately apparent.

Most of these dishes only have a name, occasionally mentioning the ingredients. The eggplants made by Fen Jie were described in the most detail, including the process - but the chefs intended it as a joke to mock Liu Lao Nainai, and famous Redologists have personally proven that the taste is not good. The overly complicated and laborious operations precisely exposed the deliberate boasting, and the cold incense pill of Xue Baochai is even more suspicious with its strange coincidences.

The three elements of color, fragrance, and taste, which are essential for describing food, are never mentioned in the entire book. The feelings after eating, whether sour, sweet, bitter, or spicy, as well as the texture, are never positively described. Vague and abstract evaluations like “a light taste” seem more like evading the question.

Rice, noodles, buns, and dumplings, which are common foods, are almost never mentioned. Do maidservants, servants, and boys in the Jia family enjoy delicious food every day? In the 62nd chapter, when chaos breaks out in the kitchen, soups, rolls, pastries, and rice are mentioned. There are several adjectives before the meals, but there is no mention of the ingredients - this just shows that Cao Xueqin, in order to avoid the familiar and “vulgar” things that the common people know, went to great lengths to write about the unfamiliar and “elegant” things - boasting by plundering the stomach, deceiving by emptying the mind - making the cover-up even more revealing.

Also, how did the Jia family keep lychees fresh? It is not doubted that the emperor could eat lychees, but the possibility of lychees being transported to the Jia family and being fresh is zero. Lychees were leisurely placed in dishes and delivered slowly – this is physically impossible with the technology of that time. The four seasons of the cold incense pill, the rain, frost, and snow, can only create a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, and a paradise for mosquitoes, flies, and maggots.

In conclusion, the abundance of food names and the scarcity of taste are just like the traditional cross talk skit “Naming Dishes”, which performers have never eaten or even seen.

When it comes to “Naming Dishes”, the actors are very enthusiastic because they have to disguise themselves as if those dishes are their daily meals. The audience is also easily drawn in, as if they have tasted them, enjoyed the soup, and had a good time - but when both sides calm down, the actors and the audience know that those mouth-watering names can only bring self-comfort - they are not too different from each other, including their social status.

The characters and stories in “Dream of the Red Chamber” are some anecdotes passed down by Cao’s ancestors, and more are hearsay, similar to “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio”. It is based on “Jin Ping Mei” and pieced together from various sources. The debt and grudges between Jia Bao Yu and his father are clearly imitating Nezha from “Investiture of the Gods”. Jia Bao Yu’s alternating between foolishness and infatuation is similar to Yuan Feng in “Liao Zhai - Xiaocui”. Jia Rui’s death is a copy of “Liao Zhai - Ying Ning”, and the “Mirror of Love and Beauty” plagiarizes “Liao Zhai - The Eight Great Kings”. The appearance of Zhen Bao Yu is a replica of the Six-Ear Macaque in “Journey to the West” … The so-called “major waves and minor waves” simply express the “patching” of “patches”, while “weeds snake and gray lines” subtly summarizing the “unpacking of patches, drifting like cotton wool” or “flying kites without control”.

“Dream of the Red Chamber” is a large pot of “pearl, emerald, and white jade soup”. Since everyone has given it a thumbs up, let’s have two more bowls each. This has caused the “nutritional deficiency” and “stunted growth” of domestic writers for a long time, resulting in many “deformed monsters” who are born and raised here.

In the Grand View Garden, a handsome young man in his prime and a group of infatuated young women, there is no one to supervise them - can parents really feel at ease? Or is it that Grandmother Jia deliberately instigated Bao Yu to be “greedy like a cat”? - Therefore, from the architecture of the Grand View Garden to the characters within it, as well as their relationships, are all the imagination of the author, far beyond the family legend - resulting in numerous loopholes.

The Grand View Garden is like a simplified version of the royal palace, where there is only one true man in the inner courtyard - which fully reflects Cao Xueqin’s struggle with the idea of “thousands of beauties in the three palaces and six courtyards” and the sour grape mentality of wanting “official career and economic prosperity” but unable to obtain it. The author’s preference is similar to that of Jia Bao Yu - experts have even asserted that Cao Xueqin is also of the same-sex orientation.

Difficulties in Appreciating Classics

Classic works are worth reading, but it is common for someone to not like a particular classic. There is no need to insist that there is something wrong with the classic; it may simply not resonate with their age, experiences, or temperament.

For those who can’t appreciate a classic, you can push through and read it anyway. You might find yourself gradually appreciating it. Many people have had this experience, where they initially feel indifferent but eventually gain something from it.

Alternatively, you can choose to temporarily set it aside. After all, there are so many good books in the world. Just because this one doesn’t suit you doesn’t mean others won’t either.

The Importance of Reading Classics

If you study Chinese literature, it is obviously necessary to read famous works, because they will be covered in exams. This may be one of the positive effects of exams: although initially viewed as a chore, you might end up discovering a great book, gaining some valuable insights, or even opening up a whole new world of happiness. (One of the greatest rewards of studying Chinese literature is finding a favorite author recommended by the teacher during class.)

During general education, you will also come into contact with famous works, or at least a fragment or a strand of their essence. So, passively reading a bit of famous literature is almost inevitable for anyone who has received an education. (That being said, these fragments are not as valuable as not reading anything at all, since they have the potential to create a post-reading syndrome, similar to a blind person trying to figure out an elephant from touching its body parts. It’s hard for a toe to evoke a sense of beauty, even if it belongs to the most beautiful person.)

Sometimes famous works are not difficult to read and understand; many of them are very approachable.

However, apart from the necessity for exams and exposure during class, there isn’t really a compelling reason to read famous works.

So, here’s a pleasant response: reading famous works is not necessary. If we view them with the disdainful adjective “so-called,” then there is even less reason to read them.

(Although theoretically speaking, there is no such thing as a “so-called famous work.” Famous works are recognized over time, accumulated through history, and not determined by the recommendations of reliable or unreliable experts. It either is or it isn’t. We should realize that even Nobel Prize winners don’t necessarily become famous works.)

In the first place, reading books is not an obligatory choice for life or, at a grander scale, for one’s existence. One objective fact is that readers are becoming scarce, and bookstores are getting emptier. If this trend continues, admitting that you love reading may be seen as showing off, or it may elicit sympathetic looks, as if to say, “In this day and age, with so many interesting things in the world, you actually enjoy such a boring activity!”

Moreover, famous works are generally considered more serious and therefore possibly “boring” compared to other books. Their readability is compromised in the eyes of their audience. Additionally, they are further distanced from our daily lives (to be precise, serious literature is distant from the general public and not a necessary encounter). I remember watching a series of interviews with authors, and one of them said, “I hope my works are not understood” (or perhaps not understood by everyone; my memory is a bit vague), referring to this sense of distance. Literature and life have a certain distance between them, although literature certainly originates from life.

For most people, “famous works” may not be easy to read due to this inherent distance, reading fatigue, or time-consuming nature. So why force yourself?

Reading should be a joyful activity, not one that causes distress or even pain. Therefore, it is indeed not necessary to exclusively read famous works if they do not bring you happiness.

Conversely, with famous works or other works that may not be so well-known, if you enjoy them, they will likely bring unexpected rewards after reading.

But even without these rewards, we won’t starve.

Read whatever you love, as long as it is legal and within the rules. However, there are certain things that we should read even if we don’t enjoy them, such as car manuals, kitchen cabinet installation guides, etc. Haha! Life is precious, safety comes first! (Just a joke.)

Thank you! Whether you read famous works or not, as long as you are happy!


No need.

Mr. Li Jingze, the chief editor of People’s Daily and a well-known literary critic, has personally admitted that he couldn’t finish reading “War and Peace”. Having worked as a magazine manuscript editor for many years, Mr. Li’s job mainly involved reading various novels all day long. Even such an excellent reader has his own reading preferences and areas he’s not interested in (even for such a renowned work). So why are you bothered by which book you should read or not? It doesn’t matter if there are books you choose not to read, it won’t hinder you from living a good life.

Reading Famous Works: A Matter of Personal Preference

A classic is a famous work, determined by famous individuals. Therefore, let the esteemed figures decide, and we only need to read the works we ourselves enjoy.

The so-called works that we enjoy are only determined after reading many famous and non-famous works that we cannot continue with. Therefore, there’s no need to be upset about not being able to continue with a classic, as it would be a waste of time. After all, if you haven’t read it, how can you know if you like it or not.

The Importance of Reading Classics

Of course, it is best to read classics if you can. Because classics are works that have been accumulated and recognized by the public after many years of precipitation.

There are countless books, and a person’s time is limited, so it is impossible to read all the works. Reading classics is a relatively good choice.

Of course, with the changing times, for example, some classics from the former Soviet Union that were popular in China in the past can also be interpreted from a critical perspective, and it is best to build on that foundation.

No Need.

No need.

As someone who studies science and engineering, I now seriously question the need to read so much.

Compared to my classmates and friends, I have read a bit more books in the humanities and social sciences. However, apart from wasting more mental energy, they have been completely useless.

Reading should be based on one’s own interests. If you’re not interested, then just forget about it.