Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin is the quintessential Chinese novel. The translation by David Hawkes and John Minford (The Story of the Stone, Penguin Classics) is such a pleasure to read that the Complete Review suggested it as a contender for Book of the Millenium! This much-loved eighteenth-century classic has been adapted for the cinema, for TV, for radio, for the stage and, most recently, as an opera co-produced by the San Francisco Opera and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. So we just had to include it in the GLLI’s China month! In 2016, Ann Waltner, Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, created a free online course Dream of the Red Chamber: Afterlives, with the help of her graduate students. Designed for people who’ve never read the novel before, it’s a great resource – whether you’re reading by yourself or as a book-group. We’re delighted that Ann agreed to write today’s post.
These are hard times; and it might seem frivolous to read an eighteenth-century Chinese novel, much less write about one. Political rhetoric in the United States, indeed in much of the Anglophone world, is increasingly hostile to migrants, increasingly suspicious of those who think differently than we do. But it is at precisely such moments that fiction becomes urgent. Fiction offers us more than solace; it offers us a gate into other worlds, other times and other places. Reading places us in a community of readers, a community which transcends time and place. Reading puts us in a community of millions of readers worldwide, a complex and diverse community, in which – given all our differences – the one commonality may be our interest in human stories.
I can think of no novel which offers a broader view of another world than the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as The Story of the Stone, which was written in the mid-eighteenth century by a man named Cao Xueqin but first published in 1792, long after his death. The novel is long and luxurious—120 chapters, a million words in Chinese, five volumes in English translation. If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jane Austen, you will like this novel. It is both a novel of magical realism and a novel of manners which revolves around a marriage plot.
Dream of the Red Chamber invites the reader to enter into its world with a tale of cosmic creation, with the story of a stone left over when a goddess mended the sky. The stone collected rainwater and nourished a flower. The stone and the flower are reborn as humans; the stone as Jia Baoyu and the fiower as his cousin Lin Daiyu. Because the stone had nurtured the flower with water, Daiyu owes Baoyu a debt of tears, which she repays in full, to her sorrow and that of the reader.
The novel consists of several worlds—the world of the household, the world of politics, the world of the cosmos—and the sometimes complicated interconnections among them. At the beginning of the novel, the reader passes through a gateway to a Land of Illusion. Inscribed on the gate is the profound (yet perplexing) phrase “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true/Real becomes unreal when the unreal’s real.” Thus the reader understands that the world is illusory, but is left to wonder which world is real and which is illusion. A Chinese reader would recall the story of Zhuangzi, the Daoist who dreams he is a butterfly, and upon awakening is unsure if he was Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he is a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. Thus the novel is a meditation on illusion and reality, but it is also a meditation on fictionality.
The fact that the world of the everyday may be illusory does not mean that the details of that world are irrelevant. In fact, the novel describes that world in loving detail. The reader gets caught up in the daily life of the Jia household. The Jia family is large and complex, and the household includes cousins, servants, an acting troupe and even religious establishments. It is indeed a world into itself.
Baoyu, the reincarnated stone, was born with a piece of jade in his mouth; he wears the jade around his neck. It has the power to protect him, a fact which is revealed in the crisis that ensues late in the novel when it is lost. The jade, and its power, are a reminder of the connection between the mundane world and the divine world.
Two main plot threads run through the novel. The first is the question of Baoyu’s marriage–which of two cousins will be selected as his wife? Lin Daiyu’s chief rival for Baoyu’s affections is another cousin, Xue Baochai. Both young women are beautiful, brilliant, well-educated and exceedingly (if discreetly) fond of Baoyu. Daiyu is sickly and somewhat prickly; Baochai is sensible and straightforward, sometimes irritatingly so. The reader may regret that the senior members of the family prefer Baochai, but it is not hard to understand why she would be a more a more appealing daughter-in-law.
The second plot thread, not unconnected to the first, is the decline of the house of Jia, a decline which has domestic, social, political, moral and religious dimensions, all of which are demonstrated in the novel.
The younger generation of Jias—Baoyu, his cousins, and their servants—live in dwellings built in a large and spectacular garden, built to honor a sister who was an imperial concubine. There is an air of incipient sexuality which hangs over the adolescents in the garden. The adolescents spend their days writing poetry, engaging in banter and gossip and parties. The young women do needlework, which not only produces exquisite objects, it is an occupation fit for their status. Baoyu, however, refuses to behave as he should. For a boy to live in the garden with young women defied the conventions of the time, and it is only possible because his sister, the imperial concubine, decreed that it should be so. Rather than spending time with his female cousins, he should be studying for civil service exams, but he is bored by the Confucian classics that would grant him success in the exam system. He refers to young men who study the classics to gain success in the civil service as career worms. The family fortunes depend on his success, but he cannot be bothered to study. The reader understands why he does not want to study—the charms of the female cousins are all too apparent, especially given the scarcity of inspiring men in the novel. It is no wonder Baoyu does not want to grow up. But it is not just his indolence which causes the decline of the family. Wang Xifeng, who at her first appearance is an appealing character—she is beautiful, strong and witty—is revealed to be corrupt and even evil. She comes to run the Jia household; it is clear that the world of women is not a satisfactory alternative to the world of men. There seems to be no way out.
The novel is in some ways about adolescents trying to find their way in the world, in a world which makes less and less sense to them. There would be social scripts they could have followed: Baoyu should study for the civil service examinations, and the young women should happily await marriage. But Baoyu refuses to study for the civil service examinations and it is clear to the young women in the garden that marriage may not make for a happy ending. There are ways then in which the novel sets itself up with radical premises which it then cannot fulfill. The author raises the question he cannot answer: what do you do when the social system in which you are enmeshed in does not provide options for you? I would suggest that that tension, between the radical premises raised but not fulfilled, is one of the strengths of the appeal of the novel. Ever since its first publication, readers have been rewriting the novel—changing its ending, making dramas about it, writing poetry, in what is in essence fan fiction.. The novel has been adapted in countless dramatic forms, most recently the opera by Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang. Modern scholarship has made it clear that the final forty chapters of the novel were not written by Cao Xueqin, the author of the first eighty chapters. This fact has given authors (including Sheng and Hwang) license to reimagine the ending of the novel.
The novel has been made into a number of television series, the best known of them in 1987 and 2010. The 1987 series has been rebroadcast more than 700 times. It is easily available on Youtube, with English subtitles. It clearly plays a role in the contemporary Chinese imagination. But why not start out by reading the novel, which exists in a splendid English translation by David Hawkes and John Minford, and let it play for a while in your own imagination.
The best and most accessible English translation of the novel, The Story of the Stone (tr. David Hawkes and John Minford) is published by Penguin. A free on-line course on the novel, its history and reception is available at z.umn.edu/redchamber. Links to the some of the dramatic productions referred to above are provided in the course.
[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]