Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

One of the things I like about blogging is the potential for interaction offered through the internet. My guest on today’s blog post responded to my plea for contributions and suggestions especially from the Far East about older women in fiction. Barbara Witt offers us a preview of a post she will put on her own blog.

So welcome to my next guest! Thank you for introducing us to two new strong older women, from the late Imperial Chinese era. Here are two women who refuse to conform to society’s expectations of their roles in their households. For both, in different ways, there is much more to old age than being a dependent widow.

23 Dr of Red Ch cover 1
The Story of the Stone is an alternative title


Dream of the Red Chamber  by Cao Xueqin

There aren’t many interesting older women in traditional Chinese novels, apart from the stereotypical ‘70-year-old widowed mother’ that is rhetorically invoked by characters as a person they need to take care of. This makes the meeting of Dowager Jia (also Grandmother Jia) and Granny Liu in Dream of the Red Chamber so interesting.

Dream of the Red Chamber was first printed in 1791. The writer Cao Xueqin, a man, lived from 1715 or 1724 until 1763 or 1764.

This book is one of the most famous Chinese novels and describes the life in an elite household of late imperial China. It is mostly focused on the day-to-day life of the youngest generation, a group of cousins – all female except for the protagonist Jia Baoyu – and in some part on the squabble and intrigues of their parents and married relatives. Only occasionally their routines are punctuated by receptions in the living quarters of the revered Dowager Jia and by visits from outsiders such as the peasant woman Granny Liu in chapter 40 of the 120 chapter novel.

The two old women

Throughout most of the novel, the Dowager Jia is presented as a respected yet distant authority figure, sometimes receiving family members in audience in her living quarters and joining them on special occasions. She has long since retired from her duties as a household manager, handing over management of the vast family compound to her daughters- and granddaughters-in-law, enjoying the spoils of decades of hard work in the clan of her husband, whom she outlived. She demands respect from household members and what she believes her due, even in instances when this goes against the wishes and interests – both reasonable and not – of her two sons.

Despite the demands of patriarchy that would see her living for the Jia clan alone, she shows attachment to both her birth family and her deceased daughter by allowing her neglected grandniece Shi Xiangyun and her orphaned granddaughter Lin Daiyu to stay in the Jia family household and receive similar treatment to the Jia patrilineal offspring. She is not just an authority figure either, having clear favorites among the Jia clan, such as her talented yet spoilt grandson Jia Baoyu and granddaughter-in-law Wang Xifeng, whose astute (and sometimes aggressive) management of the household reminds her of her own youth.

It is through the latter that she is introduced to Granny Liu, a peasant woman whose son-in-law had a superficial connection to the Wang clan. When lack of money to support themselves prompts her son-in-law to take out his frustration on his wife, Granny Liu decides to take matters into her own hand: To protect her daughter from further abuse, she intends to procure funds from the Jia family by paying a visit to Wang Xifeng with her small grandson in tow for extra sympathy points. Xifeng, always eager to please the Dowager, sees some entertainment value in the simple country woman and invites her inside for a meeting. Her instincts prove right and Dowager Jia not only gives Granny Liu the much-needed handouts, but also a tour of the spectacular garden that the novel centers around.

While the woman live in vastly different circumstances and even though Granny Liu expertly plays the part of bumbling country fool for the Dowager’s amusement throughout her visit, a brief moment of kinship shines through in the meeting of these two old women. Both have presumably lived a live full of hardship, though of different kind, one living in poverty, one standing her ground against the jealousy of other household members. Both have outlived their husbands and are spectators at the lives of their children and grandchildren. Both in very different ways defy the stereotype of the helpless ‘70-year-old mother’ utterly dependent on her children for her own livelihood.

Their circumstances and actions might at times feel strange to twenty-first century readers, especially those unfamiliar with Chinese literature and its female characters. Nevertheless, their characters are quite rounded and realistic, even if their ways of managing things don’t always make them likable. Their meeting is a highpoint in this novel.

Seeing that Dream of the Red Chamber  is very much a story of youth, you shouldn’t turn to it to read about older women (or even middle aged ones for that matter). But if you come across this novel as part of a quest for world literature, genre-defining masterworks, or even just to check out the book all the Chinese readers rave about, you might want to pay some special attention to those two remarkable women.

Book details

23 Ch 40 Red Chamber

Cao Xueqin, Honglou meng (formerly transcribed as Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in, Hung-lou meng), the novel has been translated in its entirety as:

  • The Story of the Stone by David Hawkes and John Minford: Penguin Classics, New York 1973-1980, 5 vols.
  • A Dream of Red Mansions by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi: Foreign Language Press, Beijing 1978-1980, 3 vols.

Abridged versions and extracts are variously available. Make sure to look out for chapter 40 of the original.

As a true classic, the novel also has a Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_the_Red_Chamber

Posted by Dr. Barbara Witt from the blog: Sino Literature reading books from China’s past (sinolit.wordpress.com). Barbara says the blog ‘is dedicated to my field of study, late imperial Chinese literature’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s