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When asked to explain the significance and pleasure of the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, I’m afraid I usually flounder. How to put it to friends, students or colleagues that the tiffs, the leisurely intrigues and frustrated aspirations of a fractious bunch of adolescents constitute one of the great efforts at plumbing human experience?
Yet Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid-18th century, is the fullest immersion one could hope for into late imperial China, the best access to the minds, hearts and habits of that period, complete in everything from cosmology to cosmetics.
The episodic plot, sprawling over 2,500 pages in the standard Penguin translation, follows the infatuations and travails of a pubescent boy, Jia Baoyu. Baoyu is the unstudious and distracted son of a great, albeit troubled, house in Beijing. He is surrounded by a bevy of erudite and beautiful girls (relatives and maidservants), doted upon by his elderly grandmother, and terrified by his strict, pedantic father — a paragon or parody of the Confucian gentleman. In the pavilions, halls and gardens of this grand estate, allegory of and escape from the world, Baoyu struggles reluctantly towards adulthood.
Somehow, almost deviously, through the spats, crushes and rivalries of a handful of teenagers, the great questions of the human condition are broached: what is a good life, faced with the inevitability and omnipresence of death? What are one’s obligations? How real is this life and what is it for?
Take the famous little scene in Chapter 22 when Baoyu is inspired to throw fallen flower petals into the stream, but is chided by his sensitive cousin, Daiyu, who remarks:
Dream of the Red Chamber has Balzac’s panoramic view of society, the satire of arrogance and fashion of Vanity Fair, the funny, meandering mischief of Decameron. But these comparisons are inadequate to a work so monumental and so vehemently itself, the epitome of the great tradition of Chinese family fiction.
The novel has spawned innumerable adaptations for the stage and screen, as well as dozens of sequels attempting to rescue or resolve its characters’ dilemmas and narrative arcs. It has influenced everything from the witty, cruel short stories of Eileen Chang, to the claustrophobic film, Raise the Red Lantern, and the opulent concubine-poisoners’ dramas of popular TV serials such as Empresses in the Palace.
Above all, reading (or prescribing) the novel feels like the antidote to facile stereotyping of Chinese culture. All the core topics are present: family dynamics; Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism; face and status; strategy and emotion. But all of these are played out for a readership which still regarded the world outside China as a curiosity, and was under no pressure to defend or justify its culture. It is a work of the Qing Dynasty, by a Qing author, for Qing readers; and it is the modern reader’s good fortune just to be allowed in.
Whether you read it straight through or dip in from time to time, this work affords entry to one of the great fictional universes.
Lecturer in Chinese Studies, University of Sydney
Retired Redundant, Flinders University
I read the Dream of the red Chamber about 50 years ago - it is clear that at age 20 I had difficulty fully appreciating the novel, but it was of use when thinking about the way China responded to the West and helped me make sense of the May 4th movement.Thank you for this nostalgic indulgence.
But read Romance of the Three Kingdoms first, even if it is grossly unfair to Cap Cao.
I read this as a medical student. I found this difficult to read because of the long list of characters and character names. However I was impressed when I realised that one of the women had te symptoms of Pernicious anemia (B12 deficiency) and the treatment was raw liver which is rich in B12. However if you cook the liver the vitamin is destroyed. This was not disovered by Europeans until centuries later.