|An illustration by Sun Wen|
When one thinks of classical literature we might think of The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote or Ulysses. When one thinks of Chinese classics the two which spring to mind is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. The third most likely would be The Water Margin. One surprisingly glossed over in the West is Cao Xueqin's The Dream of the Red Chamber, also called The Story of the Stone, despite its popularity in China and Taiwan. My Chinese history lecturer once told the class that while studying in Taiwan the then most recent TV adaptation was the only show people spoke about with it having a popularity comparable to that of Game of Thrones. Dream tells us much about elite lives in mid-Qing China on top of being a good novel to start off with. It combines mysticism with family drama, Confucian and Buddhist theology with a coming of age story, and all in the backdrop of two mansions belonging to one large family. Containing thirty major characters and a further four hundred secondary and minor ones it is truly a huge work of fiction. Although initially hard to get into after the first few chapters the story becomes enrapturing.
|A statue of Cao Xueqin|
Dream was written by Cao Xueqin and we know little about him. We don't actually know when he was born - either 1715 or 1724 - or either who his father was. Cao started writing the novel in the 1740s and died leaving it incomplete, and quite possibly the last 40 chapters were written by the scholar who formally published it in 1791, Gao E. For years after Cao's death the novel fluttered around in manuscript form before being formally published by Gao. Due to it being written in vernacular Chinese it was more readily received so quickly became viewed as one of the Four Classics (also including Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Journey to the West) or part of the Six Classics (Jingpingmei and The Scholars in addition to the other four). A publishing boom occurred under the earlier Ming dynasty and this continued under the Qing; although no more than 10% of the population were literate this equated to millions of individuals. Also a surge in consumption began under the Ming which continued under the Qing. This allowed Dream to become very popular fast. As early as 1812 there was an attempt to translate it into English but it took until the 1970s to get a good translation done by David Hawkes which I use.
Cao Xueqin also had a unique life which influenced Dream. His grandfather, Cao Yin, was a childhood friend of the Kangxi emperor (r.1661-1722) and his grandmother was even the emperor's wetnurse. Kangxi had gone on six tours of southern China between 1684 and 1707 where Cao Yin's household actually hosted Kangxi and his retinue. Cao definitely hosted the emperor twice where each cost him 50,000 taels of silver - something very much in Cao's budget. Despite being a Han Chinese family Cao's family adopted considerable amounts from Manchu custom - the Qing were Manchus ruling over primarily Han Chinese. However, after the death of Cao Yin and Kangxi the fortunes of the Cao family went into decline after they ran afoul of the new emperor, Yongzheng. Their properties were confiscated, they were forced to move to Beijing, and Cao Xueqin grew up in poverty. Although fictional it is widely believed that Dream is semi-autobiographical.
|Baoyu in the Yangliuqing print|
Dream has no defined genre being a mixture of a drama, tragedy, and a romance. Here I will go over a brief outline of the story and there will be a few stories. The story opens up with a Buddhist monk and Daoist priest stumbling upon a sentient stone which the goddess Nuwa had made to rebuild the sky. This stone was left over from when she was rebuilding the sky and has sat in loneliness since. The monk and priest decide to let the stone experience the mortal world. Eventually we get to the Jia family split between two mansions - Ningguo and Rongguo - in an unnamed city implied to be Nanjing. We get the implication that the stone is Jia Baoyu - 'Jia of the Precious Jade' - and he is given his name because he was born with a jade in his mouth. Baoyu is a very intelligent young man but can be sly, lazy and sensitive. He deals with two main love interests. The first is his cousin Lin Daiyu who is described as an unconventional beauty who is sickly and overly sensitive but caring and very intelligent. The second is his other cousin Xue Baochai with is a conventional beauty, intelligent and refined - basically the ideal Confucian woman. The 'main' plot to Dream is Baoyu's relations with Daiyu and Baochai but there are many more. Eventually Baoyu has no choice but to do the imperial examinations and the Jia family loses their wealth. Baoyu and Daiyu fall in love but he is forced to marry Baochai and anguished Daiyu dies. After completing his Confucian duty by becoming a father Baoyu retires to become a monk.
|Lin Daiyu burying flowers|
What it tells us about Qing China
Dream is a heavily romanticized version of the life of a wealthy literati household although Cao Xueqin may have knew this already; Jia is a homophone for 'false' or 'fictitious'. Despite that we can still understand a lot about culture and society during the world of the Qing. Quite often later imperial China is viewed as being rigidly governed on inflexible laws which oppressed the young and women in the name of Confucianism. Dream shows us that in actuality these rigid laws were circumvented regularly. One aspect of this were the civil service exams where boys since the age of five were expected to learn virtually off by heart the Four Books and Five Classics by the time they came to do the exams in their late teens/early twenties. However, Dream shows how Baoyu is secretly reading poetry instead, much to the chagrin of his father, Sir Zheng. Women were not expected to read the Books and Classics but Daiyu secretly is - in fact Baoyu lies to her saying that he's reading the Books but really he's reading poems whereas Daiyu is reading the Books but she says that she is reading poems. Women play a huge role in Dream with most of the main characters being women, some with power, some not. In theory Sir Zheng is in charge of the Rongguo mansion but in reality his mother, Grandmother Jia, holds more power. As Baoyu and Daiyu are her favorite they can get away with a lot. In fact, one scene Zheng is making Baoyu make poems and Grandmother Jia sees that it is distressing him so she tells Zheng to go to bed - which he does. One of the key characters is Wang Xifeng, Baoyu's cousin-in-law, who ends up becoming in charge of the affairs of the Ningguo mansion, conspiring to eliminate women who her husband has affairs with, and is shown to have great respect in both mansions.
The Jia family is at times implied to be a Sinocized Manchu family and their customs blend Han and Manchu customs. No references to footbinding is mind throughout the novel and people regularly salute 'in the Manchu fashion'. However, they all have Han names over Manchu names, speak and write in Mandarin, and openly wear clothing and jewelry associated with Han culture. This clearly reflects an aspect of Cao's life as his family were Han with Manchu influences. Baoyu's sister, Yuanchun, is an Imperial concubine and for her visit (which happens in Chapter 18) they build a garden for her and they call it the Daguanyuan. Gardens played an important role in upper class identity; one Ming scholar Qia Biaojia wrote constantly how much he needed a garden before he got one. During Yuanchun's visit she bestows gifts on her family which has been hypothesized as being reminiscent of Kangxi's visit. Finally, in theory the sexes were rigidly divided between the men's and women's inner quarters but Dream shows how this was regularly ignored. Yuanchun opens her garden for Baoyu and the household's girls to use together and if anything Baoyu spends more time with the novel's girls than the men.
|Sun Wen's depiction of the Daguanyuan|
Religion, Spirituality and Dream
One key aspect of belief in late imperial China is that the supernatural and natural worlds were not as rigidly divided as the European and Islamic worlds. Although they were divided it was not as rigid as that of the Abrahamic faiths. One of the key scenes, in Chapter 22, has been interpreted as a poignant image of grief, an allegory of the inadequacy of love, and a Buddhist inspired discussion of impermanence. Daiyu chides Baoyu for wanting to throw fallen flower petals into a stream saying:
It isn't a good idea to tip them into the water...The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows on beyond people's houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I've got a grave for the flowers, and what I am doing now is sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them, so that they can gradually turn back into earth.
One of the maid's is named Swastika in reference to her apparent luck - in Buddhism swastikas do not have the same negative connotations that they now have in the West thanks to Nazism. A Daoist and Buddhist brings the stone into the mortal world and it in turn enters the spiritual world after Baoyu does his Confucian duty to start a family. Baoyu's best friend, Qin Zhong, on his death bed meets the death god Yama who grants him a brief moment to say bye to Baoyu and another character is given a magic mirror to be cured by a monk but he ignores the advice which results in the mirror's magic killing him. Baoyu's first sexual encounter, in Chapter 5, is when he dreams of a fairy land, inspired by seeing an erotic painting owned by his aunt, where a fairy reveals the fate of the household's women through poem before sleeping with him. In Dream the supernatural and religious and natural and secular merge together shaping the lives of the characters.
Coming of Age
We follow Baoyu, Daiyu and Baochai from their early teens throughout the ensuing years leading to a plot which ambles along just as life does. After the first volume in particular the plot focuses on Baoyu's relations with Daiyu and Baochai. Early on in the novel we see Baoyu's first sexual experience and we later see this reenacted later on in the same chapter with his handmaid Aroma whom he falls in love with. Aroma later becomes Baoyu's unofficial concubine and he desires to be with her visiting her family during New Year. We even see homosexuality explored in the novel. It is implied that Baoyu and Qin Zhong may have been lovers and due to this they are made fun of by school bullies. Baoyu's page, Jokey Jin, defends his master in Chapter 9 on page 211 in the Penguin edition delivering possibly my favorite quote from any classical novel:
"Whether we fuck arseholes or not," he said, "what fucking business is it of yours? You should be bloody grateful we haven't fucked your dad. Come outside and fight it out with me, if you've got the spunk in you!"
We see this coming of age in relation to Buddhist impermanence as well. Like all youths Baoyu and Daiyu (less so Baochai) are particularly idealistic; Baoyu constantly shows his disdain for scholars and the examination system. However, the pressures of life and society eventually forces him to take the exam where he becomes a scholar. While he wishes to marry his true love Daiyu in the end he has to marry Baochai. This is also reflecting the fate of the Jia family. At the start they are a wealthy and by the end their wealth has been lost reflecting Buddhist impermanence and the sobering reality of maturity.
Dream of the Red Chamber is a must read whether you are interested in Chinese history or not. All the stereotypes of Chinese culture is present: Confucianism, rigid family values, Buddhism, Daoism, status, and luxury. However, all these stereotypes are turned on their head and shown how diverse life was for the Qing elite. Dream remains as popular today as it was under the Qing. So far we've had around ten TV adaptations, two visual novels, two movies, and an opera. Likely we'll see another in the future. For those with an interest in China, classical novels, family drama, and stories of love and lost Dream of the Red Chamber is a must.
|Baoyu and Daiyu in the 2010 series, The Dream of the Red Mansions|
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber, trans. David Hawkes, (London: Penguin, 1973)
-Richard J. Smith, The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
-Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)
-Jonathan Spence, Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966)