The Dream of the Red Chamber – China’s Downton Abbey

‘The Story of the Stone’ by Cao Xueqin is more familiarly called ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ (DRC). Written in the mid 18th Century, it is considered one of the four ‘great’ literary works of China.

In fact, I think it is one of the greatest novels in the world.


The original book is daunting – the highly acclaimed English translation by David Hawkes and John Minford – which is published by Penguin Classics, is in five volumes, with over 2500 pages in total, featuring at least 50 main protagonists and an additional 400 characters in the book.


For many western (and Chinese) readers the thought of reading it is just too much.  People in the UK who say that they find the idea of reading the great Russian classic ‘War & Peace’ difficult, would tremble before this behemoth of a book which is double the length of W&P!

‘Too long, too difficult, too many names which are hard to pronounce let-alone remember…’,  that is what people think about the full version. Chinese school children – who are all taught about the book – are only ever given shortish extracts to read.

However, if one perseveres it really is well worth reading, and deserves to be better known in the West.

Some western literary critics compare it with Shakespeare, and, like the works of the Immortal BardEroticism-and-Other-Literary-Conventions-in-Chinese-Literature-Intertextuality-in-The-Story-of-the-Stone-Cambria-Sinophone-World-Series.jpg  the DRC is studied, pored over and dissected by scholars who write serious books about aspects of the novel – there is now a whole field of study known in China as ‘Redology’.

Over the years DRC has been turned into Chinese Operas, several ballets, and more than one TV series here in China. In addition there have been countless ‘re-interpretations’ of the book.

Personally I think the DRC is like Downton Abbey but set in 18th century China!

The book tells the story of the Jia family, who are rich and well-connected, living  luxurious Rongguo Mansion in Beijing during the Qing dynasty.  The story goes from how the Jia family rose to prominence to how they fell from grace when the political tide turned against them, their mansion was raided and trashed by Imperial troops, with the senior males being thrown into jail and the women reduced to penury.

The cast of characters, as I said before, is huge but the main protagonists are the elderly matriarch, Lady Jia, her son Duke Jia Zheng who is currently head of the family, his spoilt son Baoyu, his nieces Daiyu and Baocai, daughter-in-law Xifeng and her weak husband Jia Lian, family friend Mrs Xue who’s wild son Xue Pan is the cause of many problems, as well as the adult children of  Jia Zheng’s concubine; and last but not least, the many servants/slaves who work for them in their huge sprawling compound.


It would take too long to try and outline the story which has plots within plots, suffice to say that there are love affairs, jockeying for favour, arranged marriages, fears, betrayals, sex, arguments, deaths, jealousies – indeed all human emotions and relationships are there in spadeth-1.jpgs.

This main story is framed by another tale – that of a sentient Stone who prevails upon a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest to have them take the Stone with them into the world where it can experience the human realm.  At the end, this framing tale has the primary male character Baoyu, who is purportedly born with a jade stone in his mouth,  becoming a monk and wandering the world. This is why the book is also known by the title ‘The Story of the Stone’

The daily lives of such a family and their servants is wonderfully depicted – what they eat and drink, what they wear, how they amuse themselves; how the houses are furnished, the make-up the women wear, the jewellery, the way servants are treated. Sons are expected to study hard for the Imperial Examinations, but needless to say they don’t always do so, they go out on the town, get drunk, have fights, seduce girls. The women gossip, learn household management, stroll in the gardens, have illicit love affairs, play musical instruments and bicker with one another…


Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of the book loosely based on the experiences of his own family. After he died Gao E ‘finished’ the book with a further 40 chapters – though many Redology scholars think he based them on drafts prepared by Cao Xueqin, the arguments over this rage on!                                                                         What Gao E certainly did was to get the book published in print form – in 1791 AD. Prior to that year it had only been copied by hand and passed around.

For anyone who would like to read the story, but feels daunted by the 5 volume original translation, there is a recent novel by Pauline Chen, ‘The Red Chamber’, in which she has ‘re-imagined’ the tale, but cut it down to the core characters, and I highly recommend it.  Well written, with most of the descriptions of life in the Jia family mansion kept intact it is a cracking read, I enjoyed it very much.




About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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14 Responses to The Dream of the Red Chamber – China’s Downton Abbey

  1. M. L. Kappa says:

    Very tempting. Thanks for a great review

    • herschelian says:

      You don’t have to read the full version, there are several ‘re-imaginings’ of the book. I think Pauline Chen’s recent novel ‘Red Chamber’ is a really good starting place.

  2. camparigirl says:

    This piques my interest to no end…

  3. Jennie says:

    Thanks Jo – sounds very interesting – think I’ll try the cut down version – but if ever I’m sent to a desert island, I’ll take the full version as my book choice – always wonder what book might keep me entertained for ages. Sounds possibly more Forsyte Saga than Downton Abbey Xxx

    • herschelian says:

      Jen – having the full un-expurgated 5 vol edition of ‘The Story of the Stone’ as your Desert Island book is a BRILLIANT idea! So much to read, and won’t you look stunningly intellectual when the prog is broadcast and you ask for an 18th Century Chinese masterpiece as your book!!! Downton Abbey/Forsythe Saga – akin to both in many ways, but with brilliant lyrical language …I do love a family saga, they suck you in, which is why soap operas are so popular!

  4. Eha says:

    Wonderful for a bookworm since age 5 who had never heard of author or the series! Should not admit this I daresay!! Well, ‘The Book Depository’ keeps all the volumes and the freight from England to Australia is free, so volume one has been ordered and paid for 🙂 ! If enjoyed I know where I can find the others one by one !!! Have to laugh about you mentioning ‘War and Peace’ – stubborn cuss that I was – I began it at age 5 when I taught myself to read and finished for the first time at age 7 . . . was so in love with Natasha Rostova !! Thank you for the lesson and the forthcoming fun . . .

    • herschelian says:

      Happy to have introduced you to a wonderful book. ‘The Book Depository’ is amazing, but alas alack it does not ship to China! You must be one of the youngest ever readers of W&P, which I also loved – Pierre was the man I yearned for….I also learned to read when very young, and have always devoured books, but my tastes as a kid were less highfalutin’! I’m sure you will enjoy ‘The Story of the Stone’ aka ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’. Best wishes.

      • Eha says:

        Natasha to Pierre B – ‘Pierre, darling Pierre, how I envy you your nights of fascinating debauchery’ . . . . my apologies, the memories methinks come from Audrey Hepburn’s elfin utterance to Henry Fonda rather than knowing the book so well . . . . . Oh, ‘W&P’ came after ‘Anna Karenina’ . . . . being Estonian-born, the surname means ‘rough nose’ and I went looking for that and stayed to cry . . . . {Mom was the Financial Controller of our largest publishing firm: so the books came free. . . . and I don’t think I ever saw children’s books 🙂 !!]

      • Phil Bowler says:

        I have had books shipped to China by BD, and according to their website, that is still their policy. The books did take 3 to 4 weeks to arrive, unfortunately.

      • herschelian says:

        Thanks for that Phil – it is several years since I tried BD for here in China and they said no, obviously things have changed! I will investigate.

  5. Behind the Story says:

    Now I’m puzzled. I read Dream of the Red Chamber decades ago, but I don’t think it was that long. I wonder if I read an earlier short version.

    • herschelian says:

      There have been several short ‘versions’ of DRC over the years, I just happened to have read the Pauline Chen one because it is fairly recent and had very good reviews, and I thought it an excellent ‘interpretation’.

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