‘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 Bard 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 spades.
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.