The office jack’s career is blighted, The rich man’s fortune now all vanished, The kind with life have been requited, The cruel exemplarily punished; The one who owed a life is dead, The tears one owed have all been shed. Wrongs suffered have the wrongs done expiated; The couplings and the sundering were fated. Untimely death sin in some past life shows, But only luck a blest old age bestows. The disillusioned to their convents fly, The still deluded miserably die. Like birds who, having fed, to the woods repair, They leave the landscape desolate and bare. - Dream of the Red Chamber
Okay, I know I probably tricked a lot of you into following this blog for my ancient Mediterranean content and some of you for my medievalist content—for which you tolerate my forays into classical southeast Asian literature and cosmogony. But while still very much coming as an outsider reading in translation (with the sole exception of French), I am super-passionate about world literature generally and have long been planning to open up discussions to that effect. Particularly to talk about books that may be unfamiliar to a western (especially a non-immigrant-connected American) audience.
In fact, one of my least favorite genres is what is typically identified as specifically American literature, with a small enclave carved out for Steinbeck and some Faulkner (okay, mostly just As I Lay Dying). And I’m hardly expressing an original idea when I say that reading another culture’s literature is such a wonderful, non-confrontational way to learn more about that culture as a whole. Especially when we’re talking about literature that has stood the test of time within its culture. So this week, because I’m still working through Chariton’s Callirhoe and can’t do an entry on that yet, I’m going to take a wild left turn and talk to you about possibly the most famous novel in the world you don’t know about and easily one of my top five favorite books I’ve ever read: Dream of the Red Chamber.
Now obviously if you are Chinese or have any grounding in Chinese culture, I sound like an oblivious white person running into the room to tell everyone about something everyone else has been perfectly aware of for centuries. There’s literally a whole branch of Chinese literary theory dedicated to the novel (wonderfully called hóng xué—“redology”); and there’s an ocean of every kind of merch you could imagine that I hunt on eBay like a lunatic. That’s how ubiquitous Dream is to, at this point, a pan-Asian audience. The closest thing I could compare it to in western literature is Romeo and Juliet—if you’ve been raised in an Anglo-American or even more broadly, a European country, you know the story whether or not you’ve ever read it or seen the play performed. And the R+J comparison is perhaps apt because while there is a lot happening in Dream, at its heart, it is the story of another pair of star-crossed lovers. Also like Will’s famous tragedy, Dream tells you very early on exactly what will happen in the story, albeit in occasionally cryptic language, so I don’t think this is a case where reading about plot points here will ruin the chance to read it yourself if I manage to convince you to do that. However, I suppose this is your spoiler warning for this nearly three hundred year old book.
Dream is one of the so-called “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature; the other three being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and The Water Margin (also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh). Sometimes this list is expanded to include The Scholars and Water Margin’s delightfully smutty fanfic sequel, The Plum in the Golden Vase. Journey to the West, the one about the Monkey King, is probably the best-known of the expanded six works outside of China, but translator David Hawkes considers Dream to be the most popular overall. Having read all of them except for The Scholars, I would say that those two are probably the most accessible to an outsider audience, so if you’re interested in taking the plunge, I’d start there.
Journey is certainly the shortest—though I’m pretty sure the translation I read (David Kherdian’s Monkey) is an abridgment at 300ish pages. Because one thing the great classical Chinese novels have in common is that they are long. Scholars is far and away the shortest at an unabridged (as far as I know) length of over 600 pages, with most of the others clocking in at around 2500 pages total, and Plum—in true obsessive fanfic form—at well over 3000 pages. Which is part of the reason I think they are sometimes a hard sell in the west where people just don’t want to read books that long most of the time. Publishers in English have tried to get around this by breaking the books up into multiple volumes as if they are a series; for example, the two major English Dream translations, the Kao Ngo/Yang Xianyi Fredonia translation and the David Hawkes Penguin translation, break the story into three and five volumes, respectively.
And interestingly enough, neither of those two English translations use the title I did for the book we’re focusing on. Dream’s Chinese title is Honglou Meng (紅樓夢), with hóng meaning “red” and meng meaning “dream,” but lou has been translated as both “chamber” and “mansion.” Hence why the Kao/Yang translation is called A Dream of Red Mansions rather than Dream of the Red Chamber. Additionally, in Chinese there is also a full alternate title for the book which is Shitou Ji (石頭記), most literally “Records of the Stone,” but usually translated in English (as in the Hawkes translation) as The Story of the Stone. I use Dream of the Red Chamber to refer to the book in part because that was the title under which I first read the basic story (a much shorter abridgment), but mostly because I think it is the most evocative of the three titles. Much the same way I still prefer to call Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fifth major novel The Possessed rather than the more correct Demons. It’s just a personal preference. Taking the two “Red” titles as a unit against the “Stone” title, how did two such disparate titles for the same book happen? Well, the two title types reflect two different framings of what the central story is. Because Dream is like the movie Inception—we have dreams within dreams here.
Dream begins in the mythological past with the goddess Nüwa mending the heavens with magic, sentient stones. One stone is left over and whiles away the millennia until it meets a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest, whom it begs to help it experience the mortal world below since it cannot fulfill its place in the heavens. The two holy men try to warn it off of this, saying the mortal world is full of pain and illusion, but the stone is adamant. The holy men give in and the stone is simultaneously reborn as the young male protagonist of the story, Baoyu, and as an unusual piece of jade found in the boy’s mouth when he is born. The same Buddhist monk and Taoist priest warn Baoyu’s family that the jade and the boy must never be separated, and indeed, calamity strikes any time the magical jade stone is misplaced. Baoyu’s very name means “Precious Jade” (寶玉), symbolizing how he and the immortal stone are one.
At the same time, this sort of prologue explains that before it became Baoyu, the stone also spent time in the court of the fairy Disenchantment, where it became attached to a magical flower known as the Crimson Pearl Flower and saw that she was watered with dew every day. Later, the flower ponders this debt she owes the stone’s kindness. Having no dew to give in return, she resolves to be reborn in the mortal world as well in order to seek out the stone and repay her debt in the tears of an entire mortal life. The Crimson Pearl Flower is therefore born in the mortal world as Baoyu’s cousin, Daiyu. This becomes the novel’s famous “Debt of Tears” (which the Hawkes translation uses as the subtitle for Volume Four), the tragic fate sown in another life that both draws Baoyu and Daiyu together and tears them apart.
But wait—there’s more! A third layer of framing brings Dream’s author Cao Xueqin (c. 1715-63) into the moving story, where the previously mentioned Taoist priest supposedly finds the entirety of the novel carved on the stone (made enormous to contain the roughly 2500 pages, presumably) and brings a copy of it to the mortal world, where it passes under several authors and names, of which Cao Xueqin is listed as merely one of many. This is actually fitting because there are thought to be several authors attached to the historical Dream as well. Cao is the principal author, but the novel was never published in his lifetime and only survived thanks to a circle of friends and devotees who made copies and revisions to the original story. In fact, much of what constitutes the ending of the story is thought to have been written by Gao E, a disciple of Cao’s, and there is some debate as to whether it is what Cao intended it to be. This also accounts for some of the occasional inconsistencies within the story—multiple authors working on an unfinished manuscript will do that.
Within the novel, Cao Xueqin the character supposedly calls his version of the book The Twelve Beauties of Jinling, and only later copyists “restore” the “original” title, The Story of the Stone. This choice is explained in one of the most moving passages attached to the novel: part of an introduction to one of the manuscripts copied out by Cao’s younger brother, where he quotes Cao as follows:
“Having made an utter failure of my life, I found myself one day, in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth. As I went over them one by one, examining and comparing them in my mind’s eye, it suddenly came over me that those slips of girls—which is all they were then—were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the ‘grave and mustachioed signior’ I am now supposed to have become… I resolved that, however unsightly my own shortcomings might be, I must not, for the sake of keeping them hid, allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial.”
And this is the fourth layer of Dream’s framing: the author Cao Xueqin’s semi-autobiographical story about the decline of a wealthy family similar to his own. Where Baoyu is his stand-in among the ghosts of his beloved, talented sisters and cousins who faded from this world without a trace because they were women in patriarchal Qing China. Baoyu as a character hates boys and being a boy, vastly preferring his female relatives, even though they effortlessly outshine him in every way. Dream’s cast of characters is legion, but the foremost characters besides Baoyu are twelve young women, the “beauties of Jinling” (the town where Baoyu’s family lives), doomed by forces outside their control. This is where the “Red” titles come from, particularly Dream of the Red Chamber. In said chamber, Baoyu is visited by the aforementioned fairy Disenchantment, who tries to get him to see that everything in the mortal world—his family’s wealth and position, his excessive attachment to the girls in his family—are all illusions. That nothing lasts and to give up those attachments in a Buddhist/Taoist way is the only path to true happiness and enlightenment. She shows Baoyu a register with poems about the tragic fates of his twelve favorites, but he is unable to understand what he is shown and is therefore unprepared for the disasters that will end the “golden days” of his family (the subtitle of Hawkes Volume One). The Red Mansions version of Dream’s title comes from the many buildings of the Jia family’s compound and Cao’s sublimated memories of those lost times.
I’m with Cao on this point, incidentally. The Jinling Beauties are what make Dream the deeply human novel it is, in spite of its gargantuan length and mind-bending metaphysics, as well as make it so cross-culturally accessible. All twelve are rich characters—even the two that are sort of the outlier pair who aren’t in the story much—individual in their talents and flaws. They’re like the Qing-era Sailor Scouts: there’s a girl for every taste and just because Cao, and by extension, Baoyu, adores them doesn’t mean they’re portrayed as saintly. I think they’re the best argument for picking the book up, so I’m going to spend the rest of this already (appropriately) too-long entry giving them a short introduction to you. Each of them has a lovely, longer poem-song attached to them in Disenchantment’s register, but for space’s sake, I’m going to use the shorter quatrains in the “supplementary register,” which convey the same prophecies. The exception to this being in Daiyu and Baochai’s case because, as Baoyu’s perfect match split into two bodies, they share a quatrain; instead for them I’ll quote a few lines from the songs. You’ll find these as captions beneath each girl’s picture.
1) Daiyu (黛玉)
As we’ve already mentioned, Daiyu is Baoyu’s cousin and the principal female character of Dream. No one in the novel is aware of their previous lives, so she doesn’t remember that she’s Crimson Pearl Flower, nor does she recall her pledge to repay her debt to Baoyu’s stone. She’s simply a somewhat melancholy young woman who’s brilliant, but easily upset. Almost constantly unwell, she’s described as having a willowy, ethereal beauty, but her prickly, sarcastic nature keeps her from being the saintly consumptive of Victorian literature. She and Baoyu are drawn into a special bond almost immediately, but they are nearly always misunderstanding one another by mistake (you know, like teenagers do), so Daiyu has no trouble shedding the required tears for her debt over her love for him. Both hope to end up married, but Baoyu’s mother and grandmother worry that Daiyu is too sickly to be wife material, so they trick Baoyu into marrying Baochai instead. When Daiyu learns of this, she dies of grief and her debt to the stone is finally paid in full.
2) Baochai (寶釵)
Now, what I wrote about Baochai above makes her sound like a bitchy interloper in Baoyu and Daiyu’s immortal love affair, but what makes Dream great is it’s a lot more complicated than that. Baochai is also Baoyu’s cousin, but in addition to also being extremely gifted, she’s everything Daiyu is not: patient, even-tempered, and fair-minded. A curvaceous beauty to contrast Daiyu’s dainty slimness, Baochai is supposed to represent the real-world Confucian ideal of womanhood whereas Daiyu is the romantic literary ideal. And while not sharing the cosmic bond he has with Daiyu, Baoyu is very attracted to Baochai for most of the novel and she’s the person he loves the most beside Daiyu. Their marriage is seen as fated by most people in the novel because a poem carved on Baoyu’s magic jade corresponds with a poem on a golden locket Baochai was given by that same interfering Taoist priest. This is the “marriage of gold and jade” referenced in her quatrain. This is also in their names: Baoyu is the “precious jade” while Baochai is the “precious/gold hair pin.” But even though she gets Baoyu in the end, he loses his mind when he finds out what happened to Daiyu and her “victory” is a hollow one where she is the perfect wife who knows her husband will always love another.
3) Yuanchun (元春)
Yuanchun is Baoyu’s older sister, revered by everyone as a paragon of beauty, learning, and respectability. Once her little brother’s first teacher, she is chosen to serve as a lady in waiting at the imperial palace, itself a great honor for her family, where her grace and wisdom single her out to the emperor and she is made an imperial consort, an almost unparalleled honor. This means she is absent most of the novel, as her position prevents her from seeing her family without special permission from the emperor, but her one visit is the zenith of the Jia family’s wealth and prestige. Her name means “first spring,” as she is the oldest of the Jia family’s “Four Springs,” the four girls with “spring” (chun) as part of their name. As her quatrain implies, she is the greatest of the four, but although her life sounds like a fairytale, she doesn’t enjoy her position and longs for her essentially lost family within the walls of the imperial palace. She dies alone and relatively young, taking much of the Jia’s remaining prestige with her and her death marks the beginning of the end for the family fortunes.
4) Tanchun (探春)
Tanchun is Baoyu’s half-sister, a daughter of his father’s concubine as opposed to Baoyu’s mother, Lady Wang. She’s somewhat pitied for being “only” a concubine’s daughter by some characters, particularly because she’s beautiful and talented, but unlikely to benefit from either much in adulthood because of her status. Like Daiyu she’s an exceptional poet, and like Daiyu, she’s also of a sharper personality, hence her nickname of “Rose” for her thorny nature. One of the Four Springs (her name means “seeking spring”), she escapes much of the calamitous fallout of the Jia family’s collapse when she is earlier married off to a young man serving far away in the military. But like her half-sister, Yuanchun, she will spend her adulthood looking back to her childhood and longing for the “golden days” long past.
5) Xiangyun (湘雲)
Xiangyun is Baoyu’s second cousin, an orphan raised by an uncle and aunt from her other family who are wealthy but unloving toward her—hence why she likes to spend time with her mother’s family, the Jias. Xiangyun has an androgynous beauty that she demonstrates by masquerading as a boy for escapades on occasion. She’s exuberant and sometimes tactless, but her kindness makes her easily forgiven by even Daiyu. Each of the twelve have an “iconic” scene in which they’re usually depicted in Chinese art ( as seen in the pictures I’m using here); this is the traditional way Xiangyun is depicted, illustrating an episode where she drinks too much at one of the girls’ poetry clubs and falls asleep in the garden. She ends up marrying a man she loves dearly, but as her quatrain warns, he dies young and leaves her a widow.
6) Miaoyu (妙玉)
Miaoyu is the only one if the twelve girls who isn’t related somehow to the Jia clan. She’s a Buddhist novice serving in a cloister sponsored by the Jias. She’s described as very beautiful and learned, but she’s also haughty and obsessed with dirt and cleanliness. As a result she holds herself above everyone as holier-than-thou, but secretly she harbors feelings for Baoyu, which violates her vows. In perhaps the nastiest fate decreed in Disenchantment’s prophecies, after the fall of the Jias, her convent is raided by bandits and she’s carried off to an end considered too terrible to specifically record.
7) Yingchun (迎春)
Yingchun is another of Baoyu’s cousins and another of the Four Springs—her name means “welcoming spring.” Yingchun isn’t the brightest of the twelve girls and she’s seen as rather stiff by the others, but she means well and likes to see everyone getting along. Aside from Miaoyu though, she gets the most terrible prophecy from Disenchantment. She’s married off to the highest-ranking imperial official who’ll have her in her father’s last-ditch attempt to revive the falling Jia fortunes, but this haste lands her with a horrifically abusive husband whom her family is powerless to stop. It’s heavily implied that he eventually kills her.
8) Xichun (惜春)
The youngest of the Four Springs is Xichun (“treasuring spring”), another Jia cousin. Always recognizable in Dream art by her paintbrush, she is a talented artist and the only other one of the twelve besides Miaoyu described as especially religious. Despite being the second youngest of the twelve, this makes her somewhat grave and more serious than some of the others. She’s a devout Buddhist and when the Jias are at their wit’s end, she joins a nunnery rather than letting her desperate uncles try to marry her off the way they did Yingchun and Qiaojie.
9) Xifeng (熙鳳)
Remember how I told all of you that there was a Jinling girl to every taste? Well, I confess I’m 100% Team Xifeng, the wiliest of the twelve beauties. Probably the most complex character in the entire novel, Xifeng is married to one of Baoyu’s cousins and for most of the story, is the only one holding the whole house of cards that is the Jia extended family together. Beautiful, caustic, and clever, Xifeng rules the roost as Baoyu’s grandmother’s favorite (aside from him), running the various households with ingenuity and an iron fist. Raised like a boy, hence her more masculine name (“splendid phoenix”), Xifeng is everything a Confucian mooning over Baochai would abhor: calculating, decisive, and unafraid to speak her mind. She has one of the most memorable entrances in the story, where we hear her loud, unrestrained laughter before we see her. But she does have a darker side in that she can be vindictive to those who cross her and is known for her unappeasable jealousy when it comes to the antics of her much less impressive husband, who is viewed as henpecked by most of the other male characters. Xifeng is sometimes cast as the villain of Dream because in her efforts to live up to everyone’s expectations to manage their quickly-collapsing finances, she’s the one that will bring about the family’s downfall by getting caught up in a predatory loan-sharking scheme that will ruin them, and ultimately she’s the one who convinces Grandmother Jia to have Baoyu marry Baochai instead of Daiyu. But as I said, it’s far more complicated than that. Xifeng’s sin is hubris, not evil, and the foundation of the Jia clan was rotten long before she got there. Having failed in the end to save the family, she essentially dies of shame and exhaustion.
10) Qiaojie (巧姐)
The youngest of the twelve beauties, Qiaojie spends most of the novel on the margins because of her age and only reaches her teens near the very end of the story. She is Xifeng’s daughter and she is named for legendary Weaver Maiden of Chinese mythology. She is given this name by Granny Liu, a poor Jia relation, when the old woman visits—a common Chinese custom of the time where it was seen as auspicious for a person of venerable years to name a child, in hopes of passing on such health and luck to the recipient. In one of her kinder moods, Xifeng is especially hospitable to Granny Liu during this visit, even though it’s suspected she might not really be related at all—“the chance kindness” mentioned in the quatrain. This turns out to be important because after the Jia’s collapse and Xifeng’s death, Qiaojie’s uncles decide to sell her as a concubine in an attempt to pay some of their debts, a terrible come-down for a girl of her birth. But at the last moment, Granny Liu happens to arrive and she smuggles Qiaojie out of the house and safely into the country. She eventually marries a wealthy rural landowner who can’t match the splendor of her childhood, but gives her a happy, respectable life.
11) Li Wan (李紈)
Li Wan is the widow of Baoyu’s older brother, Zhu, who is deceased before the story begins. Although the oldest of the twelve, she’s still only in her late twenties, but she has set aside any thought of remarrying to raise her only son, Lan. Just as Baochai is the perfect Confucian maiden, Li Wan is the perfect Confucian widow: respectable, self-effacing, and chaste. She serves as a chaperone for Baoyu and her younger cousins, and while she is equally beautiful and learned, she has no desires of her own and lives only to do her duty. Her hard work pays off when her adult son passes his imperial exams with flying colors and obtains a rank that undoes some of the damage of the Jia’s fall, as well as allows her to live the rest of her life in comfort. But the novel implies that she loses herself in the process and Cao doesn’t seem to view her lot as enviable, no matter what Disenchantment’s prophecy claims.
12) Keqing (可卿)
And lastly we have Keqing, the most mysterious and ancillary of the twelve beauties, yet at the same time, possibly the most important. Because it is her bedroom that is the titular red chamber in which Baoyu has the dream with Disenchantment that he doesn’t understand until the end of the story. Keqing’s name is full of double meanings and homophones—everything from “two in one” (also the name of a fairy Baoyu meets in the dream that is an amalgamation of Daiyu and Baochai), to “look down on love,” to both “feelings make me” and “feelings destroy me” at the same time. Although we don’t actually know very much about her and she dies fairly early in the novel, she’s thought to be passionate because her bedroom is decorated with artifacts and paintings of famous lovers from Chinese history and mythology. And it turns out that although she’s married to the son of Xichun’s brother, she is in fact having an affair with her father-in-law, one of the many warning tocsins of the secret decay of the family. The halves of the Jias, Rong house and Ning house, are referenced in her quatrain, which again reminds us that while it would be easy to blame Xifeng (in Rong house) for everything, Keqing’s sins in Ning house were the first blow. Although in the story Keqing appears to die of a prolonged, unspecified illness, her longer poem-song suggests that she hangs herself. David Hawkes translates the poem’s title as “The Good Things Have an End,” which is the overall theme of the novel.
Yet in spite of this, again, like Xifeng, Cao Xueqin doesn’t seem to blame Keqing for the troubles that fall on the Jias. The corrupt, licentious men in the family receive far more of his censure than any of the girls do, and while it would be anachronistic to declare Dream a proto-feminist novel, Cao’s deep sympathy for his female characters is palpable throughout the story. Keqing’s ghost calls Xifeng a ”heroine” and there is no indication this meant to be taken ironically by the author. Daiyu and Baochai are Chinese heroines, Xifeng and Keqing are Greek heroines with tragic flaws that bring about their own destruction. But Cao, like his Baoyu, loves all his lost girls. Not for being perfect, but rather for being wonderfully human.