Escapism beyond my wildest expectations: ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ by Cao Xueqin

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To start with a confession.  Until recently, I hadn’t heard of ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ or ‘The Story of the Stone’ or ‘The Dream of Red Mansions’ or this epic novel by any of its translated titles.  I dredged it up from a pile of non-European classics when trying to find an X to complete the A-Z of diverse authors that formed my reading project for 2016.  In a small way, this was  a mistake; with my Western ignorance I hadn’t realised that Cao Xuequin’s names were transposed and so he really belongs under ‘C’ not ‘X.’  In a more significant way, it was a success beyond anything I was hoping for.  ‘The Story of the Stone’ (as it was called in my fantastic Penguin Classics translation) is simply wonderful.  If you love long novels, this is up there with the best of them.  Ridiculous though this is for a single blog post, I’m going to do my best to explain why this epic novel is a must-read for English-language fiction lovers.

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The protagonists of the book are young, intelligent, passionate and incredibly well-realised.  Continuing my use of superlatives, I honestly think the novel as a whole gives the best depiction of childhood I’ve ever read.  There’s certainly nothing in contemporary European literature that comes close.  My edition’s introduction quotes Cao Xueqin who wrote ‘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.’  This conviction underlies the narrative of the novel, but without ever slipping into saccharin sweetness or sentimentality.  The girls are mischievous, intense, intelligent and self-conscious.  None of them has much control over their lives, but they react to situations in different and wholly characteristic ways; throughout the hundreds of pages I spent with them, I think I identified with nearly all at different stages.  I even caught some of Cao’s nostalgia, and found myself viewing my own childhood memories with a clarity and precision that I rarely achieve.  The friendships, the fights, the kindnesses and the companionship bring these eighteenth-century characters to life with a skill rarely achieved in fictional depictions of adults, let alone children.

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If the novel is generally more interested in the young than the old, it is absolutely more interested in the female than the male experience.  I feel like I now have a really good idea of what life was like for a girl living in an upper-class estate in Manchu ruled China.  I have no idea what it was like for the boys – the hero Bao-yu has so little interest in manly pursuits that five volumes of his life have taught me next to nothing about what such pursuits even were.  Bao-yu’s affinity for female companionship and pastimes is consistent and unswerving.  The result is an utterly charming insight into what it was actually like to be a privileged girl in a specific time and place.

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The location and period is of course significant.  Nearly the whole book takes place within one family’s home, a complex estate filled with hierarchies and alliances, from the domineering grandmother at the top to the hundreds of servants who are present in nearly every scene.  The level of wealth and social inequality is staggering; far more unexpected were the hints that this status quo is seen as neither divine nor even required for the good of society.  I suppose my surprise comes down to my familiarity with the Christian doctrine that underpins all contemporary English literature.  Within ‘The Story of the Stone’ there is no familiar Western morality, characters are given equal personality whatever their social status and no one is grateful for a worse lot in life.  Instead of seeing superior masters with happy and deferent servants we witness the abuse of handmaidens, the vulnerability of concubines and the miserable isolation of the most socially successful of Bao-yu’s cousins.  If you ever wanted to understand the complex web of transactions that create a feudal society, this is a more helpful book than any Western romanticised narrative of knights and peasants.

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It’s not all social commentary though, there are also wonderful extended sections that take place entirely in a large ‘garden’ that the girls and Bao-yu are able to claim as their own territory.  One of their major projects is the setting up of a poetry club.  I’m guessing you’re reading this blog because you love books and literature.  I urge you to read the descriptions of the Crab-Flower Club’s origins, meetings and results.  It’s not just a superb introduction to Chinese poetry, it’s a reminder of just how much fun reading and writing are when shared with friends.

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It’s so hard to be concise when trying to share what is wonderful about this multi-volume epic!  This book deserves to be read and re-read over and over again.  According to Wikipedia there is an entire field of study (‘Redology’) devoted to this work and I can easily see how.  Personally, I approached it with absolutely no prior knowledge, so much so that I’d really only planned on reading volume one thanks to the mistaken assumption that, like ‘Swan’s Way’ from ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ this would present me with a discrete story in itself.  In fact, the book divisions are purely editorial, but by the time I realised this it didn’t matter – I was hooked.  All I’ll leave you with is the fact that so far I’ve only raved about the realist elements of the novel (which do dominate about 90% of the narrative).  What I’ve neglected to mention is that Bao-yu is the human incarnation of a magic rock and his female counterpart the incarnation of a flower.  The two met and fell in love before they were born in human form.  To be honest, I think everyone should read ‘The Story of the Stone’ for that reason alone; you’re unlikely to ever come across another love story like it!

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23 Responses to Escapism beyond my wildest expectations: ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ by Cao Xueqin

  1. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  2. jenp27 says:

    I’m reading the last volume right now. I’ve really enjoyed them so far

  3. Sarah says:

    How have I never heard of this before? Your wonderfully enthusiastic post has won me over. I’m currently half way through ‘In Search of Lost Time’, but when I’ve finished that I will definitely be reading this!

    • It’s a great companion (party because it’s just so pre-Modernism); I love Proust, but for an easy-reading story that just carries you away, I think Cao Xuequin might be winning.

      I’m very tempted to do a Proust re-read next year (‘Red Chambers’ has reminded me how much I enjoy stupidly long novels) – looking forward to your reviews to spur me on!

  4. Jonathan says:

    I only heard of this a year or so ago where it was mentioned in relation to Proust’s work. I’m glad you liked it as that shall spur me on to read it sometime.

  5. Jessica says:

    I grew up with a children’s cartoon abridged version of this — there were three books in the series, and since it was all in Chinese, my dad would have to translate each panel for me. I loved how dramatic everything was! Since my Chinese still isn’t good enough to read even the children’s version, I have been searching for a good English translation. The one we had in our library had really terrible name translations, like Precious Jade instead of Bao-yu. Is it just me or does that ruin the entire reading experience? I might have to look into the Penguin Classics version!

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment – I am just so excited to see that you discovered one of my favorite Chinese epics! There are four epics that make up the canon of Chinese literature, and I’ve always meant to read them.

    • That sounds like such a great reading experience! I was wondering as I read it what age the story might be aimed at, there are so many bits that I thought children would really enjoy and it’s great to hear that children’s versions are available.

      I didn’t have space to mention it, but the Penguin Classics translations are superb. They are consistent with names, each contains a list of characters at the end (along with a family tree) and the editor has does an outstanding job of banning footnotes. Instead of giving loads of distractions that break up the narrative by giving background information, there are a couple of long endnotes/appendixes for each volume (explaining Bao-yu’s enigmatic prophetic dream in volume 1 for example, and giving info about Chinese poetic forms in volume 2).

      I’m so pleased that of all possible translations, this is the one I landed on for volume 1, meaning I knew where to look for the rest of the novels. To be honest, I think I’d only feel comfortable recommending it in this edition, because I can see how easily the English reading experience could be really diminished by a less accomplished and well-judged translation.

  6. Wonderful review! You make this sound like an absolute must!

  7. Stefanie says:

    I have never heard of this book before but it sounds amazing! Going on my list! thanks for the great review!

    • I can’t believe I hadn’t really heard of it either – writing a positive review and spreading the news is really the least I can do, it really feels like a lost classic for English readers.

  8. elisabethm says:

    You’ve made me curious!

  9. Aren’t great discoveries wonderful? I think book challenges and other reading projects force us to open our eyes to things we wouldn’t discover on our own.

  10. Izzy says:

    Actually, I’ve seen his name written completely differently. It was too complicated for me to have remembered the exact spelling, but it began with a T !

    • Another great thing about the Penguin classics edition I read is there’s a page at the start of each about pronunciation and spellings of the names – I think you’d love it!

      • Ann Waltner says:

        The other way of spelling the author’s name is Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in. It’s in a romanization called Wade-Giles. Shoshi is right–the David Hawkes/John Minford translation published by Penguin is the best. They use a romanization system called pinyin (with some modifications.)

  11. Ann Waltner says:

    Free online course on the novel: z.umn.edu/redchamber

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