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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!