Reading Dream of the Red Chamber
A sentimental girl sought to repay a "debt of tears" to a young man with a penchant for female companions in a complex web of family and social relationship.
This is the theme of China's fascinating and best-loved story, Dream of the Red Chamber (Hung Lou Meng), written by Tsao Hsueh-chin in the 18th Century.
The narrative revolves around Jia Pao-yi the hero and his relationship with his many pretty maids and female relatives and friends, in particular the sensitive and frail cousin-love Lin Tai-yi. The novel describes in minute details the day-to-day happenings inside the ducal mansion of the Jia clan with its endless number of kinsfolk and servants, organised into a rigid hierarchy controlled by a dictatorial but benign matriarch.
A surreal atmosphere infused the interaction of the main characters as they kept up appearances with lavish spendings while the family's financial and political fortune declined. Servants and relatives all dipped their hands into the river of silver flowing out of the mansion. The well-fed and idle masters and ladies went through their daily pampered routine without a thought. When the crash came, it was terrifying and tragic.
Dream of the Red Chamber has been the subject of endless reading and literary study by scholars and fishermen, politicians and woodcutters, disproving parents and romance-starved young girls.
The latest school of thought comes from Red China ("red" means different things to different Chinese – for ordinary individuals it denotes luck; for rich merchants it refers to popular prostitutes and courtesans; for religious folk, it stands for the red dust of the material world, and for the Communist it is the signature colour of their ideology).
In a comprehensive English translation published by the government-sponsored Foreign Language Press, the publishers wrote: "A Dream of Red Mansions (the translators' title) is a book about political struggle, a political-struggle novel." This is crap but then in China, at least up until the late 1970s, all published works had to be framed in Marxist-Maoist mumbo-jumbo to make it politically correct and to avoid undue scrutiny by officials.
This translation by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang came out in three volumes 1978, and is one of the most comprehensive available in English. But, for crying out loud, it included three quotations by Mao Zedong in the Publisher's Note. Hopefully, future re-issues of Yang's translation would not have those disfiguring comments.
What was Hung Lou Meng actually about?
Tsao Hsueh-chin wrote it as a remembrance of the days when his family was wealthy and well-known, and to portray poignantly the vanity of life. His grandfather, father and uncle held important government posts but after he was born, the family fell into Imperial disgrace and their estates confiscated. It was in this poverty-stricken situation Tsao wrote his long novel.
The narrative is framed mainly from the perspective of young Pao-yi growing up, not studying hard and getting caned by his father, experiencing infatuation and wet dreams, fucking his maids, attending lavish parties and equally lavish funerals, writing poetry, dallying with gay (as in carefree and homosexual) actors and pretty cousins, drinking wine under a full moon, gossiping and quarrelling with friends and relatives, eating rice dumplings in the Fifth Month, visiting Buddhist temples, marrying someone he didn't love and sulking over it, and finally departing the world with some wandering monks.
Human nature is always interesting to read, and Tsao, with his remarkable understanding of it, holds our attention on and on by his skilful sketching of human scenes, passion and sentiments. Sometimes we fault him with giving a dose too much of sentimentality but we always return again and again after the first reading, to dip into random passages and let our minds be enthralled and our hearts refreshed.
– Francis Chin
The above review was published in Sunday Nation newspaper, Singapore, June 17, 1979. Revised August 9, 2002, for the Web.
Top: Picture of Taiyi from a Macau postage stamp commemorating the novel, 2002. All images in this Web page and following are from the 1976 Shaw musical, with Lin Ching Hsia as Pao-yi and Chang Ai-jia as Tai-yi.
In this busy, dusty world, having accomplished nothing, I suddenly recalled all the girls I had known, considering each in turn, and it dawned on me that all of them surpassed me in behaviour and understanding; that I, shameful to say, for all my masculine dignity, fell short of the gentler sex.
I decided then to make known to all how I, though dressed in silks and delicately nurtured, thanks to the Imperial favour and my ancestors' virtue, had nevertheless ignore the kindly guidance of my elders, teachers and friends, with the result that I had wasted half my life and not acquired a single skill.
But no matter how unforgivable my crimes, I must not let all the lovely girls I have known, pass into oblivion.
Though my home is now a thatched hut with matting windows, earthen stove and rope bed, this shall not stop me from laying bare my heart. Indeed the morning breeze, the dew of night, the willows by my steps and the flowers in my courtyard inspire me to wield my brush.
– Author Tsao Hsueh-chin on writing the novel
[translated by Yang Hsienyi & Gladys Yang]