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 or Dream of Red Mansions (Hung Lou Meng), written by Tsao Hsueh-chin in the 18th Century.
The narrative revolves around handsome, young Jia Pao-yi and his relationship with his many pretty maids and female relatives and friends, in particular the sensitive and frail cousin-love Lin Tai-yi. In minute details, the author describes the day-to-day happenings inside the ducal mansion of the Jia clan with its endless number of kinsfolk and servants that are organised into a rigid hierarchy controlled by a dictatorial but benign matriarch.
A surreal atmosphere infused the interaction of the main characters as they keep up appearances with lavish spendings while the family's social and political fortune declines. Servants and relatives all dip their hands into the river of silver flowing out of the mansion. The well-fed and idle masters and ladies go through their daily pampered routine without a thought. When the crash comes, it is 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 Communists 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 crap was indeed necessary in China till the mid-1980s where 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 few complete text 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 about?
Tsao Hsueh-chin wrote it as a remembrance of the days when his family was wealthy and in high standing at court. He portrayed 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 Bao-yii growing up, not studying hard and getting caned by his father, experiencing infatuation and wet dreams, making love to his maids, attending lavish parties and equally lavish funerals, writing poetry, dallying with gay (as in both carefree and homosexual) actors and pretty cousins, drinking wine under the full moon, gossiping and quarrelling with friends and relatives, eating rice dumplings in the Fifth Month, visiting Buddhist temples, marrying someone he didn’t care for 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
This review was published on a Singapore weekend newspaper, June 17, 1979
Revised and expanded on August 9, 2002, for the Web.
Top: Portrait 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 movie, with Lin Ching Hsia as Bao-yii and Chang Ai-jia as Dai-yii.
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