My first semester at UC Berkeley, I took a literature course entitled “Dynamics of Romantic Core Values in East Asian Premodern Literature and Contemporary Film”. I’ve actually talked about it before, in my post Social Experiments.
One of the books we read in that class was Story of the Stone, or as it’s most commonly called, Dream of Red Chamber. The story was written by Cao Xueqin, and has easily become one of my favorite texts, even though I haven’t finished it yet (I’ll explain later).
Xueqin was a pretty amazing man, and he leaned on his life experiences to write this fanciful, dramatic tale in five volumes (or at least that is how Penguin divided them). As Betty Radice writes on the first page of Volume I:
Cao Xueqin was born into a family which for three generations held the office of Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in Nanking, a family so wealthy that they were able to entertain the Emperor Kangxi four times. But calamity overtook them and their property was confiscated. Cao Xueqin was living in poverty near Peking when he wrote his famous novel. […]
The story is dense, with flowery descriptions out the wazoo, but this makes it an extremely important text for understanding life in Nanking during that time. While
sometimes you do have to plod through the fiftieth description of what the characters are wearing (remember: fabulously wealthy), the story’s heart is in its characters, whom I love intensely.
Xeuqin based many (perhaps nearly all) of his female characters on cousins or other relatives he knew in his life, and my favorite of all of them is Xi-feng. She is a precocious, firecracker of a teenager, who is married to an older man who simply can’t restrain her.
The story basically starts out with a lame Taoist and a monk in the Realm of the Fairies, and they talk about the things you would expect. There is also a moment when the Taoist finds a rejected piece of stone from Nüwa’s building of the world (an origin goddess in China), which he pockets for a journey. This stone eventually makes it into the realm of the fairy Disenchantment, and takes the form of a boy. The boy soon finds a beautiful Crimson Flower, and waters it with dew, until it comes to life as a girl. The girl, then and there, decides that the only way she will ever be able to repay the stone is to shed a lifetime of tears in his honor.
And so she is made to make good on the promise, and stone and girl are sent to the mortal, mundane world, where the majority of the story takes place.
There are literally hundreds of characters in this book, each with their own little plots and stories to tell, and I can say with fair certainty that even though I’ve only gotten to Volume II, I’m in love with each character. The only problem is that the satellite characters tend to die quite suddenly, and that makes me sad.
It also has that fun, old-style narration where the narrator often talks to the reader, which makes for some wonderful jokes and quips throughout the piece. There is also a healthy dose of fantastic poetry, as the characters are called on quite frequently to compose. The story takes itself as realism, even with the superstitions and fairies, and that is part of what makes it so great.
The only reason I haven’t finished it? I was told that if I thought the first volume was sad, I would find the later volumes extremely depressing. There is a prophecy of sorts that the main character stumbles on in the first volume which warns that the twelve women in his life are all destined for sad endings. I’ve been afraid to finish it! But… it’s on my reading list this year, so I’m going to get through it. I need to know what ends up happening to Bao-yu (the main character) and Xi-feng (not the Crimson Flower, but still my favorite)!
Interested? Buy it here.
Some art, depicting scenes from the novel: