如何用《红楼梦》解读中国

Kerry Brown 金鑫

人常说《红楼梦》是世上最难读懂的书之一,将其与托尔斯泰的作品相提并论者甚众。诸多国人将之奉为经典,反复阅读赏玩。然而在海外,了解这本书的人寥寥无几。
清文人曹雪芹与高鹗创作的这部巨著共百二十回。最著名的英文译本由霍克斯与闵福德翁婿二人耗时十余年译成,共五卷。(1)  而宏篇巨制并非《红楼梦》(又名《石头记》)鲜为人知的唯一原因。尽管现状如此,本文作者仍主张阅读此书是解读中国社会机制最有效且真实的方法之一,也许熟读此书便能够了解中国人的共同回忆,解答“中国人究竟信仰什么”这样一个令人望而生畏的问题。

《红楼梦》的成书史与成名史

曹雪芹之于中国,正如莎士比亚之于英语世界。然而较之这位伊丽莎白时代的神秘英国戏剧名家,曹雪芹的神秘程度有过之而无不及。曹雪芹于1715-1724年间生于北京,1763年在此去世。他出身一个已日渐衰退的官宦之家,除此之外,生平诸事几乎无人了解。曹雪芹生活在清中期的康乾盛世,也是中国现代史中的黄金年代。斯时天下太平、市井繁荣,西北边境也渐趋稳固。

诸多红学家将主人公贾宝玉的故事看作是作者自述。然而这只能说是一种揣测。该书在作者生前身后仅有手稿传抄流通,且在曹去世后方声名日盛。坊间通常认为前八十回由曹公本人所作,后续四十回则由高鹗续笔。时至今日,红学界就前八十回与后四十回是否文采相类仍各执一词争论不休。到了十九世纪,该书出版了较正式的版本,读者日众。中国在二十世纪进行了大规模扫盲活动,到了2000年,该书被誉为五大中文小说名著之一,其余四部分别为《三国演义》、《水浒传》、《金瓶梅》和《儒林外史》。美籍中国文学大儒夏志清(C T Shia)在这五部书中首推《红楼梦》,这是因为该书叙述密致、行文高妙,很多主要回目直指人心,唤起读者深远的情感共鸣. (2)

虽经百年来多次挑战,该书的魁首地位依旧稳若泰山。曹雪芹不惜笔墨、工笔细绘的大家风度、贵族阶层,以及所谓下里巴人无从一见的这个世界,使得1949年共产党执政之后,此书常被扣上“封建”的帽子,在那个年代这个罪名足可以兴起文字狱。尽管如此,毛泽东的妻子,左翼激进派政客江青仍在1970年代初用阶级斗争观向美国记者维特克(Roxane Witke)粗陋地阐述了这个故事 ,称其尚可宽宥。(3) 因此该书也仍在出版销售。到了1980年代,在更加开放自由的大环境里,该书重获新生,还拍成了几部影视作品,风靡程度史无前例。

故事情节

如今,去过北京恭王府的人大概能够想象书中的世界。尽管曹雪芹青年时居住此处的可能性不大,这种庭园府邸、枕水楼台、奇石画壁,都是他所处时代的典型建筑,且恭王府传闻是曾属曹家的一支所有。恭王府如今常常人头济济,可过去曾是幽深宁静的深宅别院。小说在庭院深深中埋下草蛇灰线,将诸多人物细细编排描绘,尤其在宝黛与其亲友仆从身上工笔细描,着墨甚重。
书中写道,女娲炼石补天,余下一块,这块石头因机缘投胎贾府,成为贾府老夫人最疼爱的孙子宝玉。宝玉生于绮罗丛中,集万千宠爱,贾家是四大家族之一,位高权重,备受恩宠。后贾府失势败落,宝黛的爱情也悲剧落幕。宝玉迎娶端方的表姐宝钗,病弱的表妹黛玉泪尽含恨而亡。宝玉痛彻肺腑,且生活困苦无着,方悟到红尘中情缘富贵都是一场空梦,遂斩断尘缘出家为僧。故事至此完结。

这本书为何难读懂?
《红楼梦》有两个特点令西方读者望而却步。其一是人物间错综复杂的关系。这一问题并非《红楼梦》独有。该书人物之众多、特色之各别,可比二十世纪普鲁斯特的名作《追忆逝水年华》。与普作相类,《红楼梦》中对话篇幅很长,主要人物常齐聚一堂谈诗论画。与普作的共同点还有作者代读者假定的大量社交行为、社会等级与礼仪知识。其中很多连熟识中国社会文化的中文读者理解起来尚且吃力。西方读者常常需要既尝试理解陌生的社会与世界、天壤之别的家族结构(常常比西方常见的家庭大得多),还需面对深刻的文化差异。这一点此后还会提及。

如果说以上提及的第一类问题尚可用精炼的解读方法解决,《红楼梦》难懂的第二个原因想解决就难得多了—甚至可能是无法解决的。这就是中文母语的读者从阅读中获得的愉悦,来自曹雪芹细腻巧妙的语言功力,而最常见的隐喻与暗指都在字里行间。可以说,《红楼梦》惊才绝艳之处在于其语言的强大戏剧魅力,以及能让读者体会到无穷无尽音韵之美的表达方式。这正是罗兰巴特所谓“文本阅读的欢愉”。

很多中国人将此书奉为经典之作,爱不释手,有此一卷傍身,即使流落孤岛也不觉凄寂。有人七八岁初读此书,一生中重读数十次,而每次开卷都另见新义。少年从书中获得情爱启蒙;爱诗词的人沉浸于优美辞藻,口齿留香;老饕学会几道新菜肴;居士得以开悟;就连设计师都能从中找到色调与材质,给创作带来灵感。

曹雪芹书中千人千面,形貌音容各有特色,栩栩如生。他对人物描写之真切,让人几乎能看到他持笔坐对轩窗,观察市井人生,将人们的音容笑貌真实地记录下来。书中人物既有聪明灵秀如林黛玉,也有骄纵无识如薛蟠。文字有宛转优雅如《葬花词》,也有粗陋鄙俗如划拳曲。故事不会故弄玄虚,主要人物的命运都在第五回的诗与曲词中做了预言。当然,这些歌词是作者给读者出的谜题,读者需要在书中找到答案。与此同时,这也是作者送给读者的礼物,伏笔揭晓的一刻,读者能够体会到会心的喜悦。这是作者与读者的共同创作,这部小说也因此成为一种美妙的默契合作。走过这座迷宫的人,假如因好奇探头进来观望,就会很快浸淫其中,成为故事的主人,而非被动旁观。

《红楼梦》的语言极致微妙,举一个例子便能说明。小说开头便提及雪,而结尾时宝玉斩断尘缘出家为僧,消失在茫茫大雪之中。从初提及的单纯雪景到结尾时完全不同的维度背景,两场雪之间发生的种种悲剧使宝玉悟化。雪的象征意义及其与诸多其它与佛教世界观语言符号的关联还可以长篇累牍写下去,但这种字里行间的丰富意义和神秘联系,想用英文来表达都是难乎其难。

这并非贬低霍闵两位的精彩译作。两位所译的版本文采飞扬,然而尽管如此,这一极端的例子仍然证明中文与英文两种文本之间有着天壤之别。一种语言的字面意思无法轻易用另一种语言表达,有时甚至不可能表达得出。试图将莎士比亚的作品译为中文的译者也同样面对着这两种语言的鸿沟天堑。从另一角度,这也解释了为何《红楼梦》在中文世界如此为人所热爱,频频重读、爱不释手,而它的英文译本却乏人赏识。对于那些仅能阅读英文版的读者,该书的叙述之松散,文字之平静,常常令人心生烦厌。

《红楼梦》中的关键领悟

尽管如上所述,《红楼梦》对英文读者来说仍然具有重大意义,这一意义在今天尤为显著。中国日渐强盛,在国际舞台上担纲主演,了解这个国家的文化与身份意识变得十分有意义。这部现代中国文学史上最为重要而具影响力的小说能够提供一种途径,帮助读者洞察中国人生活的内涵,了解中国文化的核心,这一观点几乎是一种不容争辩的共识。真正想了解俄国的人终究需要通读托尔斯泰或陀思妥耶夫斯基的小说;莎士比亚的作品是人们了解英国的窗户;莫里哀或巴尔扎克教人读懂法国;在德国,这要靠歌德的诗歌与小说。而曹雪芹也正是这样的文学巨匠,他的小说也许看起来仅仅在讲中国一地的人与事,但同时也在描述人性与人类的体验。这样的作品能够超越语言和时代背景的局限。
《红楼梦》教给我们三件重要的事。其一是中国社会中深刻复杂的关系网。从每一个人生发开去各种联系。人们谈及中国的人际网如何发挥作用时常常用到“关系”(guanxi)二字,但这个词如今已用得太多,几成陈腔滥调,不再具有意义。《红楼梦》向我们展示了大家族在中国文化中的核心地位,这一点在今天的中国社会中也仍然如此,和曹雪芹的时代并无不同。人际关系之复杂、待人接物之讲究、每个人各自需承担的义务,以及其中的种种进退,都在《红楼梦》抽丝拨茧,细细说明。即使粗粗一览也足以让人体会到这些关系的复杂微妙,想要游走于这样的社会而从容不迫,又需要对进退礼节有多么精确的理解。《红楼梦》常被看作一部礼仪小说,可谓名副其实。

《红楼梦》教给我们的第二件事,是中国人的内心世界与信仰。十七世纪以来访问明清两朝的欧洲人(主要是传教士)往往会提这样一个问题,即中国人到底信仰什么。这个问题总是不好回答。有的中国人信民族宗教、有的信佛、有些尊儒、有些重道。如此多元的信仰体系使得大历史学家、汉学家牟复礼提出的“欧洲人对真实的单一信仰”遭遇了质疑。中国人的混杂信仰仍延续至今,在对汉化马克思列宁主义公开遵从之下,一系列其它信仰也各有容身之处。《红楼梦》并非十分明显的宗教文学,但开端章回中,一块石头开口能言那一刻开始,作者不断提及另一现实维度。贾宝玉的命运跌宕起伏,尘缘随着他与林黛玉的爱情悲剧和黛玉之死而斩断,体现的都是宿命之手的摆布。人生及每个人的心灵所遵循的一种有意义的秩序突出体现,成为一种核心信仰,这一点在《红楼梦》中频频体现。该书比其它作品更加全面地阐释了一种可以被形容为人本主义的世俗中国式信仰。

《红楼梦》教给我们的第三件重要的事就是中国讲述故事的不同传统及叙事架构。世界各国的人们都通过叙事架构来记录人生。一个国家的叙事方式是至关重要的,而今天的中国尤为如此。这是因为中国的现代史充满悲剧与战乱,而今却越来越强盛。《红楼梦》并无开门见山的情节,故事的推进依赖于人物及人物间的进退往来。人物被摆在故事的核心位置,一边作为故事的臣仆推动它的进展,一边作为各有瑕疵与烦恼的人为命运所驱动,走向宿命中的结局。《红楼梦》不像二十世纪前的欧洲小说那样充满戏剧性的情节。故事发生在贾家的两个府邸,家族成员的人生经历在书中渐渐描绘出来。该书的很多章节常有种凝滞不动的感觉,除了具体人物的对话和背诵的诗词之外别无动作。这一点向我们揭示了中国人讲述故事的特性,以及这种讲述故事的方式如何塑造了中国的世界观。

要谦逊

《红楼梦》还教给我们最后一课。作为一种伟大的艺术,书中描绘了新事物、阐释了新的世界观,尽管作者从不刻意努力让读者自惭无识,却仍然以最温和的方式达到了这种效果。这意味着,读者一旦开始展卷阅读,就会意识到自身知识储备的不足,开始一个学习的过程,并在释卷时有所成长进步。敏锐的西方读者会从此书中领略到中国文化的博大精深,并开始了解中国人的人性与人生观。它带来一种特别的叙述风格,并体现了一套不同的核心信仰与价值观。

除此之外,数百上千万的中国人对西方艺术至少略知皮毛,比如达芬奇的画作与莎士比亚的戏剧,托尔斯泰与歌德;而欧洲人和美国人对于唐代大诗人李白与杜甫,或伟大的小说家曹雪芹的巨著几乎一无所知。这种文化验证的匮乏令人惊叹,因为西方人常坚定地觉得欧洲文化比中国文化值得了解与研究,而中国文化远比欧洲文化源远流长,文学创作更是在公元前数百年就已繁荣发展。曹雪芹的传世巨著如此鲜有人知,体现了西方的文化自满,以及人们对中国文化不愿深究,直接将其归为“太难,不值得花时间”的懒惰。这是很令人遗憾的。了解《红楼梦》便能了解中国人世界观的根本、中国社会的结构与中国人叙事与沟通的方式。这些在今天的中国仍然有效。与其报读跨文化理解的课程,不如细细读几章《红楼梦》来得有效,其效果甚至可能改变读者的人生。这也就是为什么在二十一世纪的第二个十年,这部复杂而至关重要的长篇巨著仍然很值得一读,即使读者并非中国人,也能从中受益。

  1. Cao Xueqin, `The Story of the Stone’ Volumes 1-3 tran David Hawkes, vols 4-5, John Minford, Penguin Books 1973-1986.
  2. C T Hsia, `The Classical Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1968.
  3. Roxanne Wittke, Comrade Jiang Qing’, Little Brown and Company, New York, 1977.

fan-zeng-曹雪芹像-(portrait-of-cao-xueqin)

 

 

How Reading `The Dream of the Red Mansions’ 《红楼梦》Can Help Understand China Today

Kerry Brown and Jin Xin

It has been called one of the world’s great unreadable books – the Chinese version of Tolstoy that is read with almost religious fervour by many in China, and largely unknown by the outside world. Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) and Gao ‘E’s ( 高鹗) great Qing novel of manners, in standard Chinese editions takes up for its 120 books (in effect the equivalent of chapters) several volumes. In English, the best known translation by David Hawkes and his son in law, John Minford, occupies five, and took over a decade to produce. (1)  Length alone however does not explain why `The Dream of the Red Mansions’ (or, as it is known in some versions, `The Story of the Stone’) is so neglected. Even so, as we shall argue, for one of the most effective and authentic ways to work out how Chinese society operates, what lies in the collective memory of Chinese people today, and how one might answer that formidable question `What Do Chinese people believe’, there is probably no better place to start than getting acquainted with this novel.

The history of the novel and how it came to be so successful

For a writer whose prestige and centrality in Chinese culture is often equated with that of Shakespeare in the English speaking world, Cao Xueqin is if anything even more elusive than the famously mysterious great British Elizabethan playwright. Born in Beijing between the dates of 1715 and 1724, Cao died in 1763. Next to nothing is known of his life, except that he came from a family that had been relatively prosperous but was largely in decline. The era in which Cao lived coincided with the high Qing (1644-1912), during the reign of the three great emperors, Kangxi , Yongzheng, and Qianlong (康乾盛世). Regarded as a golden age of China’s modern history, at this state the country was relatively stable, the period of consolidation of its western and northern borders had been completed, and its economy prosperous.
Many scholars of Cao’s great novel see in its protagonist, Jia Baoyu (贾宝玉), the life story of the author himself. This can only, however, be speculation. What is certain is that it existed only as written manuscripts which were circulated and became increasingly popular in the period after Cao’s death. The 80 chapters most often attributed to him were supplemented by a concluding forty by Gao E. Argument to this day rages over whether the quality across these two portions is the same. By the 19th century, more formal editions started to appear, with the book reaching a wider audience. Mass literacy in the twentieth century in China meant that by 2000 it became to be regarded as one of the five great Chinese extended novels – next to `The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ (三国演义), `The Water Margin’ (水浒传) , `The Golden Lotus’ (金瓶梅), and `The Scholars’ (儒林外史). No less an authority than American scholar of Chinese literature C T Hsia ranked it as the best, because of the density of its narrative, the sophistication of its writing, and the depth of emotion attained in many of its main passages. (2)

This status has managed to endure a number of challenges over the last hundred years. The world that Cao so meticulously describes of courtly manners, aristocratic social hierarchies and a universe largely bereft of people who might be described as farmers or peasants meant that in the era of the Communists from 1949, the `Dream’ attracted the often deadly description of `feudal.’ Despite that, it was still available, with Mao Zedong’s demagogue wife, the radical leftist Jiang Qing, offering an almost infantile class based interpretation of it to the American journalist Roxanne Wittke in the early 1970s, but still granting that the work was tolerable. (3)  By the 1980s, however, and a more open, liberal atmosphere, the book gained a new lease of life, with a number of dramatisations. It has probably never been more popular.

What Happens in the Novel?

Those who visit `Prince Gong’s Palace’ (恭王府) in Beijing to this day can get some sense of the world in which `The Dream’ is set. Though unlikely to be the actual lodging of Cao as a young man, this set of courtyards and refined buildings around water, carved stone and within red walls would have been typical of the time in which he lived, and was reportedly owned by a branch of his family. Often overwhelmed by tourists today, in the past it was a place of peace, tranquillity and seclusion. That physical setting gives a clue to the novel itself, with its overwhelming concentration on meticulous and intricate descriptions of the large cast of characters, with Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu  and their friends, family and servants at the heart of this.

While intricate and complex, the main plot of the novel is easy enough to summarize. A stone left over from a god called Nu Wa’s effort to mend the sky is given the opportunity to be incarnated as Jia Baoyu, favorite grandchild to Jia Mu, matriarch of the Jia family. Baoyu lives the life of a spoiled aristocratic youth as a member of one of the four most powerful, prestigious and interconnected families of a fictional dynasty. The novel describes the Jia families’ rise to the peak of might and wealth, and their decline as they fall out of the Emperor’s favour. One of the most central aspects is his often tormented love for his talented and frail cousin Lin Daiyu, and his ultimate failure of her, resulting in her death. This is then followed by his marriage to another, equally talented but much more sociable cousin Xue Baochai. Through mourning and hardship, he realises that wealth, beauty and human pursuits are all but a dream, and graduates from this experience in the mortal world to an act of renunciation where he turns from his family and severs all earthly ties to become a monk. That is where the novel ends.

Why is the Novel So Difficult?

For a western reader, there are two aspects of `The Dream’ that make it a hard book to read. The first is the immense complexity of the interlinks between characters. This is not a problem that `The Dream’ alone has. In many ways, in the extraordinary range of different figures and voices, it resembles the great masterpiece of Marcel Proust from the early twentieth century – `Remembrance of Things Past.’ As with Proust’s work, a large part of `The Dream’ is taken up with dialogue in social settings, involving reading of poems of discussion of art and society, by the key figures in the novel. And as with Proust, there is a large amount of knowledge assumed on behalf of the reader by the author about social behaviour, ranks and protocols organising life between people. Much of this is difficult even for Chinese readers for whom there are plenty of cultural similarities that at least help them navigate the novel. For western readers, they have to add not just the often alien nature of the social world described, and the very different family structures involved (often much more extensive than in Western contexts) but also deep cultural differences. These will be discussed later.

While the first set of problems alluded to above are partially surmountable by good, but succinct exegesis, the second challenge that makes `The Dream’ difficult is much harder to solve – perhaps it is insoluble. And that is the fact that much of the pleasure that Chinese native readers gain from reading Cao is through the immense delicacy of the language he uses, and the almost constant cross referencing and subtle allusion within the language itself. In many ways, one of the most striking things about The Dream is the sheer drama of its language, and the way this offers almost perpetual pleasure to readers. It is the quintessential case of what Roland Barthes called `the pleasure of the text.’

Many Chinese revere this book, loving it so much that it goes on the list of three things they would hope to have if left alone on a deserted island. Those that read it for the first time aged eight and then read it forty, fifty more times throughout life, each time they feel that they are learning something new. A child receives their first lesson in love and sexuality, those of poetic temperament read something that they feel is intensely poetic; a gourmet finds recipes; a Buddhist discovers enlightenment. Even designers are presented with palettes and textures that inspire them in their own visual creations.
Cao writes in hundreds of voices, each as distinct and believable as the next. One could imagine him sitting facing an open window, watching people carry on with their lives, hearing their voices and faithfully recording them in his story. These voices go from the most beautiful, delicate `Song of the Flower Grave’ by the talented young Lin Daiyu, to the vulgar, laughable dinner table rhymes by the unlearned rich boy Xue Pan. Nothing is kept a secret from the reader; on the contrary, everything in the plot is laid out in the poems and songs in Book Five. These poems and songs are of course riddles for the reader to figure out, as they dive deeper into the story, but they are also the writer’s gift to the reader, to carefully unwrap as the reader reaches the delightful moment when they can experience the joy of surprise. This mutual act of creativity by author and reader is something wonderfully collaborative about the novel. It involves those that enter its world into be a participant in that world, rather than a passive observer.

One example of the subtlety of the language in `The Dream’ will suffice. The reference in the very first part of the novel to snow, and its recurrence, right at the end, when Jia Baoyu as a monk, in a final act of renunciation, walks out into a snowscape reminiscent of the first mention on one level, but now in a wholly different context – in which the tragic experiences that have intervened between these two snow moments have inwardly transformed him. There is much more one might write about the symbolism of snow, and of the connection it has to a set of symbols and language referents that relate to a Buddhist view of the world. In any case, all of the richness and mystery of this inter-textual link is largely impossible to convey in English.

This is no aspersion on the great translation by David Hawkes and John Minford. They brought rich literary talents to their rendition of `The Dream.’ It is simply a testament, in a very extreme example, of the huge distance between a Chinese language and English language text, and the kinds of information the surface features of one can convey that are not easily, or even possible, to render in the other. Translators of Shakespeare into Chinese suffer the same massive problems. But it does mean that a large part of the reason why `The Dream’ is so loved and so often reread by Chinese readers is hard to appreciate by those that read the novel in English. For them, its lack of narrative structure, and the almost static quality of the text, can be irritating and offputting.

What are the Key Things that a Reader Can Learn from `The Dream’

Despite this, studying `The Dream’ for non-Chinese readers has never perhaps been more useful. At a time when appreciation of Chinese culture and identity in increasingly necessary because of the country’s new prominent and international role, getting insights into the inner life of Chinese and the heart of Chinese culture through a novel almost universally recognised as the most important and influential produced in the Chinese language in modern times would seem an uncontroversial statement. Those that really want to understand Russia do, in the end, have to engage with novels by figures like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. For Britain it would be Shakespeare. For France, Moliere or Balzac. And in Germany the poetry and novels of Goethe. Cao Xueqin stands amongst these globally important figures, and his work while seen as intrinsically local and Chinese, is also about humanity and the nature of human experience. That transcends the boundaries of a particular language and the context in which the novel was written and set.

There are three key things that `The Dream’ teaches us. The first is the ways in which Chinese society is one of profound networks, where the individual or person sits at the heart of a whole array of linkages. This is often referred to as `guanxi’ when speaking about how interpersonal networks work in China. But that has become a term so overused as to be an almost meaningless cliché now. `The Dream’ shows the centrality of the extended family in China, something that remains a feature today as strongly as it did in the time Cao’s book was being written. The complexity of relationships, the ways in which those relationships are conducted, the different obligations they place on people, and the kinds of negotiations they involve – all of these are things that become clear as one reads `The Dream’. Even the most cursory reading would allow someone to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of these relations, and the ways in which they demand a delicate understanding of appropriate standards of behaviour and modes of conduct. `The Dream’ has been called a novel of manners, and in many ways this is true.

The second thing that `The Dream’ teaches us is something about the belief systems and the inner worlds of Chinese people themselves. One of the perennial questions for those from Europe first visiting China in the Ming and Qing period from the 17th century onwards, largely to serve as missionaries, was what things did Chinese people believe in. There was never an easy answer to this. Some Chinese followed folk religion. Some were Buddhists, some Confucianists, some followed the Dao. Such diversity of belief systems challenged what the great historian of Imperial China F W Mote called `the European commitment to a single, unifying truth.’ The hybridity of Chinese beliefs however remains the same to the present day, with public observance of Sinified Marxism-Leninism, and then a whole market place of other faiths underlying these. `The Dream’ is not an overtly religious work, but its opening books, from the moment when the Stone itself speaks, allude many times to another order of reality, and the whole development of Jia Baoyu’s fate, ending through the tragic love and loss of Lin Daiyu, is one that illustrates the working through of destiny. A sense of a meaningful order to life’s events, and to the development of what might be called the individual soul of everyone that lasts beyond the confines of the current life, stands out as a core belief in `The Dream.’ It more than any other work, illustrates what might be called a humanistic, secular Chinese spirituality.

The third important lesson `The Dream’ illustrates is the very different traditions of telling stories and structuring narratives that exist in China. Throughout the world, people live their lives through constructing narratives. National narratives are extremely important, and in China, particularly at the moment, the story of a nation which is undergoing a renaissance after a modern history that was often tragic and chaotic has proved increasingly powerful. `The Dream’ has no straightforward plot, as such, but rather develops through the interactions of its characters and the dynamics between them. It places humans at the heart of a story of the development of fate, partly as its servants, partly as individuals who because of issues and flaws within themselves are driven towards almost pre-determined ends. `The Dream’ is lacking in the kinds of dramatic events that typify novels produced up to the 20th century in Europe. The location of the story is the two compounds of the families, the members of whose lives are described as the book unfolds. Frequently large parts of the book have an almost static feel to them, with no movement, and no action apart from dialogue between specific figures and the recitation of poetry. This reveals something about the nature of story telling in China, and about the way that practice of storytelling shapes the Chinese view of the world.

Be Humble

There is a final lesson that `The Dream’ conveys. Like great art, it unveils new things, and new ways of seeing the world, and while never overtly aiming to make readers look small and lacking in knowledge, in the most gentle way this is precisely what the book achieves. That means that in reading the book, through the reader’s awareness of these limitations and the process of learning from them, they are also given an opportunity to grow and develop. The `Dream’ to a sensitive western reader is a revelation of the immense sophistication and subtlety of Chinese culture, and of the Chinese view of being human and of life. It offers a different kind of narrative, and the description of a different set of core beliefs, by which to live.

More than this, the simple fact is that while many millions of Chinese know at least some things about Western art, from the paintings of Leonardo to the work of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Goethe, Europeans and Americans would largely know nothing of the poetry of Li Bai and Du Fu from the Tang era, or the great novel of Cao Xueqin. This is a remarkable lack of cultural validation, often underwritten by a conviction that European culture is better worth knowing than that of a civilisation which is longer established and has a literature going back hundreds of years before the time of Christ. That Cao’s masterpiece is not known is one of the clearest indictments of western complacency and indolence towards a better knowledge of Chinese culture and a consignment of it to the `too difficult to spend much time on’ category. That is a huge pity. A knowledge of `The Dream’ teaches fundamental things about the Chinese world view, the structure of Chinese society and the nature of storytelling and communication in China, and these are still valid to this day. Rather than attend classes on cross cultural understanding, therefore, an attentive read of even some of `The Dream’ would be rewarding, possibly even life changing. And that is why, in the second decade of the twenty first century, this long, complex and immensely important novel still repays engagement and study, even for those who are not Chinese.

  1. Cao Xueqin, `The Story of the Stone’ Volumes 1-3 tran David Hawkes, vols 4-5, John Minford, Penguin Books 1973-1986.
  2. C T Hsia, `The Classical Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1968.
  3. Roxanne Wittke, Comrade Jiang Qing’, Little Brown and Company, New York, 1977.

fan-zeng-曹雪芹像-(portrait-of-cao-xueqin)

 

 

Giant Despair. And Doubting Castle

Reading John Bunyan’s `Pilgrim’s Progress’ made a tremendous impression on me at about the age of 13 – but then, for the four centuries since it was first published, it had been a perennial popular classic and read by goodness how many people. Bunyan occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to his great contemporary John Milton. Minimal education, a hard life in the lower echelons of society, and 12 years in prison for his non-conformist religious beliefs. But his book has arguably had as great an impact on public consciousness in the English speaking world as `Paradise Lost’.

Rereading it on a whim (in one of those moments of serendipity I was reading something else, it mentioned Bunyan’s book, and I looked up and there it was in my line of sight on the bookshelf opposite me) I can’t say it quite carries the mighty punch it did almost four decades ago. For one, the allegory is like a sledgehammer – which would have gone down well with me then, but what with the intervening complexities of life in between just sounds like a fairy tale now. And a fairy tale, alas, with a pre-determined happy ending.  Where is the fun in that!?

Even so, the start of the book really did read completely unlike anything I remembered of it. I recall the Interpreter’s House, the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Death – and all these were very helpful metaphorical frameworks within which to see life at a Grammar School on the outskirts of London in Kent in the late 1970s! But the opening moments when Christian is described being stirred to leave his home, his family and his community and head off to the Celestial City sound awfully now like a perfect description of someone having a psychotic fit veering towards a nervous breakdown!

Christopher Hill in `The World Turned Upside Down’ put down in granular detail the historic context in which Bunyan was writing – a world of uneasiness, fervour, division, clashing ideologies. Britain in its history has had these moments of perplexity and crisis. The 1536 break with Rome and smashing of the monasteries, the 1648 revolution and the decade of the Commonwealth afterwards, and then the long trauma of the Industrial Revolution. Odd that a dominant image of British history is so often of it being one of imperial splendour and ever-forward marching progress and conservative placidity, till the calamity of the modern period. Bunyan’s protagonist shows a man pissed off with pretty much everything and striving to get out of it every bit as febrile as someone in a modern setting going into meltdown at the parlous state of the country today.

A recent reading of books by Freud and on psychology and psychotherapy did make the reading of the middle portions on Giant Despair and Doubting Castle have added piquancy. Bunyan’s Giant Despair is a great metaphor for dolorous and heavy spirits,  and for the failing of mood. No medication for this pilgrim though – he hoodwinks the imprisoning Giant, and in the next book, Humility or Mercy or some such slays him. But as we are constantly reminded in the `Pilgrim’s Progress’, this is all a dream, even if, as Freud taught us, dreams do mean. Giant Despair

Stories of a Hard Life from a Skeleton: The Mass Grave at Durham

This is from this month’s `British Archaeology’  (www.archaeologyuk.org) – the story of an excavation in Durham, where bodies of soldiers taken after a battle in 1650 between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and some residual royalists and their mercenaries ended in buried in mass graves.

The prisoners were not deliberately killed, it seems, but the grave where so many of their bodies was found in digs up to last year showed how tough conditions and maltreatment finished many of them off. Analysis on one skeleton, number 21, turned up some incredible things, and shows just how far science has come today. From tests, the laboratory was able to identify where the person was born, their diet, what times in their life they had suffered illness, and the kind of home they had lived in. The description goes:

`In childhood he suffered hunger or disease, as well as anaemia. In the 1630s he lived in western Scotland and while still a child he moved again. He had chipped teeth and painful dental abscesses. He had herniated a disc in the idle of his back, perhaps by heavy lifting or simply by sneezing while doubled over… He suffered two more episodes of malnutrition, one in his late teens and another at around 21. A few months before his death he was wounded above his left eye… After the battle and march, he spent some time as a prisoner in Durham Cathedral. There be probably fell ill with dysentery before being transferred to the castle, where he died of his illness.’

As the article goes on to say, archaeology is a remarkably democratizing force. `We probably know as much about this group of men as we do about anyone who lived in 17th century Scotland.’ Skeleton 21’s story is a remarkable haunting one – a vivid illustration of the famous statement by Hobbes, the almost contemporaneous philosopher, who wrote in Leviathan of the life of man being nasty, brutish and short. The article finishes this account off with a reconstruction of the prisoner’s face. If you think of just how tough this guy’s life was, it is a haunting portrait – the emergence from the great anonymity of history, completely unexpectedly, of a face that speaks to us, tells it story to is, and expresses its pain centuries after its death. 20180611_091406

Blood Letters: The Story of a Chinese Martyr

`Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China’  (Basic Books, New York, 2018) by Lian Xi, is not for the faint of heart. Lin Zhao was commended by Nobel Laureate, the late Liu Xiaobo, as one of the figures who inspired him. He had been alerted, as had the author of this book Lian Xi, to the existence of her writings from prison. They are particularly distinctive not solely because of the account they give of great deprivations and suffering while incarcerated before and during the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966, but because many of them were written with her own blood. This was for the simple reason that ink was disallowed to her. She had no other choice but to write the way she did.

The manner in which Lian Xi presents Lin in the opening chapters put me in mind of accounts of the life of the French philosopher Simone Weil. She effectively starved herself to death in the Second World (while working for the resistance in the UK) through a combination of asceticism and lack of self-care. Lian like Weil was herself a Christian, after an initial passionate commitment to the Communist cause. In the 1950s she grew increasingly critical of the Mao regime, and this had developed into an almost reckless disdain by the 1960s. Before the Cultural Revolution had even started, she had been repaid for her critical stance by being tried as a counter-revolutionary and put in jail.

Many of her actions should have been diagnosed, in a more enlightened environment, as personality disorders. She was clearly a highly driven, often very anxious and complex person. These were seen initially as indications of her strangeness, and then as signs of political deviancy as time went on. Prison life only deepened her issues, with a constant diet of mindless brutality and cruelty. Far from being in a place where she might have received appropriate care, she was shoved more deeply into Hell.

The treatment of her is not just an indictment of Mao and the particular style of politics he created, with its constant need of victims and marginalised people to blame everything on, but of a society which was, by the late 1960s, deeply traumatised, self-traumatising, and engaged in spiritual auto-genocide. It is bewildering that so many people acted in the way they did, picking on and victimising figures like Lin, and then executing them in the most inhumane and undignified manner. There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. Lin was treated with such injustice and lack of compassion that even her rehabilitation in the post Mao period only added insult to injury, as though the Party were admitting its period of acting in such an aberrant way were a temporary loss of its sanity, and just awful bad luck for people like Lin to have been collateral loss during it. Like I said at the start, this book is not one for the faint hearted.

https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/lian-xi/blood-letters/9781541644229/

Blood letters

 

On Swimming and Swimming Pools

`Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero’ by Charles Sprawson (Vintage, 1993) is widely regarded as the best account of the culture and environment of swimming written in modern times. The range of references in the book is impressive. Shelley, Byron, Yukio Mishima (with whom the book ends), and then an historic overview, from the views of the Romans into modern times of the benefits, or ills, of taking to the waters.

Reading the book got me thinking about the places I’ve swum in, and which were the most memorable. I did swim in the Baltic once, just near Helsinki, and remember it not so much for the location (near an island on which there was, I think, an old fort) but the way in which because of the water currents and the strength of the waves it was far more challenging than just doing lengths even in an outside pool linked to the sea. You swim with a sense of vulnerability and danger in places like this, because you know you are linked to the great mass of water that covers the rest of the world. An amazing, intimidating and humbling thought.

The pools in Sydney were pretty magnificent – Victoria Park outside where I swum most days going to or from the university; the open air pool by Luna Park on the north side; the one with salty sea water on Bondi beech (Iceberg?). In Canberra, when it is open (which is about half the year) the very fine Manuka swimming pool has a lovely faded feel about it, with these perpetually empty spectator seats around what was, in my experience, the invariably empty water. I did swim in the Collins Bay water once – not too petrified by the idea of sharks swooping in.

For the rest, the hotel pools in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan are often fun. There’s the Tombraider kind of effort in the basement of the Hyatt in Wangfujing. City centre pools in such a dry city though are a real luxury. The School of Governance in the north east of the city where I sometimes stay at the guesthouse has what it advertises as an Olympic Sized pool (as far as I know, almost all the pools in Sydney make that ranking!) where an attendant once demanded when I was getting in the water to see my `swimming certificate’. I said I was living in Sydney, and for some reason that sufficed and he left me alone.  The Friendship Hotel has a much older, historic pool too, built for the Soviet experts in the 1950s before they all got ordered back home.

European pools are not so dramatic, and the British ones I use are utilitarian. I haven’t swum in the sea water around the Kentish coast for ages. Perhaps I should. When you swim, Sprawson makes clear, you get the chance to think. Pools are great thinking places – as long as some aspiring Olypiad isn’t bearing down on you. He mentions the great erotic print by Hokusai of the girl and the octopus. I don’t know if I think about things like that when I swim. But I certainly do think.

 

Hokusai octopus woman

Random Associations. Or serendipity.

I went to the Garage coffee place in Canterbury yesterday, to read the final few pages of Freud’s `Introductory Lectures of Psychoanalysis.’ A friend had recently taken me around the Freud Museum in North London, and that had inspired the desire to know a bit more than the few cursory looks I had taken over Freud’s works in the last three decades. Fortuitously, I had Freud’s works in English in the Penguin paperback version on my shelf, and the first volume seemed a good place to start.

The key points Freud makes in these lectures delivered during the First World War in Vienna is about the orderliness of the inner world of people, the ways in which there is an economy between conscious and unconscious forces, and the kinds of symbolic grammar that can be applied, to impose a kind of rational sense on all of this. These texts are a hundred years old now, amazingly, but one still reads them with a sense of excitement that here, at last, was someone trying to conquer the world under the waking world. It is all the more extraordinary that Freud does it with such preternatural calm!

This reading is on the back of re-reading Proust’s great `Remembrance of Things Past’. I’d waded through this more as a feat to just say I’d done it than with any real comprehension in the early 1980s, and the sole memory I had of that was the way that Proust’s endless sentences with their sub clauses and sub-sub-sub clauses weave their way in and out of your consciousness. This reading, with thirty years of experience and life intervening, was much richer and more enjoyable. The question of conquering time and bringing the past into the present so that it is ever-present, really resonated with the things that Freud was writing about. In some senses, the past is always alive, and lives in the memory, ignited by things like smells, sights, things that happen through the day that make our waking lives a kind of palimpsest of different times and different intensities of experience.

While I was reading in the Garage café, an extraordinary thing happened. A song came on the iPlayer. I vaguely remembered it, but not exactly. So I swallowed my pride and got up and asked the barista what the name of the piece was. `Different Drums’ he said, by the Stone Poneys. I checked. From 1967, the year of my birth. So not new! But I then remembered how I had come across it before. When I was working in Beijing as a diplomat in about 2000, I woke up in the China World apartments we were living in then, on one of these foggy city mornings, and this music was stuck in my head, which hung there for days. A few bars of it came back to me over the years, from time to time, but I thought it was just something I had dreamed up. But no! In 2018, on a sunny June Sunday morning, I learn this is a late 1960s pop song I have no recollection of ever having heard (but must have) or knowing about. Freud, or Proust, in practice, I guess. Not so sure what this says about my psychology though – the song itself seems a short, sharp complaint about how no-one seems to understand anyone else!

Books, Sites, Sights, and Other Things

So this is an experiment. I have posted many things on Facebook, and other sites, but I wanted somewhere a bit more durable to put up reviews, and other writings, some related to China, and some to other areas.

I write mostly about China, and am Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. But all things have a link with China, in some ways, and therefore my interests stray according to what books happen before me, or what places I visit and people I speak to. So this blog will be an attempt to write about some of these things. Nine_Dragons_Scroll

Without neurotic people, most great art would never have been produced – Marcel Proust