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.




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