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The Genius of the Red Chamber

The Story of the Stone Volume 1: The Golden Days Volume 2: The Crab-Flower Club

by Cao Xueqin, translated by David Hawkes
Indiana University Press, 540 and 601 pp., $25.00 each

Of all the classic Chinese novels, The Story of the Stone (Shitou ji) is indisputably the greatest masterpiece. It is also—unlike The Water Margin or The Journey to the West, which crystallized popular tales and folklore—an individualistic work of fiction, clearly expressing the artistic vision of a single literary genius1 Better known as The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong lou meng), which is the title used in the earlier English translations, this eighteenth-century work actually has appeared under both titles in Chinese.2 Each carries a particular emphasis of its own, and perhaps the reason The Dream of the Red Chamber has become the prevalent one in China is that the phrase hong lou (red mansions) evokes both “a dream of delicately nurtured young ladies living in luxurious apartments” and a “dream of vanished splendor.”3

The novel’s main character is an adolescent aesthete named Jia Baoyu who spends his youth in an aristocratic mansion in Peking, passionately in love at the same time with both his beautiful cousins: Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. The two young women are separate creatures, yet they symbolize qualities that could be joined in a single ideal woman whom Baoyu (Precious Jade) never meets. Instead he is torn between Daiyu (Black Jade)—a petulant, narcissistic, brilliant beauty on the one hand; and Baochai (Precious Clasp)—a girl of “grown-up beauty and aplomb” with a “generous, accommodating disposition”—on the other.

These two young women have become such archetypes in Chinese fiction that reference to either one immediately calls to mind a host of related character traits. In fact, predilection for one or the other character is a sign of the reader’s own temperament. Last summer in Peking, for example, I casually mentioned Hong lou meng to a foreign affairs official. “Ah,” she said, “and which do you prefer: Lin Daiyu or Xue Baochai?” When I responded that my favorite was Daiyu, the official laughed and exchanged glances knowingly with another person seated nearby. On my return to Peking in November for a brief visit, I was met at the airport by that same foreign affairs official, who introduced me to other persons in the welcoming group with the comment: “Professor Wakeman enjoys reading Hong lou meng“; and then, after a pause, “his favorite is Lin Daiyu.” Again, there were the knowing glances, as if to say in part that here, after all, was a hopeless romantic.

But Lin Daiyu also represents something else besides romanticism to readers in the People’s Republic of China. She has come to symbolize rebellion against the feudal family system in general, and against the “four great families” (Jia, Zhi, Wang, and Bi) of the novel in particular. In an important speech on class struggle, Chairman Mao Zedong even mentioned the heroine by name, saying: “Lin Daiyu did not belong to the four great families.”4 For by then, The Dream of the Red Chamber had become the subject of an intense debate in China that led, among other things, to the identification of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu with class resistance to feudal landlord values.

The reason for that debate, which occurred in 1954–1955, lay in part in the novel’s extraordinary popularity in China ever since numerous handwritten copies of it first appeared between 1754 and 1784. At that time, the identity of the author was a mystery, although there was attached to the eighty chapters of main text a copious commentary written by someone who signed himself “Red Inkstone Studio” (Zhiyan zhai).5 Because the novel appeared to be unfinished, there was great excitement in 1792 when a printed version was finally published with an additional forty chapters written by a man named Gao E. Mr. Gao—the publisher claimed—had been given the original author’s notes, and from those he had pieced together what would have been the ending had the author lived long enough to complete the book. 6 Whatever the truth of this claim, the 1792 version of 120 chapters was a best seller, and there soon developed groups of cognoscenti who read and reread the novel, engaging in what was then called hongxue, which is usually translated as “red-ology.”

Red-ology”—a scholarly cult of its own—was inspired by what classical scholars termed suoyin or “searching out the hidden meanings of commentary.” Treating the novel as a roman à clef, scholars looked for historical figures whom characters in the novel might secretly represent. One school of hongxue opined, for instance, that Jia Baoyu was actually the Shunzhi emperor (r. 1644–1661), and Lin Daiyu his beloved concubine, Donggo. Another group thought that The Dream of the Red Chamber was really about the lyrical Manchu poet Nara Singde (1655–1685), son of Prince Mingju.7 By the early twentieth century, as Chinese nationalism intensified, connoisseurs of Hong lou meng began to consider it an anti-Manchu tract. After all, it had been written during the period of the Qianlong literary inquisition when such works were proscribed and their authors arrested. Cai Yuanpei, the brilliant Leipzig-trained philosopher who became Chancellor of Peking National University in 1916, interpreted The Dream of the Red Chamber as a thinly veiled attack on the Manchu emperors, with Jia Baoyu supposed to be the Kangxi emperor’s heir apparent, Prince Yinreng (1674–1725), and with Lin Daiyu representing the famous poet and bibliographer, Zhu Yizun (1629–1709), who was invited by Kangxi to live within the palace.8

Cai Yuanpei’s interpretation represented the extreme limits of “red-ology,” stretching the art of suoyin beyond credibility. It was not long before one of his own Peking University faculty members, Dr. Hu Shi, forced the rupture. A Cornell graduate who had written his PhD thesis under John Dewey at Columbia, Hu Shi returned to China in 1917 as the advocate of a new vernacular literary movement, arguing that prose should be written in the demotic language, and that novels like The Journey to the West and The Dream of the Red Chamber should be recognized as great works of art on a par with classical poetry and belles lettres.

Hu Shi was also regarded as the leader of Chinese liberalism. As a pragmatist, he opposed the Marxists for preaching “isms” instead of solving China’s immediate political and social problems. As it turned out, one of the most pressing problems of the moment was the survival of Peking National University, the bastion of the anti-warlord, anti-imperialist May Fourth movement of 1919. Regarded with suspicion by the warlord government then in power, the university was starved for funds and harassed by educational authorities. By March, 1921, it had virtually shut down, and Hu Shi, without any classes to meet, had the leisure to complete his own study of The Dream of the Red Chamber, applying to it the principles of textual analysis he had learned at Cornell and Columbia.

Hu Shi’s first conclusion was that the principles of “red-ology” were fallacious. Exposing the weaknesses of Cai Yuanpei’s exposition, Hu Shi insisted that the methodology of suoyin had to be abandoned. He wrote: “If we think we truly want to understand The Dream of the Red Chamber, then we must first destroy this way of studying The Dream of the Red Chamber as though it were a conundrum to be solved by forced interpretations based upon conjectural coincidences.”9 Instead of speculating about the “real” identity of the characters in the novel, Hu Shi sought to discover who the author was by means of thorough historical research. Poring over eighteenth-century memoirs, he came to the tentative conclusion that the author of Hong lou meng was a relatively obscure poet and painter named Cao Xueqin (Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in).

To prove the matter conclusively, he enlisted the help of two other avid researchers, Gu Jiegang and Yu Pingbo. Yu, grandson of the famed classicist Yu Yue (1822–1906), had already begun working on the authorship of the novel, and he and Gu intensified the search by feverishly studying local records in the enormous collection of rare books held by the Capital Library.10 Their research corroborated the original hypothesis, and later that year Hu Shi published his article, publicly establishing Cao Xueqin as the creator of the first eighty chapters of The Dream of the Red Chamber.

Hu Shi’s identification of the author of Hong lou meng had a stunning impact on scholarly circles in China. As Gu Jiegang, who later was to gain an international reputation as one of modern China’s greatest ancient historians, was the first to admit, the principles of research which he learned while working on the project deeply influenced his own methodology.11 And among students of The Dream of the Red Chamber, the article also inspired a xin hongxue, a “new red-ology,” with Hu’s other assistant, Yu Pingbo, in the forefront. In 1923 Yu (who later joined the Peking University literature faculty) published his own study of the novel (Hong lou meng bian, revised in 1952 as Hong lou meng yanjiu), which carried forward the argument that The Dream of the Red Chamber was mainly an autobiographical work. Now that the author’s identity had been established, he argued, it was necessary to learn as much as possible about Cao Xueqin’s background in order to understand what the work meant in the first place. Subsequently Yu and other scholars, both Chinese and Western, managed over the years to piece together enough information about the author of Hong lou meng to cast the novel in an entirely different light.12

Cao Xueqin belonged to an extraordinary family—a family whose social status was nearly unique in China. Cao’s ancestors were Chinese settlers in the area later known as Manchuria. Early in the seventeenth century they became bondservants (booi) of the Manchu tribal aristocracy. While this was a menial position at the time, later, after the Manchus conquered China, their bondservants acquired relatively high social status, especially those who were attached to the household of the emperor. During the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), bondservants became the monarch’s most trusted officials, administering his salt and textile monopolies and acting as his secret agents. Three generations of the family served in this capacity; and Cao Xueqin’s grandfather, Cao Yin (1658-1712), was Textile Commissioner in either Suzhou or Nanking from 1690 to 1712 while four times holding the concurrent office of Salt Commissioner.13 These were extremely lucrative posts, and the Cao family amassed an enormous fortune. The family compound in Nanking consisted of vast gardens built around thirteen separate houses totaling 483 rooms, staffed by a corps of 114 servants. During its heyday the Cao establishment even had its own private theater company, and some of the plays which it performed were composed by Cao Yin himself, who was an accomplished poet, calligrapher, and playwright.

In spite of its wealth, the social position of the Cao family was curiously unstable, depending as it did upon imperial whim. For one, this meant incurring certain special debts inherent to the position. Four times Cao Yin was host to the Kangxi emperor on his southern tours, constructing a lavishly furnished palace next to the Imperial Textile Factory in Nanking. Untold sums were spent on presents and entertainment during each visit. And then, of course, in order to keep his office and property, a high-ranking bondservant like Cao Yin had to retain the favor of the throne.

  1. 1

    Jaroslav Prusek, Chinese History and Literature: Collection of Studies (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1970), p. 122. My review of the new translation of The Journey to the West appeared in The New York Review, May 29, 1980.

  2. 2

    The two most popular earlier translations are: Chi-chen Wang, Dream of the Red Chamber (Twayne Publishers, 1958); and Franz Kuhn, The Dream of the Red Chamber (Pantheon Books, 1958), translated by Florence and Isabel McHugh from the German version. There is another new translation, appearing in three volumes of forty chapters each: Tsao Hsueh-chin and Kao Ngo, A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Peking: Foreign Languages Press). Volume 1 appeared in 1978.

  3. 3

    David Hawkes, Introduction to The Story of the Stone, p. 20.

  4. 4

    Mao Zedong, “Speech at the Hang-zhou Conference” (May 1963), Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) 61269-2 (February 20, 1974), p. 321.

  5. 5

    Red Inkstone” has been identified as Cao Xueqin’s first cousin and adopted brother, Cao Yufeng. Zhao Gang, Hong lou meng kaozheng shiyi (“Repairing omissions in textual research on The Dream of the Red Chamber“; Hong Kong, Highland Press, 1963), pp. 57-58.

  6. 6

    Most specialists now agree that Gao E edited, rather than fabricated, the last forty chapters, perhaps starting with manuscripts given to him by one of the heirs of the author. For cogent discussions of the Gao E issue in English, see Hawkes’s introduction, pp. 15-18, 41; and Jeanne Knoerle, The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Critical Study (Indiana University Press, 1972), pp. xiii-xiv. In 1959 a new version of 120 chapters came to light. Although this antedates the 1792 version, the last forty chapters are very close to Gao E’s additions, and appear to have been in his possession at one time. The 1959 version was published in facsimile in 1963 under the title: Qianlong chaoben bainianhui Hong lou meng gao (“Draft copy of the 120-chapter Dream of the Red Chamber transcribed in the Qianlong period”).

  7. 7

    Hu Shi, “Hong lou meng kaozheng (gaiding gao)” (Textual research on The Dream of the Red Chamber—revised draft), in Hu Shi wencun (“Collected writings of Hu Shi”; Shanghai, Yadong tushuguan, 1921), 2:185-186, 196.

  8. 8

    Ibid., 2: 194-195. Though obviously heir to “red-ology,” Cai’s interpretation was also part of a new “nationalist paradigm” of interpretation. See: Yu Ying-shi (Yü Ying-shih), “Jindai hongxue de fazhan yu hongxue geming—yige xueshu shide fenxi (“Recent developments in red-ology—the need for a new approach”), Journal of the Chinese University of Hong Kong 2.1:11-13 (1974).

  9. 9

    Hu Shi, “Hong lou meng kaozheng (gaiding gao),” p. 200.

  10. 10

    Gu Jiegang, “Xu (Preface),” in Yu Pingbo, Hong lou meng bian (“On The Dream of the Red Chamber“; Shanghai, Yadong tushuguan, 1923), p. 3.

  11. 11

    Ku Chieh-kang (Gu Jiegang), The Autobiography of a Chinese Historian, Being the Preface to a Symposium on Ancient Chinese History, translated and annotated by Arthur W. Hummel (Leyden: E.J. Brill, 1931), p. 85.

  12. 12

    We owe much to Jonathan Spence in this regard. Guided by Fang Chao-ying and the late Mary Wright, Professor Spence uncovered the secret memorials of Cao Xueqin’s grandfather in the Palace Museum in Taibei. Spence’s doctoral dissertation, later published as Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master (Yale University Press, 1966), discusses the bondservant system described below.

  13. 13

    Cao Yin’s brother-in-law, Li Xu, was also Suzhou Textile Commissioner; and Sun Wencheng, Textile Commissioner of Hangzhou, was a relative of Cao Yin’s mother. Palace Museum, Ming-Qing Archives Section, comp., Guanyu Jiangning zhizao Caojia dang’an shiliao (“Archival materials concerning the household of Nanking Textile Commissioner Cao”; Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1975), p. 5.

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