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…

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