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.

As long as the Kangxi Emperor continued to rule this was not a problem. When Cao Yin died in 1712, the emperor appointed his eldest son Textile Commissioner; and when the heir passed away prematurely three years later, Kangxi even permitted Cao Yin’s nephew, Cao Fu, to be adopted posthumously so that the family could continue to enjoy, the income from the manufactory. Cao Fu subsequently held the post of Textile Commissioner from 1715 to 1728, and his son, Cao Xueqin himself, thus spent the first twelve or thirteen years of his life in the fabulous gardens of the Nanking mansion. In 1728, however, the family fell into disfavor. A new emperor, Yongzheng (1723-1735), turned against the Caos, and confiscated their lands and houses. Forced to hand over the Nanking mansion to his successor, Cao Fu and the future author of the Hong lou meng moved to Peking.

The family was not utterly impoverished by its change of fortune in 1728. Cao daughters had married into the Manchu aristocracy, and the family also probably managed to salvage Cao Yin’s library and art collection. Life was comfortable in Peking, and Cao Xueqin acquired his own extraordinary erudition in his grandfather’s library before becoming a secretary in the Imperial Household Bureau. Nevertheless, it was a far cry from the luxury and splendor of Nanking. Furthermore, Cao Xueqin’s own position never really advanced. By 1744, when he was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, he was living in the western suburbs of Peking, holding down an assistantship in the Imperial Clan School and trying to sell his paintings of stones in order to keep himself in much-needed wine. His friend, the Manchu poet Duncheng, wrote of him in 1762, a year before his death:

In an early autumn morning I met Xueqin in the Elms Garden. It was drizzling and windy; the morning cold pierced one’s sleeves. At that time the host had not come out yet. I thereupon untied my sword and mortgaged it for a drink. Xueqin was extremely pleased and wrote a long poem to thank me.14

By then, Cao Xueqin had completed the first eighty chapters of The Dream of the Red Chamber. In a certain sense, the writing of the novel had been a way for him to re-create the fabulous world of his childhood and redeem himself in the process. Believing that he had made “an utter failure” of his life, he often thought back to the “slips of girls” he had known in Nanking, reflecting upon their moral and intellectual superiority to him, the man he had become. “There and then,” he explained later, “I resolved to make a record of all the recollections of those days I could muster—those golden days when I dressed in silk and ate delicately, when we still nestled in the protecting shadow of the Ancestors and Heaven still smiled on us.” Cao Xueqin’s primary motive for writing the novel would thus appear to be nostalgia. As Yu Pingbo wrote to Gu Jiegang in 1921 when Cao’s identity was first established: “I believe that what the author of Hong lou meng wants to say is nothing else but that he began with a life of happiness but ended in a rather miserable state; and he painfully recollects his life and is nostalgic about his previous joys.”15

The greatest masterpiece of Chinese literary realism, then, is a tale told by a melancholy painter-poet à la recherche du temps perdu. This was hardly troubling to Hu Shi and Yu Pingbo, at least at the time; but that one of the main treasures of China’s cultural legacy should be an aristocratic remembrance of things past deeply disturbed Marxist literary critics in the early 1950s.

In the fall of 1954, therefore, there appeared a series of articles in literary journals and the Peking press that launched a campaign, first against Yu Pingbo, and then against Hu Shi, who was living in exile in the United States. According to Mao Zedong, the campaign was “a struggle to oppose the bourgeois idealistic theories of the Hu Shi clique which had poisoned youth in classical literary circles for more than three decades.”16 Both men were accused of using textual criticism to divert intellectuals from the revolutionary tasks at hand; and Hu Shi in particular was attacked for being too pro-American and for espousing liberalism while secretly seeking his own self-advancement.17

While the campaign was mainly designed to discredit academic scholarship for its own sake, it was also intended to establish a new form of Marxist literary criticism in order to “clarify the basic problems connected with our acceptance of our nation’s literary heritage.”18 This official doctrine set The Dream of the Red Chamber within a context of class struggle and treated the novel as a historical allegory. Instead of being the tale of the fall of an individual household, Hong lou meng was said to be a realistic description of the fall of an entire order, and “an omen to the definite collapse of the whole of the feudal bureaucratic landlord class under the new historical conditions that were being formed.” 19 Or, as Mao Zedong put it much more succinctly in 1964: “What Cao Xueqin wrote was about the decline of feudal families.” 20 Chairman Mao, who read the entire 120-chapter novel five times during his lifetime, later told his niece when she was a student at Peking University during the height of the Cultural Revolution: “Hong lou meng is worth reading. It is a good book. We should read it not for its story but as history…. If you don’t read Hong lou meng, how could you know about feudal society?”21

From this perspective the fall of the house of Jia is not at all extraordinary. Rather, its demise is characteristic of other great houses that are eventually undone by the conspicuous consumption of their heirs. Like Thorstein Veblen’s observation of upward and downward mobility in America (shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations), Cao Xueqin’s perception of upper-class society identified the primary cause of the decline of great gentry households with the failure of scions like himself to succeed in business or government. Describing the state of the Jia lineage, one of his characters remarks:

Both masters and servants all lead lives of luxury and magnificence. And they still have plenty of plans and projects under way. But they can’t bring themselves to economize or make any adjustment in their accustomed style of living. Consequently, though outwardly they still manage to keep up appearances, inwardly they are beginning to feel the pinch. But that’s a small matter. There’s something much more seriously wrong with them than that. They are not able to turn out good sons, those stately houses, for all their pomp and show. The males in the family get more degenerate from one generation to the next.

As the male members of the family weaken, the Jia women take on increasingly important roles in the novel. To exemplify this, Cao created one of the most arresting characters in Chinese fiction, worthy of Balzac or Dickens. Wang Xifeng, the beautiful and scheming daughter-in-law of Matriarch Jia, becomes the manager of the household. She is warned in a prophetic dream that the best way to prepare for the inevitable changes of fortune “is to invest now, while we are still rich and powerful, in as much property as possible—land, farms, and houses—in the area around the [ancestral] burial-ground, and to pay for the seasonal offerings and the running of the [clan] school entirely out of the income from this property.”

But instead of following this advice, Wang Xifeng takes money that might be used to help poor kinsmen and lends it out at high interest rates. Her malicious intrigues cause two other women to commit suicide, but it is really her usurious activities that arouse the imperial censors and lead to the confiscation of the family’s property. Xifeng’s prophetic dream is thus realized in the words of the proverb: “When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter.”

Precisely because his own house’s downfall was so precipitate, Cao Xueqin was more sensitive than most members of elite eighteenth-century families to the fundamental fleetingness of social status in late imperial China. But it was not his major task to write a treatise on how people fall in status. Rather, what Cao Xueqin attempted to do in Hong lou meng was to reanimate those moments passed together with his cousins, “each day in a drowsy waking dream of love,” in the gardens of the red mansion. Proust reminds us, as he is about to taste his petite madeleine, that intelligence is powerless to evoke memory by itself, “because it is hidden beyond its domain and grasp, in some concrete object (in the sensation that object would provide us) that we may not suspect.”22 So too did Cao Xueqin rely upon the concrete things themselves to revive those sensations. It is this particular quality of the novel—its iridescent texture composed of so many different objects—that provides such an overwhelming sense of a past relived yet gone.

Until quite recently it has been impossible for those unable to read the novel in its original language to experience that sensation for themselves. In 1973, however, there appeared in England the first volume of David Hawkes’s long awaited translation of Hong lou meng. Since then, one more volume has been published, with three more to come. All previous translations have been adaptations or abridgments. In fact, it was believed that a complete word-for-word translation was unfeasible. Hawkes’s The Story of the Stone proves that wrong. “My one abiding principle,” he stated at the outset, “has been to translate everything—even puns.” His commitment to that principle has been absolute, and one can only marvel at the effort devoted to such a monumental task. Indeed, Hawkes (who is currently a Fellow of All Souls College) resigned his chair as Professor of Chinese at Oxford in order to dedicate himself more intensely to translating a range of style and diction that only the most erudite Chinese can fully understand.23 The result is in itself a vivid, glowing masterpiece, and the English-speaking world owes Mr. Hawkes a great debt for finally making this classic available to its readers in a form that does justice to the profundity of the original text.

For Hawkes’s translation also deepens the religious significance of the novel, which he calls by its original title, The Story of the Stone. Like The Journey to the West, it also contains a religious allegory, centering on the transmogrification of a celestial stone, present in the cosmos since the time of creation. As the novel opens, the stone is taken from the Void to the mortal world of “red dust” by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. There it is transformed into the hero, Jia Baoyu, who is born with a jade talisman in his mouth. Repeatedly throughout the novel, the reader is reminded that Baoyu is only momentarily experiencing the disappointments of the World of Illusion, and that he is destined ultimately to return to the Void when he has learned to recognize the emptiness of passion and the importance of detachment.

The time will soon come, in short, when he will have to leave the marvelous enclosed garden of the red mansion and enter another realm. 24 This moment arrives when Jia Baoyu and his cousins reach the age of marriage. One by one the young women of the household are betrothed to outsiders and forced to leave the mansion. Baoyu himself is by now deeply attached to Lin Daiyu, who is dying of consumption. Her illness coincides with a stupor of his own, brought on by the mysterious loss of his jade talisman. Hoping that adult responsibilities will draw him out of his adolescent daze, Baoyu’s parents arrange a marriage for him. They know of his love for the romantic Lin Daiyu, but they prefer that he wed the more sensible Xue Baochai. Ever the schemer, Wang Xifeng persuades them to trick Baoyu into thinking that he is actually marrying Daiyu. The cruel deception is discovered once the wedding veils are removed, but by then it is too late. Lin Daiyu is overwhelmed with grief and dies, and Jia Baoyu becomes mentally deranged. His new bride, Xue Baochai, is able to shock him back into rationality, but it is only when a strange Buddhist monk appears with the lost stone that Jia Baoyu is truly “awakened” to rediscover beyond the insubstantial world of “red dust” the ultimate reality of the Void.

Finally realizing that joy and pain, grief and gladness, are all illusion, Baoyu believes that ambitions and effort are merely vanity. At the same time, however, he is still aware of his Confucian commitments to his family. Momentarily putting aside his Buddhist and Taoist texts to study for the state examinations, he finally lives up to his parents’ hopes for him. But when he passes the highest level with a distinction that earns the Jia family an amnesty and restoration of part of its property, it is only to free him at last to leave the World of Illusion and return to the Void. Appearing to his father in a vision one last time in the company of the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest, Baoyu leaves the “red dust” behind to become a celestial stone once again, imperturbable and detached.

The allegorical ending does not resolve the troubling contradiction in The Story of the Stone between detachment and compassion; between Baoyu’s commitment to spiritual salvation and world-renunciation, and his dedication to art and love. Perhaps this is because, in restoring the lost gardens of Nanking, Cao Xueqin created such a lasting aesthetic image of transitory melancholy that the World of Illusion became too “real” to abandon:

At the far south-east end
Pavilions nestled in artificial moun- tains.
On the near north-west side
Verandahs brooded on circumjacent waters.
Music of little organs playing in the summer-house
Increased the melancholy in the air.
Glimpses of women’s dresses flit- ting through the little wood
Enhanced the delicacy of the scene.

There, in the dream of red mansions, truth and illusion will surely continue to commingle as long as readers can perpetuate that fullness in the text before their eyes.

This Issue

June 12, 1980