The Dream of the Red Chamber #SixtyBooks #Read16in16

red chamber 2The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin, translated by David Hawkes


Reader’s Digest version of a post-modernist Chinese War and Peace shows beautiful fragments from the larger family epic: wanting more.

Reading (and Recommended Reading Lists)

The Dream of the Red Chamber is on my World Literature and Composition’s required reading list, but I’m not sure how it got there. Students can read either this, Kitchen, or The Joy Luck Club for their second term paper. Readers are probably most familiar with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is also widely popular. The Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone, however popular within China, is not well known in the States, and I suspect it is because of the novel’s size and the limited available translations. The novel was published in 1791, and is one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels.” I suppose students in China must read excerpts of this just like students in the States read Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.

Given the novel’s cultural importance, its presence on the reading list makes sense.

The size, however, is something to consider. The unabridged version contains 120 chapters, 1,300 pages, 700,000 words, and has 30 major characters and over 400 minor characters. Surely, we aren’t asking students to read this or The Joy Luck Club (20 chapters, 354 pages, and eight main characters, with a handful of minor characters).

Then there is the problem of choosing a translation. Since many translations are in the public domain, students can easily find the text on Project Gutenberg, or here, or in blogs. In one way, the novel is very easy to access, but how accessible is the story to students?

“According to Anne Lonsdale in The Times Literary Supplement, the novel is “notoriously difficult” to translate” (Wikipedia). Translators must decide whether to translate the names of servants and how to convey the tone, since The Dream of the Red Chamber was written in the vernacular instead of Classical Chinese. Of the free translations, H. Bencraft Joly’s work from 1868 is the most common, but I would hardly call it accessible. Here’s how it begins:

This is the opening section; this the first chapter. Subsequent to the visions of a dream which he had, on some previous occasion, experienced, the writer personally relates, he designedly concealed the true circumstances, and borrowed the attributes of perception and spirituality to relate this story of the Record of the Stone. With this purpose, he made use of such designations as Chen Shih-yin (truth under the garb of fiction) and the like. What are, however, the events recorded in this work? Who are the dramatis personae?

Translations matter, so I searched for what college professors recommended. David Hawkes’ work seems to be the best. Compare the previous passage to the same from Hawkes:

2016-02-14 08.08.40 (2)

As one source states, “Hawkes translation (Story of the Stone; five vols.) is by far the best; takes into account linguistic and other subtleties, rendered in the British idiom.” And in case you missed it: that was five volumes. Again, are we asking students to read The Joy Luck Club or this?

stone vol 1-4

Thankfully, we live in the age of, and curious readers can find an abridged version of the novel translated by Hawkes for less than five dollars. I haven’t read the full five volumes, and my knowledge of the whole novel is limited to summaries I found here, here, and on Wikipedia. That being said, when I began reading the cutest little book from Amazon, I was most delighted.

Reading the Abridged Version

“All I can find in it, in fact, are a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue. Even if I were to copy all this out, I cannot see that it would make a very remarkable book.” To which the stone responds, “Must you be so obtuse? …. In refusing to make use of that stale old convention and telling my Story of the Stone exactly as it occurred, it seems to me that, far from depriving it of anything, I have given it a freshness these other books do not have.” (5-6)

If the entire novel chronicles the decline of the Jia family, then then Penguin 60s Classics edition offers four photographs from the tattered family album. The trajectory starts with a meta-contextual commentary on literature and ends with a classroom brawl during the teacher’s absence:

“Others stood on their desks, laughing and clapping their hands and cheering on the combatants. The classroom was like a cauldron of still water that had suddenly come to the boil” (77).

Which goes to show, classrooms are the same everywhere. In other pages, dreams interrupt action, and sometimes a description of a painting or song becomes a waking dream. The balance of high and low registers and content reflects the Chinese world view, aesthetics, and values.

2016-02-14 09.29.06 (2)

The novel’s beginning makes this clear.

The text addresses its “Gentle Reader” and begins a story of creation. A goddess creates the sky with magical stones, but one stone is rejected. Later a Taoist named Vanitas discovers the stone and holds a conversation with it. This conversation inoculates the reader to Cao Xuequin’s surrealist slips, and reveals how the novel’s world will operate. Inanimate objects become animated, words create worlds, characters are symbolic, and symbols act as characters.

In the abridged version, much of the day to day life of the Jia family is removed until the last chapter. Here, the main character Bao-yu attends school, and here the narrative resembles works from Europe’s own Realism movement. The antics of the boys during their teacher’s absence are humorously portrayed, and it is here the reader will appreciate Hawkes’ translation. And my readers will understand why I’m baffled this novel is on the required reading list.

red chamber 1


Post-modernism and literary criticism: The book’s beginning reminds me of European literature’s post-modern movement in the way the author and the story are both within the story. Not only does the magical stone discuss literature with Vanitas, but the stone also instructs how to read the story:

My only wish is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in their deterioration of their vital forces. (7-8)

The didactic purpose of The Dream of the Red Chamber is explicitly told to the reader and reinforced throughout the plot. At one point, Bao-yu, who has “inherited a perverse, intractable nature and is eccentric and emotionally unstable,” the character Disenchantment brings him to library of sorts with personal stories of women that read like cautionary tales crossed with issues of Maxim. Disenchantment states, “It is my hope that a full exposure to the illusions of feasting, drinking, music and dancing may succeed in bringing about an awakening in him sometime in the future” (43). Xueqin’s own catalogue of the Jia family also functions to instruct the reader. Again, in the beginning, the stone tells Vanitas:

All men call the author fool; / None his secret message hears.

Love: Vanitas asserts in the beginning that “its main theme was love,” but this is not a Valentine’s Day read. Instead, Bao-yu has “lust of the mind,” and Disenchantment encourages him to devote his “mind seriously to the teaching of Confucius and Mencius and your person wholeheartedly to the betterment of society (59). Then she proceeds “to give him secret instruction in the art of love” which leaves Bao-yu “Dazed and confused” (59). Disenchantment seems to mirror Xueqin’s own pedagogy; there is both many warnings against romance and many descriptions of it.

Were I to teach

Not being a Redologist myself; Redology being the academic study of Dream of the Red Chamber, I would arm my students with a solid introduction and summary of the novel before letting them dive in to this strange text.

Points of discussion or thesis topics might include

  • The portrayal of love
  • Gender roles
  • The epic hero
  • Dreams and visions
  • Chinese aesthetics and balance
  • Religion: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism

I might begin talking about translations by showing how Google Translate isn’t perfect and by sharing David Hawkes’ obituary. Not only is his translation still regarded as one of the best, but before completing that tour de force, he studied in China during the communist revolution and later taught intelligence “operatives and code-breakers how to interpret Japanese battle reports.” Even though software enables more websites to be presented in English, students should know that the translator’s job is not just to translate words verbatim but also to provide a cultural context for the story. With more media and literature reaching the States from around the world, students need to know how the act of translation can either obscure messages or make them clearer.

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