Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Dream of Red Mansions' Cao Xueqin

I live in town without all that racket
horses and carts stir up, and you wonder

how that could be. Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute. Whenever I start
explaining it, I’ve forgotten the words.

Tao Qian
trans: David Hinton

This enormous novel occupies the same central place in the literary culture of the Chinese as the works of Shakespeare do in English, as Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin does in Russian, and as Dante’s Divine Comedy does in Italian literature. Like them, it creates a whole world that is at once very specific to a time and place (China in the middle of the 18th century) and yet also universal. Like them it embodies the paradox of great art, best expressed by Matisse: All art bears the imprint of its historical epoch. Great art is that in which this imprint is most deeply marked.

And yet in the West the novel is hardly known at all. Reasons for this no doubt include unfamiliarity with the world the novel describes and creates, the vast number of characters (with names which are more than usually difficult for Western readers to remember) and its sheer length. It’s even difficult to arrive at a fixed title for the work, compounded by the fact that in Chinese it has many names, all of them given in the text itself. These titles include: The Story of the Stone, The Precious Mirror of Love, The Twelve Beauties of Jingling, and Dream of Red Mansions. The Penguin translation by David Hawkes uses the first of these titles. Dream of Red Mansions is the closest translation (by Yang Hsien Yi and Gladys Yang) of the most common Chinese title, but other translations of this title might also include A Dream of the Red Chamber, or Dreams in a Red Chamber. This plethora of titles and translations of titles neatly reflects the great difficulties of translating a work from a language in which ambiguity is prized and preserved, into language where it is not.

Given these difficulties for a Western reader, perhaps the best way to approach this work is to look closely at the three characters which make up the most common title in Chinese. In so doing, we shall see that each one loosely defines a category that might help us to orient ourselves in the multifarious world of the Hong Lou Meng.


/hong/ red
This character consists of two elements. On the left is the ‘silk’ radical /si/, on the right is the ‘work’ radical, /gong/, here to give a suggestion as to the correct way to pronounce this character.

Silk is of course the quintessentially Chinese product, and silk cultivation and production has been known in China since the Neolithic age. Silk is a signifier of wealth and patronage, and has been used since ancient times as an instrument of foreign policy. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, records how the first Han emperor sent a specified quantity of silk floss and cloth, grain and other food stuffs each year to the Xiongnu, the ancient enemies of the Han, so that the two nations would live in peace and brotherhood. In the Hong Lou Meng, at weddings and festivals, the fabulously wealthy Jia family are presented with rolls of silk, and they lavish gifts of silk on their superiors. The early part of the novel especially is filled with descriptions of clothes and furnishings, all of them costly and beautiful.

The silk radical also appears in characters to do with ‘binding’, ‘braiding’, ‘roping’, and also in characters to do with ‘patterns’, ‘succession’ or ‘continuation’, ‘experience’, in other words, the underlying patterns of everyday life, familial associations and experiences, in which communities are bound together through work, ritual ceremony and festivals. Red is ubiquitous in the Chinese world to an extent that is not so in other cultures: a red light always burns before the family altar; a wedding is not a wedding without the presence of red; red lanterns adorn the temples and gifts of money are made in red envelopes. Likewise in the Hong Lou Meng, red is everywhere. Baoyu, the male protagonist, lives in a pavilion called ‘Happy Red Court’, and in Chapter 1, Cao Xueqin is described as having written the work in his studio called ‘Mourning-the-Red Studio’.  In its widest form, red always symbolizes festival. The novel is full of lavish and evocative descriptions of ceremonies and festivals, weddings, funerals, New Years Eve celebrations, the Lantern Festival celebration; Cao Xueqin writes with a painterly hand, creating images as unforgettable as the cinematic images of Zhang Yimou. In the novel, as in Chinese life, great prominence is given to rites and rituals, both on major state occasions and the minor rituals of dining at home with family. In Chapter 2, an official is impeached, and a list of the crimes against him is given; the second item on this list is ‘tampering with the rites’ which shows the importance given by the Chinese to rites and ceremony.

Red also symbolizes art and beauty. A white, black and grey ink painting is not considered beautiful until it is set off by the artist’s seal in red ink. One of the women in the family is a talented artist and she is painting a huge picture of the garden in which a great deal of the action of the novel takes place. Her picture becomes a symbol of the Hong Lou Meng itself.

The ‘silk’ radical which makes up the character ‘red’ also appears in the characters for ‘literary classic’, and ‘paper’. The Hong Lou Meng itself has given rise to a paper mountain of critical commentary, known as Redology紅學.  The Hong Lou Meng abounds with descriptions of people interacting with the classics, and creating art and literature of their own. Baoyu and his soulmate, the beautiful and doomed Daiyu, read the Romance of the West Chamber 西廂記 together, a Yuan dynasty play. In Chapter 37, the young people in the Jia family start a poetry club, in which they drink, eat and set each other subjects – and rhyme schemes -  for poetry.  At one autumn meeting of the club, the chrysanthemum is chosen as a subject, but someone objects that this is too hackneyed a subject for an autumn poem. Then someone has an idea that instead of writing about chrysanthemums, they will focus on the people looking at it and on their reactions to the flower. They come up with a list of subjects:

Thinking of the Chrysanthemum
Seeking out the Chrysanthemum
Visiting the Chrysanthemum
Planting the Chrysanthemum
Facing the Chrysanthemum
Displaying the Chrysanthemum
Writing about the Chrysanthemum
Painting the Chrysanthemum
Questioning the Chrysanthemum
Wearing the Chrysanthemum
The Chrysanthemum’s Shadow
A Dream of Chrysanthemum
The Withered Chrysanthemum

And then go on to create an album of chrysanthemum poems. This is a picture of the pastime of leisured, rich, educated, secluded women, but it’s also a picture of the age–old activity of the literati/scholar class. The novel is full of such scenes. There is a great deal of sophisticated wordplay, both by the narrator and by the characters and absolutely untranslatable jokes and puns. The characters (people) discuss the meaning of characters (words, symbols), and they seem able to make up poems according to a rhyme scheme proposed by someone else at the flick of a sleeve, quite an accomplishment, given that many of them are only teenagers. But what’s most interesting to note about this little scene is the tension, the dilemma it voices between following the traditional rules laid down by the masters (Confucian idea), and originality (Daoist idea), a tension that can be seen in the Hong Lou Meng as a whole.

Etiquette and manners are also presented with the full importance which they are given in real life; who sits where, who serves whom, who takes precedence over whom, who gives face to whom, an incredibly complex affair in a family as large and multi-generational as the Jia family with its army of 200 - 300 retainers, all with a pecking order of their own.

‘Red’, then, in the Hong Lou Meng represents the world of art and beauty, literature and scholarship, rite and ceremony, manners and etiquette, which bind the family and the wider society together.


/lou/ building
This character (pronounced ‘low’) consists of four elements. On the left is the ‘wood’ radical /mu/. The ‘wood’ radical is found in all characters describing objects made of wood, and in characters to do with constructed objects, such as machines and engines and buildings.

The right element consists of a character that can stand alone, independently, with the same pronunciation as the composite character, when it is the name of a constellation, and a common family name.

This character is composed of three elements. The top element used to be a slightly different character meaning something like ‘don’t’, and this character combined with the character for ‘woman’ meant ‘seclusion’, or the women’s quarters which were taboo to outsiders. The middle element is actually the same character for ‘middle’ /zhong/ and it’s the character which appears in ‘China’: ‘the Middle Kingdom’. The bottom element is the character for ‘woman’ /nu/.

The character has a range of meanings, most literally any building more than two stories high, and the floors in such a building. But the history of the character shows us that it was also associated with that part of a building that was reserved for the women, and to which outsiders were not permitted.

The action of the novel revolves around two huge mansions, the Rong mansion and the Ning mansion, and an enormous park or garden which lies between them. There are almost no glimpses of nature outside the compound walls. Most of the scenes take place in interiors, or in the carefully controlled ‘natural’ environment of the ornamental park, specially constructed for the visit home of an elder daughter of the family who is an Imperial Concubine. The two branches of the Jia family gain much of their social prestige and wealth from this daughter’s position in the Imperial household, and her death is one of several turning points in the fortunes of the family.


Women occupy a central place in the novel, just as they do in Chinese culture, which is and always has been a matriarchy. Power relationships in Chinese culture are predicated on the family, and in the family it is the oldest woman who rules the roost. The Lady Dowager rules her family with a rod of iron and even her eldest son – a minister in the Qing government – defers to her decisions. Her personal favourites achieve positions of prominence and privilege within the world of the family. Much of the action of the novel centres on the intrigues between the women of the family, the mothers, the mothers in law, the sisters, the wives, the concubines, the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, the maids of the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, and the lowly serving maids who serve all those maids. The novel is full of domestic detail:  a teacup is overturned; a handkerchief is lost; a precious cloak is spoilt by a burning ember. These incidents are not trivial for those concerned, however, as they result in an adjustment of power positions. Suicides and murders are often the result of these feminine intrigues, and in one sense the novel may be read as an examination of the politics of the harem.

This domestic world is the scene of operations of that archetypal figure in Chinese culture and history: the uberbitch. Jia Xifeng, the wife of one of the grandsons first achieves prominence through her exceptional organizational skills at the funeral of another woman in the family, and soon thereafter is given the overall management of the Ning mansion, a task that she manages with aplomb, maintaining everyone in the lavish lifestyle they are all accustomed to, while secretly putting aside silver and lending it out at interest, which activity eventually contributes to the downfall of the family. Her position is protected because her ready wit makes her a special favourite of the Lady Dowager. When she secretly discovers that her good-for-nothing husband has secretly taken a second wife and established her in a household of her own in a lane behind the family compound, Xifeng insists on having  the second wife brought into the mansion and installed as official concubine, treating her with fastidious kindness and correctness. She then poisons her, after months of physical and mental torture and calculated cruelty. Xifeng comes from a long line of Chinese uberbitches: the Han dynasty Empress Lu cut off her chief rival’s hands and feet, plucked out her eyes, burned her ears, gave her a potion to drink which made her dumb and had her thrown in to the privy, calling her ‘the human pig, Sima Qian tells us. Ironically, that 20th century uberbitch Madame Mao- Jiang Qing- used Hong Lou Meng as a pretext to launch a political attack on an old rival from her sing-song girl days. But it is in the nature of uberbitches that they fall, and many pages and chapters later, Xifeng meets her own miserable end.

Over against this chambered world of the women, is the wider social world of the men. Baoyu is sent to school where he learns to interact with boys his own age after a lifetime spent only in the company of women. This incident is one of the main homosexual episodes in a novel that contains many homosexual characters and scenes. The men in the family have social obligations and political roles outside the family. The Lady Dowager’s two sons are active ministers in the Qing government, and the fortunes of the family are closely tied to their fortunes in the political world. It’s this aspect of the novel where Confucian ideology is most visible. Baoyu is sent to school to study the Four Classics of Confucian thought 四書; throughout the novel, incident after incident shows the workings of the Confucian concept of filial piety , most notably in Baoyu’s relations with his father, and in everyone else’s relations with their parents. This is extended to include filial piety towards ones ancestors. Towards the end of the book, when the mansions are raided by the government, Baoyu’s father’s first worry is how to protect the ancestors from the fall from grace that this will entail for the family. There is a subplot involving a peripheral member of the family who is arrested for murder, which gives us a wealth of information about Qing legal procedures (and how they are corrupted as a matter of course). However, despite these occasional excursions to the world outside the mansion, the men are usually assigned to a peripheral role and serve most often as messengers – both literally and symbolically - from outside the walls of the mansion, or a means by which women can assert their dominance over other women through marriage, concubinage or sexual liaison.

Here, then,  in our reading of the Hong Lou Meng we let ‘building’ stand for the sequestered world of the women’s quarters, the constructed social order both within the mansion and without, and the Confucian ideals of social harmony and correct behaviour.


/meng/ dream
This character (pronounced as the first syllable in ‘mongrel’) consists of four elements from top to bottom. The top element is the ‘grass’ or ‘seedling’ radical /cao/; next comes a radical that can mean both ‘eye’ /mu/ and ‘net’ /wang/. Under this is the ‘roof’ radical, /mien/, with one small stroke missing. The bottom part of the character is the sign for ‘dusk’ /xi/, which is a representation of the moon. So we have a character highly evocative of the way dreams sprout from the imagination at dusk under a roof and are caught in the net of the mind’s eye.

The character for /meng/ contains a picture of the moon. 20th century Lao Tzu commentator Du Erwei draws a connection between the Dao and the moon; the Ying Yang symbol of the Dao is a picture of the waning and waxing moon. And so we let this character stand for the Ying side of the novel, for the many dreams, ghosts and hauntings, and the spirit of Daoism that pervades the book.

The novel contains many magnificent night scenes and moon sightings. Dreams abound. In the first chapter, an old scholar dreams of an encounter between a Buddhist and a Daoist monk, a dream in which the symbolic,  metaphysical meaning of the novel you are about to read is explained. Baoyu has a very significant dream in chapter 5, which he then dreams again in Chapter 116. These dreams are not so much dreams as Shamanistic spirit journeys of the kind described in the Li Sao, a famous poem from the 3rd Century BC anthology Songs of the South 楚辭. Such dream journeys are an intrinsic part of Daoist poetry and meditation practices. In the Hong Lou Meng, when characters die, or are about to die, they appear as ghosts or are seen by other characters in dreams. Indeed, the whole novel is seen as a dream, in the way that Daoist and Buddhist thought see reality as a dream.

Against reality and against the Confucian ideals of familial piety and obedience to your superior are set the more esoteric teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, which teach that all such ideals, -  and indeed, reality itself – are illusions. The novel can be understood as a site of interplay between these three great systems of Chinese thought, in which the author comes down heavily on the side of Daoism. Confucianism, it is carefully suggested, is null and does little to stop the corruption of officials or the debauchery of men. People pay lip service to it, and it creates hypocrisy. Buddhists are presented as charlatans who use planchettes and sand writing to foretell the future. The most significant Buddhist character in the novel – the beautiful maid Miaoyu - meets a highly unpleasant and tragic end. While plenty of Daoist texts are quoted verbatim in the novel – especially the Zhuangzi - (as far as I remember) not one Buddhist sutra is (although the famous Bodhi tree gathas of the contest between Shenxiu and Huineng are).

Dreams, ghosts, divination are all intrinsic to Daoist ideas and practice. The novel’s overriding theme and structure – the vicissitudes of change – is also a primary Daoist concern. Characters muse on their own fates and the fate of the family and wonder how change could come so suddenly. These meditations on change and destiny are limited to the effects of change in this life only (and the afterlife) but there is almost no appearance of a theme connected to repeated lives, no discussion of karma, a prime Buddhist concern.

The novel’s alignment with Daoist over Confucian and Buddhist ideologies is seen most clearly in the character of the protagonist. Although Baoyu in the early part of the novel is called ‘Little Bodhisattva’ by his nurses, this is no more than a standard term of endearment for a young child. As he grows up, Baoyu reads Zhuangzi when he should be studying Confucian classics. In chapter 21, he reads The Housebreaker text from the Zhuangzi, whose basic message is that out of destruction comes liberation and creativity. He is inspired to create his own commentary to it, adapting Zhuangzi to his own circumstances. Do away with affection, he writes, and in the inner chambers fair and foul will then be on an equal footing. Advice kept to oneself does away with the danger of discord; beauty marred obviates affection, intelligence dulled cuts out admiration for talents.  On another occasion, exasperated to his wits end by all the emotional demands  made on him by the women of his chambers, he is reminded of this passage in Zhuangzi:

The ingenious work hard, the wise are full of care, but those without ability have no ambition. They enjoy their food and wander at will like drifting boats freed from their moorings.

At the end, Baoyu rejects the Confucian world that has opened up to him by his brilliant performance in the examination, and goes off, not to shave his head and join a sangha as a Buddhist monk, but to roam the countryside as a Daoist bum.

It makes sense that a writer as sophisticated as Cao Xueqin should ultimately come down on the side of Daoism as a resolution for his protagonist’s fate, because the teachings of Daoism come closer to an understanding of the perennial concerns of the really great novelists, namely the nature of fiction and its relationship to reality. Daoism has a more, creative approach to illusion, allegory, and symbolism; at the same time it also has a thorough awareness of the difficulties of communicating these things through language than either Chan Buddhism or Confucianism.  The name that can be named is not the constant name, says the first line of the Dao Der Jing.  Zhuangzi writes: The Dao is not named/Great division is not spoken….who can understand division that is not spoken, or Dao that is not named? In chapter 102 the characters consult the Yi Jing, and the hexagrams the oracle gives them foretell the fates of the characters consulting them, in an example of sophisticated structural foreshadowing that the Chinese prize as one of the great literary innovations Cao Xueqin made in the novel as a literary genre.

Lin Yu Tang, an early 20th century cultural commentator, wrote on the influence of Daoism in Chinese literature: All good Chinese literature, all Chinese literature that is worth while, that is readable and that pleases the human mind and soothes the human heart is essentially imbued with a Daoistic spirit.  

The Daoist underpinnings of the work result in an almost post-modernist awareness of itself as a work of fiction, an illusion. The very first named character in the novel is Zhen Shiying, which is a homophone for ‘true things disappear’; Jia, the family name of the main characters, is a homophone for ‘unreal’, ‘fake’, ‘false’. Jia Baoyu has a distant relative his own age, also called Baoyu, who is in effect his double, but his name is Zhen Baoyu, which means ‘real’ Baoyu. These two encounter one another in a dream, and when they awake, neither of them knows who the real Baoyu is. Zhuangzi, famously, dreamed he was a butterfly, but upon waking could not decide whether he had been Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. If reality is a dream, then a novel about reality is a dream within a dream, in which dreams about reality appear in a reality about dreams.

In chapter 1, as the reader is embarking on this sojourn into a fictional world,  a Daoist priest begins a journey into the Land of Illusion, passing through an archway on both pillars of which is inscribed the following couplet:

When false is taken for true, true becomes false
If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.

This of course is meant in a metaphysical sense, but what if we read it meta-fictionally, as Cao Xueqin seems to be asking us to do? As devoted readers, when we immerse ourselves into a fictional world, isn’t false taken for true? As we yearn to follow the fate of our favourite character, doesn’t being become non-being?  Near the very end, the narrator comments in another couplet:

A book not of this world records events not of this world.
A man with two lives reverts to his original form.

As we finish the novel - any totally absorbing novel - we revert to our original form, to ourselves.

The whole novel is set within a framing device which can, on the one hand, be seen as a Daoist metaphysics, and on the other, as a literary meta-fiction designed to forestall any possible political fall out for the author. The whole novel is revealed as having been engraved on a huge stone. This stone then reappears in the mouth of Baoyu at his birth (‘baoyu’ literally means ‘precious jade’). The whole engraving is copied down by a Daoist monk called Reverend Void and given to CXQ, who spends 10 years working it up…


The Hong Lou Meng, with its cast of hundreds of characters, its great length, and the timespan covered, is an epic novel. But to read it is to get an impression of intimacy rather than heroic size. Cao Xueqin’s emphasis on the inner life of the characters, on scenes of domesticity, on the economic and political sphere as it operates within one (huge) family make the novel a series of miniatures. The closest parallel to Western literature, stylistically and in terms of genre, I suppose, would be the novels of Jane Austen, or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or other novels which focus on women or family life and which use this as an allegory for a wider political view.

The novel is not an easy read: at first, the world of Qing dynasty China appears to have no relevance to the reader, and it does go on and on and on, demanding a large investment of time (and patience, it must be said). The first chapter is particularly taxing, which does Cao Xueqin no favours. But, inexorably, if you stick with it, you are drawn slowly in; the incidents are ones which reach across cultures and centuries to our own lives and remain imprinted in memory: a child’s temper tantrum, first love, a grandmother’s death in the bosom of her family, a birthday celebration, a sleepless night caused by anxiety over the future, the pangs of lust, the love of home.

Daniel Johnson wrote in his review of another long, modern novel, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy words which might just as fittingly be applied to Hong Lou Meng: You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life. 

1 comment:

dglen said...

Great to see you post again. This one's been on my list a long time, just moved it up.