As part of my reading plan for this summer, I decided to try to take advantage of summer’s slower pace and absence of students to read a few of the really long classics I’ve had on my TBR list for years. The first of these, one I’ve been eager to read, is an 18th-century Chinese classical novel written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing dynasty. It’s known under several different names, including Dream of the Red Chamber, Dreams of Golden Days, and Dreams of Red Mansions, but this translation by David Hawkes has been published under the title The Story of the Stone. It’s a multi-volume epic, totalling nearly 3000 pages, and I plan to review each volume as I read it rather than trying to summarize the entire work when I finish.
Remember as I write about this astonishing book that in China during the 18th century, the psychological novel had not even been dreamed of. China’s communication with the West at that time was nearly nonexistent, and the evolution of French and English novels bears no relation to Chinese novels. At the beginning of The Story of the Stone, the author tells a fantastic story: a magical, sentient stone, left over from when a goddess mended the heavens ages ago, begs a Taoist monk to bring it into the world to enjoy itself. We are then introduced to the wealthy and influential Jia family (jia, in Chinese, is a homophone for another character that means false, or sham, implying that this, too, is a dream family — a semi-autobiographical reflection of Cao Xueqin’s own family). The heir to the household, the handsome but impertinent Bao-yu, was born with a very special stone in his mouth: a magical jade with an inscription on it. This stone looks very familiar…
Bao-yu is surrounded by women, who form the majority of the huge cast of characters. His Grandmother Jia is autocratic but kind; his aunts Xi-feng, Xue, and Wang run their own households with attention and grace (and an enormous amount of naturalistic detail, from the proper food served on holidays to the amount it costs to supply landscaping materials and pay servants.) Most importantly, there are a whole fleet of female cousins. Of these, the author primarily lingers on Bao-chai, who is lovely but reserved, and seems to be destined to marry Bao-yu; and Dai-yu, who is witty and moody and in ill health. The relationship between the three of them forms one of the most important narrative lines of this first volume.
It is impossible for me to describe the richness with which these interlocking households come to life. In one lengthy set piece, one of the daughters of the house, who has become an Imperial Concubine, comes home for a visit. The preparations for her stay — building an exquisite garden, preparing entertainment and food — might sound dull if I told you the sorts of detail Cao Xueqin uses. But in fact it is fascinating, sprightly, witty, moving, and true to life. The themes of dream, illusion, fantasy, reflection, mirrors, mirage, and imagination weave in and out through the story, from the opening scenes about the sentient Stone itself to Bao-yu’s dream of the fairy of Disenchantment to the family’s garden, with its winding paths and illusory villages. Yet the symbolism is done with a light touch, and it is the characters you remember, in all their stubbornness, rashness, reserve, or generosity of spirit. There’s no such thing as a two-dimensional character here; even the servants have their own stories, opinions, and emotions. The relationships flash back and forth, revealing more and more about the characters’ inner lives, griefs, histories, and destinies.
I can’t say enough about David Hawkes’s translation. Cao Xueqin wrote The Story of the Stone in the vernacular, rather than in classical Chinese, and Hawkes has reflected this tone throughout, using idiomatic and readable English. Even the poetry rhymes! I can hardly imagine attempting such a task (nearly 3000 pages, remember) but Hawkes does it with easy grace.
This first volume, nearly 600 pages, only serves as an appetizer. I can’t wait to read more about this family and their fortunes, and how the Stone serves to record it all.