The Story of the Stone, vol. 1

story stone 1As 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.

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10 Responses to The Story of the Stone, vol. 1

  1. Steph says:

    Holy moley! That is one long book. I admire your fortitude and patience in reading through this massive epic. I hope you find it immensely rewarding!

  2. adevotedreader says:

    I can only admire your commitment as well Jenny! You have made this sound intriguing though, and as I’m planning to travel to China next year I will have to try at least the first volume. Look forward to hearing about the rest.

  3. Yes, good luck. I’m sure this book will be very rewarding, and I am eager to read what you find.

  4. Danielle says:

    I have these books on my Amazon wishlist, and now I will have to get the first volume after reading your post. It’s one I’m intrigued by, but have been uncertain of, but it does sound like a rich read. I’m looking forward now to hearing about the rest of the books.

  5. Jenny says:

    Steph — I’ve been waiting to read this for a while now, mostly on my husband’s recommendation. I’m enjoying it so thoroughly that I know it will be worth it.

    Devotedreader — My daughter is Chinese, so I try to read regularly from and about Chinese culture. This seemed a great choice. If you’re travelling to China, I’d definitely recommend it (and either of Peter Hessler’s books.)

    Amateur Reader — Tune in next time for volume two!

    Danielle — I hope I conveyed how interesting a read it is. Not just rewarding or culturally important, but fun, humorous, and personality-driven. I think you’d love it.

  6. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m curious about this one, so I’m eager to hear more. I’d like to read it, but was worried about getting bored — but it sounds like I might not have to worry. There’s no reason I can’t try the first volume and see how that goes, of course.

  7. Melanie says:

    This sounds great! I’d like the idea of the story of all these women and the naturalistic details. I’ll put it on my list for the next big classic I want to tackle (after Middlemarch and War and Peace – could be a while).

  8. adevotedreader says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Jenny, as luck would have it I’m starting my China themed reading with Hessler’s River Town.

  9. Jenny says:

    Dorothy — this book is definitely not boring. I found it difficult at first to keep track of all the characters (huge cast with unfamiliar names) but the plot and dialogue more than make up for that.

    Melanie — You and I have the same list of classics! I’ve already read Middlemarch (and adored it) but War and Peace is next on my list.

    Devotedreader — I know you’ll love River Town. I just finished Oracle Bones, too, and thought that was different but equally good. I look forward to your thoughts!

  10. Pingback: East Asian Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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