Dream of the Red Chamber (A Dream of Red Mansions) Cao Xueqin

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dream of the Red Chamber (A Dream of Red Mansions) Cao Xueqin

Dream of the Red Chamber (A Dream of Red Mansions) Cao Xueqin (1791)

China's most famous novel, Dream of the Red Chamber reveals in a three -volume allegory the individual and clan faults that destroy two imperial families. By presenting the tragic life of a brash, immature prince, Jia Baoyu (Chia Pao-yu), Beijing- born novelist Cao Xueqin (Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in, ca. 1724-ca. 1763) and Gao E (Kao Ngo, who apparently finished the novel at the time of its publication) recreated the disorder of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Similar in narration to MURASAKI SHIKIBU'S Japanese court novel The Tale of Genji (1019) and PEARL S. BUCK'S House of Wang trilogy—The Good Earth (1931), Sons (1932), and A House Divided (1935)—Dream of the Red Chamber follows the fortunes of four noble Manchu households: the Jia (Chia), Xue (Hsueh), Shi, and Wang. The four families form a microcosm of China. Cao bases the story in PROPHECY and legend by depicting the birth of Jia Baoyu with pure translucent jade in his mouth, a symbol of oral truth. A dream in chapter 5 places him under the power of the goddess of disillusionment, whose appearance sets his destiny to be an eccentric reformer.

In the decline of feudalism, fiscal corruption and bankruptcy haunt landowners and their peasant tenants. The novel is set in Grand View Garden, a land grant plot bestowed by the emperor. The 400 characters include political enemies, hermits, scholars, servants, concubines, reprobates, madmen, seers, suicides, and libertines. The theme of progressivism versus traditional patriarchy requires vernacular language and an ironic tone to express the author's distaste for indolence, elitism, and waste. Wise old retainers mutter to themselves that aristocratic children grow up to be devious, impudent, and profligate. The promotion of an inept aristocrat to authority further destabilizes the wobbly social hierarchy. Although the novel ends with amnesty for the emperor's exiled successors and honor for Jia Baoyu's piety, the shambles that underlie the empire bode ill for the future of the Qing dynasty and for China.

Based on the principles of Laozi's WISDOM text, the DAODEJING (Tao-Te Ching [Classic of the way of power], 300 B.c.), the semiautobiographical novel appears to reflect vicissitudes in Cao's own clan. In a world segregated by gender, women living in the red chamber live according to the whims of male authority figures, who debauch females at will. Firstborn males such as Jia Baoyu claim the privilege of a classical Chinese education introduced by Confucius's ANALECTS (ca. 210 B.c.). The author explains that the pampering of males results in self-indulgence: “Girls are made of water while men are made of clay” (Cao, 1958, 22). Because of a romantic heartbreak, Jia Baoyu's decision to become a religious scholar subverts his training in patriarchy and encourages his sympathy with women's diminution to feudal pawns, trophy wives, and bedroom slaves. Upon his disappearance from society, his page offers a philosophic salute to the former master: “An Elevated Man could not be lost, since his name would be heralded throughout the Empire” (326). The novel's classic ideals influenced Korean freedom fighter and poet HAN YONG-UN.


Cao Xueqin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Translated by Chi-Chen Wang. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1958.

Levy, Dore Jesse. Ideal and Actual in The Story of the

Stone. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.