An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Hongloumeng 紅樓夢

Dec 23, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Hongloumeng 紅樓夢, the "Dream of the Red Chamber", also called Shitouji 石頭記 "Story of the Stone, is regarded as China's greatest literary novel. Depending on the reader's aims, the work can be interpreted in different ways - as a romance novel, a sentimental story, a bildungsroman, a social novel, an anti-Manchu propaganda, an attack on the degenerate feudal system or a Buddhist-Daoist enchantment. The comparison with the Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann) is popular due to novel's description of the decline of a once great family, the Jia 賈 clan. The novel belongs to the "four great novels" in traditional Chinese literature, the others being Sanguo yanyi 三國演義, Xiyouji 西遊記, and Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳.

The author is Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715-1763), but large parts of the novel, especially the part after chapter 80, were written by Gao E 高鶚 (c. 1738-c. 1815). The oldest version is a manuscript from 1754, while the standard version is the print from 1792 with 120 chapters length.

Figure 1. Page from Zhiyanzhai chongping Shitouji 脂硯齋重評石頭記
Manuscript fragment Zhiyanzhai chongping Shitouji 脂硯齋重評石頭記, with prefaces dated 1863 and 1868, created in 1754 (jiaxu 甲戌, therefore called Jiaxu edition, 甲戌本), acquired and published in 1927 by Hu Shi 胡適.

The story is embedded in a mythological framework in which a stone is produced by the demiurge goddess Nü Wa 女媧 and placed in the mouth of Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 at his birth, while a magic herb in the form of a stone is given to a girl, Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. When she is orphaned, she joins the Jia household. Contact with the pre-natal world is maintained through the stones and cultivated through dreams, or in the context of a newly built garden (Dongguanyuan 東觀園), in which the three most important protagonists, Baoyu, Daiyu, and the former's cousin Xue Baochai 薛寶釵 (the latter mysteriously linked to Baoyu by a medallion), indulge in poetry, games and conversations. The spoilt youngsters grow up in this way and are slowly introduced from childhood to the bitter duties of adulthood.

Baoyu herself is torn between Daiyu and Baochai. The two girls are not only antagonists in love, but also in character: Daiyu is dreamy, skinny, sensitive, almost "ethereal", but also choleric, whereas Baochai is realistic, mature, attentive and balanced. Baoyu is eventually forced to marry Baochai by a lie, although Daiyu is much closer to him. When Daiyu dies, Baoyu renounces the world and becomes a monk. The elegiac mood that had enveloped the two lovers from the beginning (like in the scene of Daiyu's burial of petals, zang hua 葬花) finds its fulfillment in their renunciation.

Figure 2. Page from Qi Liaosheng's 戚蓼生 edition of the Shitouji 石頭記
Edition with chapter-by-chapter introductions (cf. notes in small type outside the frame) by Qi Liaosheng 戚蓼生 (jinshi degree 1769), before 1791, called Qi Liaosheng xu ben Shitouji 戚蓼生序本石頭記; the text of the novel (here: second chapter) begins on the third page with the words 却說封肅.

With its many dozens of characters, the novel is extremely tightly woven in terms of plot and, in addition to the main line with the three young people, shows intrigues at various levels between the many members of the huge household (such as ancestral mother Jia 賈母, Ms Phoenix 王熙鳳 or the countless maids and servants) and the abuse of political and personal power (especially sexual) by the Jias, who are accordingly punished. The detailed descriptions of life provide a realistic insight into the world of the rich in 18th-century Beijing. The house of the Jia with all its splendour ("red dust") comes to an end at the hands of imperial power.

Figure 3a-b. Depiction of Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 (left) and Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 (right)

The reader is not only confused by the many threads and subplots, but also by the many levels of the narrative (real world, dreams, illusory world, supernatural world) or linguistic allusions (such as the surnames Zhen 甄/真 "true" and Jia 賈/假 "false" or the homophony of "jade" and "desire" [for money, power or eroticism] yu 玉/欲).

Figure 4. Comic-style edition of the Hongloumeng
Hongloumeng huihua ben 紅樓夢繪畫本 (Shanghai: Shanghei renmei chubanshe, 1991). On the right and, Baoyu conversing with the singer-maiden (ling 伶) Fangguan 芳官 about sacrifices, and on the left, Baochai being combed by her maiden and speaking to some of the twelve singer-maidens.

The study of these difficulties of the novel gave rise to a separate field of literary studies, "Red Chamber Studies" (hongxue 紅學, Red-ology). In a Communist reading, Baoyu and Daiyu are interpreted as fighters for the liberation of the individual and the house of Jia as a place of the degenerate feudalist world.

The best translations are Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (1978), A Dream of Red Mansions (Beijing: Foreign Language Press); David Hawkes and John Minford (1986), The Story of the Stone (London, New York: Penguin Books).

Li, Wai-Yee. 2001. "Full-Length Vernacular Fiction", in Victor H. Mair, ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, 647-655. New York: Columbia University Press.
Minford, John; Robert E. Hegel. 1986. "Hung-lou meng", in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 452-456. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.