Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although a poet and a painter as well as a novelist, Cao Xueqin (tsow shway-chihn) devoted himself almost exclusively, for the last two decades of his life, to writing his only novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. During this period, he continually revised it, even proposing to himself five different titles, in his search for perfection. He had not completed it to his satisfaction at the time of his death in his late forties.

Apart from the poems included in his novel, no others have been preserved. Fond of the theater, Cao once contemplated writing a play (his grandfather was the author of a successful play), but he apparently never carried out his intention. The song cycle he composed for chapter 5 of his novel may have been written during this period.

As an artist, Cao specialized in painting rocky landscapes. His paintings apparently were well received by his contemporaries, for their sale contributed substantially to his income during his years in Beijing.

Cao Xueqin Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Dream of the Red Chamber may be the greatest of Chinese novels; certainly, it is one of the great novels of world literature. A large, sprawlingnarrative crammed with numerous characters and scenes, it is polysemous and of profound social and psychological as well as philosophical and religious significance. It is, moreover, a work of superb artistry. Complex in its structure as well as in its style and meaning, the novel presents three different narratives skillfully woven into a unified whole by means of allegory, symbolism, riddles, prophecies, and other rhetorical devices.

Dream of the Red Chamber was popular with readers from its inception. Cao Xueqin began to write it in about 1744, and by the time of his death in 1763, several eighty-chapter handwritten manuscripts, annotated by one working under the pen name Zhiyan Zhai (Red-Inkstone Studio), were in circulation. This version bore the title Zhiyan Zhai chongping Shi touji (Zhiyan Zhai’s annotated story of the stone). Sometime prior to 1791, several 120-chapter handwritten manuscripts had surfaced with the title Hongloumeng (Dream of the Red Chamber). This version contained additional annotations by one who called himself Laoren Jihu (Old Man Odd Tablet). The handwritten manuscripts were rare, and purchasers had to forfeit many taels of silver for a copy.

Not until 1792 did the public have the opportunity to purchase a copy, printed from movable type, that could be obtained at a modest price. Such publication came about...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Cao Xueqin Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edwards, Louise P. Men and Women in Qing China: Gender in the Red Chamber Dream. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Uses Dream of the Red Chamber as a starting point for an analysis of gender roles in eighteenth century China, challenging the common assumption that the novel represents some form of early Chinese feminism by examining the text in conjunction with historical data.

Knoerle, Jeanne. The “Dream of the Red Chamber”: A Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972. General overview of the novel, focusing on its plot, characters, narrative style, and setting and providing some historical and cultural context. A useful introduction to the novel.

Miller, Lucien. Masks of Fiction in “Dream of the Red Chamber”: Myth, Mimesis, and Persona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975. Scholarly examination of the novel, focusing on its representations of character and themes, particularly the themes of religion and enlightenment. Miller explains the characters’ names, the songs, and the poetry in the novel to make them understandable to the English reader.

Plaks, Andrew H., ed. Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Contains three essays by Plaks and two other authors who employ Western literary...

(The entire section is 539 words.)