Dream of the Red Chamber Questions and Answers
by Chao Zhan

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What function or purpose does the poetry in the novel Hongloumeng (Dream of the Red Chamber) serve in the story's overarching narrative? Is it simply a plot device?

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Poetry in Dream of the Red Chamber serves as a major plot device, but it also serves as an extension of each character. The three most important characters, Jia Baoyu, Xue Baochai, and Lin Daiyu, are the three most talented poets. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the often ill and emotional Lin Daiyu is the most accomplished. This sets the novel up for the interesting dynamics between the three characters' importance to one another.

Jia Baoyu (the "Precious Jade") and Lin Daiyu (the reincarnated "Crimson Pearl Flower") both come from the fairy world. The only two otherworldly beings in the novel out of a cast of nearly four hundred characters, they are able to recognize this in each other through poetry. Jia Baoyu is always incredibly taken with Lin Dauyu's poems, which are often unbearably sad and which reflect her extreme moodiness and hint at her mystical origins and tragic fate.

The poems of Xue Baochai, in contrast, show her grace and composure. Xue Baochai is textbook perfect. While her poems are not as good as Lin Daiyu's and Jia Baoyu is not drawn to her in the way he is to Lin Daiyu, it is Xue Baochai who becomes his wife.

While books that include poems usually include them to describe scenery or perhaps express sentiments for another character, Dream of the Red Chamber does this a little differently. It is extremely poem-heavy, but each poem is important to the story as an expression of each character's inner workings. For example, the characters meet often for structured poetry contests and write on the same subject. The poems they write on chrysanthemums, snow, or the moon reveal the characters' thought processes and personalities.

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rahslawyer | Student

The poetry in the novel Hongloumeng (Dream of the Red Chamber) is not simply a plot device. Rather, the poetry serves a variety of functions, including, but not limited to, prophecy, evidence of intense emotional feeling, and entertainment.

If the poetry in Dream of the Red Chamber was just a plot device, we would see the poetry repeated at predictable intervals. Instead, the poetry is scattered throughout the chapters and is presented in higher concentrations in some chapters while not at all in other chapters, depending on the subject matter and applicability of verse to the theme of the chapter.

The opening chapter of the story features a good bit of poetry, among which is the following two lines:

“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;

Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”

The purpose of these lines is to inform the reader that the story to follow is true in some respects and make-believe in others. Verse was highly prized in Chinese culture at the time Cao Xueqin penned this novel, and while realistically depicting the life of Chinese nobility in the 1600s via prose, he was also demonstrating his people’s love of poetry by imposing much verse into the first chapter and introduction to this story.

Prophecy is also a common theme in the poetry found in the early chapters of the book. For example, Chapter 1 includes the following four lines:

You indulge your tender daughter and are laughed at as inane;

Vain you face the snow, oh mirror! For it will evanescent wane.

When the festival of lanterns is gone by, guard ‘gainst your doom,

“Tis what time the flames will kindle, and the fire will consume.

Consequently, we learn that Shih-yin, one of the first characters to whom we are introduced in the novel, loses his daughter, who is kidnapped, and his material possessions are burned by fire on the night of the festival.

Emotional states of love, joy, or sadness are often followed by poetry in the story. For example, in Chapter 1, Yu’ts’un spouts impassioned lines after falling in love with the Chen family servant. As romantic love is a major theme in the story, it makes sense that poetry and verse proliferates Chapter 5, wherein Pao-yu falls asleep and dreams that he has entered the Void and a Fairy educates him in the mysteries of love. In Chapter 23, Lin Taiyu, who is one of Pao-yu’s two love interests throughout the book, grows more and more dejected after spatting with Pao-yu. In the background, serving girls rehearse sad ballads for a play, adding more pathos to her wretchedness. The author describes the lines as “a burden” to her fragile emotional state at the time.

A glorious day this is, and pretty scene, but sad I am at heart!

Contentment and pleasure are to be found in whose family courts?

Lastly, another function of poetry in the story is to show the cleverness and intelligence of the main characters. Pao-yu is praised throughout the story for his verses, but always plays down his aptitude for it. In Chapter 17 and 18, Pao-yu’s older sister, Yuan Ch’un, who has become a royal consort, visits her family and makes improvements to Pao-yu’s verses describing the beauty of the garden. Lin Taiyu and Paochai then draft additional verses lauding the beauties of the garden. These verses are created to entertain the royal consort and to show off the girls’ writing skills. In Chapter 21, Pao-yu composes riddles Yuan Chu’un delivers a “conundrum” for the household to solve and asks them each to send a riddle back in return.