Cao Xueqin Critical Essays

Chao Zhan

Analysis: Dream of the Red Chamber

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In its structure, Dream of the Red Chamber resembles Chinese boxes, an assemblage of narratives within narratives. The largest frame, that which contains the whole, consists of aDaoist-Buddhist creation myth about a heavenly stone that takes up residence on Earth in human form. Indeed, Xueqin titled the first, eighty-chapter version of the novel The Story of the Stone, which shows the importance the author attached to this mythology. The incarnate stone appears in the person of the youthful hero of the novel, Jia Baoyu (also styled as Chia Pao-yü), his personal name literally meaning “precious jade”—he is born with a piece of jade in his mouth.

The next-largest frame contains the story of the decline in the fortunes of the wealthy, aristocratic clan of the Jia. This story is not unrelated to the decline and increasing incompetence of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1914), the last rampart of ancient Chinese civilization.

The smallest frame displays the story of the apprenticeship of the hero of the novel, the handsome and personable youth Jia Baoyu, in his progress from childhood to maturity as he seeks to learn the meaning of his existence as a human being in the hongzhen (red dust), or life of this earth. This apprenticeship particularly involves his struggle to achieve understanding and personal liberation from the suffering caused by the claims of his romantic attachment to his cousin, the lovely but neurotic and tubercular Black Jade (Lin Daiyu), to whom he is affianced, and the claims of familial responsibility. Following Black Jade’s tragic death and his marriage to Precious Clasp (Xue Bao Chai), he becomes very ill and is reduced to idiocy. When he recovers, he resumes his Confucian studies, takes the examination at the provincial capital, and is successful in gaining a juren degree. Afterward, however, he experiences an awakening and comprehends his true relationship to the universe, is released from suffering, and gains the freedom and inner peace that he has been seeking. Forthwith he rejects the world and becomes a monk. As the novel concludes, Baoyu is ostensibly being returned to the heaven that nurtured him by his old friends, a crazy Daoist and a crazy Buddhist monk. Thus, the central mythic plot of the novel comes full circle.

Critical reception

Despite the popularity of Dream of the Red Chamber, especially after its publication in printed form, the vernacular novel, no matter how masterful, was not considered by most of the Confucian literati to be an important contribution to literature, primarily because of its informal literary style, being a mixture of colloquial and classical Chinese. Nevertheless, Cao Xueqin’s novel had its admirers among the scholarly class as well as among men and women, whether young or old, who belonged to the classes of nonscholars but enjoyed reading fiction. Although Dream of the Red Chamber frequently formed a topic of conversation in the homes of literate Chinese families and an enthusiastic scholar here and there ventured to undertake a commentary on it, it was not taken seriously as a work of art until the modern reform movement in education, language, and literature took place between 1905 and 1937. In 1905, the Empress Dowager Cixi abolished the old examination system that had controlled Chinese education for centuries. In 1917, Hu Shih and Chen Duxiu launched their literary reform movement. They argued that classical Chinese had outlived its usefulness and that future literary works should be written in the living language of the people—that is, in baihua, or “easily understood talk.”

Numerous translations of Western authors appeared between 1917 and 1928. Chinese writers were astonished to learn of the high position accorded the novel in the West, and they began to write fiction in colloquial style and in adherence to Western literary criteria. They were particularly impressed by Russian anarchism and psychological realism and promoted the writing of revolutionary literature. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 interrupted this activity.

The literary reform movement not only introduced to China Western literary models but also encouraged Chinese writers and scholars to take a more serious interest in their own vernacular literary tradition—short stories, plays, and novels—particularly Dream of the Red Chamber. Soon, serious studies of Cao’s novel began to appear. Chinese writers other than scholars, however, had fallen under the spell of this masterpiece in their youth, and it affected their mature writing.

When the Communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they first followed a conciliatory policy; hence, established writers who were not ardent supporters of Communism at least acquiesced in the new regime, and few fled abroad. By 1953, however, the Communists had established totalitarian control at all levels of society; they began ruling with an iron hand, and a rigid Thought-Reform Movement was initiated to wipe out all vestiges of “bourgeois ideology.” Knowing that Dream of the Red Chamber was widely read by all sections of the literate public, the Communist policymakers decided that this classic novel could be used as an “ideological guinea pig” to teach the literate population an object lesson in Marxist criticism. In Professor Yu Pingbo, a popular and recognized authority on the novel, they recognized a ready-made scapegoat. Hence, a campaign was promptly launched against the unsuspecting scholar—anticipating the purges of intellectuals in 1955, when some eighty thousand people were accused of agitating against the Communist Party, and the even more brutal excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s.

Regardless of the Communist attack on Yu Pingbo, however, other scholars and critics continued their study, investigation, analysis, and interpretation of Cao’s masterpiece during those turbulent times, and outstanding work was performed by Zhou Ruchang, Wu Shichang, Zhang Gang, and Wu Enyu. Indeed, the year 1979 saw the founding of a critical journal devoted exclusively to Dream of the Red Chamber. In the United States, Chinese scholars such as C. T. Hsia, John Wang, and Wong Kamming made valuable contributions, as did the American scholar Andrew H. Plaks, while in England the work of David Hawkes has proved of signal importance. The vitality of Cao’s masterpiece is perhaps best indicated, however, by the coining of a term to denote the vast scholarly literature on the subject: hongxue, or “redology.”


Dream of the Red Chamber, therefore, is much more than the sad love story that so many readers have taken it to be. Yet even from that severely limited point of view, the novel is remarkable enough. Its philosophy of love draws a marked distinction between yin (lust) and qing (love), as well as between chi qing (romantic or, literally, “crazy” love) and huiqing (married love, the affection between husband and wife and their sense of commitment and responsibility to each other). Indeed, from the Confucian point of view, the love affair between Baoyu and Black Jade demonstrates the disastrous consequences that can stem from “romantic attachment,” the “crazy love” that not only can endanger the health of the participants but also can disrupt, if not destroy, marital relationships and the traditional family system. From the Daoist-Buddhist point of view, romantic attachment can harm and even prevent progress toward personal enlightenment and redemption. The Daoist-Buddhist message is clear: A human being living on this earth is a “sensitive plant.” Motivated by desire, he or she suffers. Not until a person unshackles him- or herself from attachments can he or she become a stone. Then he can view things sub specie aeternitatis and rise above love and sympathy and good and evil. Freed from suffering, he is a Buddha. The Daoism that Cao has in mind here is the philosophical Daoism of Laozi and Zhuangzi; the Buddhism is that of the Chan school.

Praised by Wang Kuowei as the first Chinese novel to exhibit the spirit of tragedy, Dream of the Red Chamber is, from a philosophical point of view, a Daoist-Buddhist comedy. Nevertheless, this philosophy does little to diminish the cumulative effect of the many sad and tragic incidents that play upon the emotions of the reader and induce the sense that suffering and death are the normal lot of human existence.

Regardless of the importance attached to this philosophical and religious theme, however, Dream of the Red Chamber has other, equally important literary qualities. One of them is its remarkable psychological penetration and realism. Indeed, in his use of dream, Cao anticipated some of the findings of modern psychology. He knew that even if a dream were an illusion, it was not unconnected with reality. For example, in chapter 5, he introduces Baoyu into a dream sequence that has become justly celebrated. Having but recently arrived at puberty, the boy’s mind is filled with thoughts of sex.

In his dream, he sees the image of Qin Keqing, the young wife of Jia Yong. Also called Combined Beauty (Jianmi), she is a composite of the beauty and charm of Black Jade and Precious Clasp. Hence she is, in modern Jungian terms, an archetypal image, Baoyu’s anima or ideal woman, an innate image of his psyche in which are united his personal and his collective unconscious. The scene of the dream is called Great Void Illusion Land, which is presided over by the Goddess of Disillusionment. Baoyu and Keqing enter into a blissful sexual union. Soon, however, demons appear and pursue Baoyu to the edge of an impassable river called the Ford of Error. This dream, however, is soon followed by a realistic scene; despite the warning implied in the dream, that evening Baoyu seduces Pervading Fragrance (Xiren), showing that the memory of his ecstasy with Keqing has quite replaced his fear of demons and beasts (or those passions that drive humans into disillusionment). Other examples in the novel of dreams in which illusion and reality are juxtaposed in the same ironic fashion could be cited.

Outstanding as it is in its depiction of the psychology of adolescents discovering the power of sex and awakening to the pleasure and pain of first love, the novel is even more remarkable in the unusual understanding the author displays of feminine psychology, whether of adolescents or of adults. All the major female characters—Black Jade, Pervading Fragrance, Precious Clasp, Bright Cloud (Qingwen), Quest Spring (Tanchun), Madame Wang, Phoenix (Xifeng), and the elderly Matriarch (Jia Mu)—are presented as individuals, each a real person in her own right. The portrait drawn of the unscrupulous and ruthless Phoenix, Jia Lian’s wife, who runs the household affairs at the Rongguofu, is especially vivid and powerful. That of the Matriarch, Baoyu’s wonderful grandmother, is one of the most memorable characterizations of an elderly person to be found in world literature. Dream of the Red Chamber is an outstanding novel of character.

The dimension of the novel that presents the story of the rise and fall of the fortunes of a great Chinese family provides the reader with a remarkable social document. In this sense, the novel is a veritable handbook of the traditional family system. Cao describes realistically the persons, the personalities, and the relationships of some thirty major characters. At the same time, he presents four hundred or more minor characters. In respect of the major characters especially, he describes their behavior, religion, and political positions as well as their loves, animosities, quarrels, and intrigues. Thus, the reader learns much about the structure and organization of the Chinese family and its ideals of loyalty and honor: the rules of etiquette, the respect accorded older persons, the role of parental authority, the observance of filial obedience, and the position of women in Chinese society.

The reader also learns about marital arrangements and sexual attitudes and practices, education, the political process and officialdom, and other social and culturalconventions of the time. These practices are frequently criticized, although such criticism is often made only obliquely and from a point of view not necessarily shared by the author. Thus, Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel of social criticism; indeed, modern Chinese Communist critics have eagerly seized upon this aspect of the novel, interpreting it exclusively as an antifeudal political tract. Such a distorted reading ignores the Daoist-Buddhist theme of the novel, the notion that the existing order must be transcended rather than reformed or uprooted.

To read the novel in the spirit the author intended, one might well begin with the title. Since the words of the title of a story are the first to be encountered by the reader as well as probably the last words he or she remembers, writers of fiction normally take their titles very seriously and seek to impregnate them with meaning. They wish them to serve as a key to unlock the door to the unknown fictional world the reader is about to enter as well as a seal to authenticate what he or she has experienced. Cao was sufficiently concerned about his choice for the title of his novel that he chose five or six alternate titles before he finally decided that he preferred Hongloumeng. This title has been rendered in English by translators as A Dream of Red Mansions and Dream of the Red Chamber (or some slight variant of the latter).

In his translation (still to be completed with a fifth volume), David Hawkes, however, chose to return to the original title Shitou ji, which he has rendered as The Story of the Stone (which more literally might be translated as “the story of the little stone”), perhaps because that was the title given to the eighty-chapter handwritten manuscript that was put into circulation during Cao’s lifetime. The author himself, however, privately played with a series of titles, from Shitou ji to Jingseng lu (the passionate monk’s tale) to Fengyu baojian (a mirror for the poetically inclined, which Hawkes renders as “a mirror for the romantic”) to Hongloumeng to Jinling shier chai (twelve young ladies of Chin-ling, or, literally, twelve hairpins of the Golden Tombs—a name for Nanjing). It is to be noted that whatever title the novel bears, it tends to focus the reader’s mind upon some single aspect of a very complicated story, raising its power and making it dominate his or her consciousness. In the case of the variant titles here, this situation is also a reflection of the author’s changing consciousness. It shows in each choice what he was thinking about at a particular time and what he wanted the reader to think his narrative was predominantly about.

Mythology and characterization

In Cao’s choices of Shitou ji and Jingseng lu for the novel’s title, he placed emphasis on the myth that frames the story. At the beginning, the hero of the novel, Jia Baoyu, is placed in a creation myth. Some universal cataclysm has occurred, leaving the ceiling of Heaven damaged and in need of repair. Consequently, the Goddess of Creation, Nugua (sometimes rendered Nüwa), selects rocks of the Five Colors (wuse), fuses them into big blocks, and then patches the azure Dome of Heaven. In the course of her selection, however, she rejects one rock as unworthy of inclusion. Left alone, it feels ashamed and dejected. Wandering about Heaven, it bemoans its fate. A magic rock, it transforms itself into a little stone that is a lustrous and translucent piece of jade. It wanders into the realm of the Goddess of Disillusionment (Jinghuan Xiangu), feeling that it would prefer to live on Earth rather than in Heaven. It wants to experience the mundane world of the red dust (hongzhen).

At the court of the goddess, the jade is attracted to a beautiful plant, the Crimson Pearl Flower, which it treats very kindly by sprinkling it every day with dew. In response to this loving care, the plant blossoms into a lovely female fairy. She vows to return the jade’s love with tears if she may join him in life on Earth. With the help of a mangy Buddhist monk and a lame Daoist priest, the jade is born into the wealthy and powerful Jia family. The baby is named Baoyu, or Precious Jade,...

(The entire section is 6785 words.)