Cao Xueqin Analysis: Dream of the Red Chamber
by Chao Zhan

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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...

(The entire section is 6,785 words.)