Analysis: Dream of the Red Chamber

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6785

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, because he is born with a piece of pinkish, creamy-soft jade in his mouth that on the obverse side contains antique-style characters (zhuan shu) identifying it as Tongling Baoyu (Magical Precious Jade). Underneath this heading are two lines of verse of four characters each. On the reverse side are three lines of verse, also of four characters each. Later, Baoyu wears this piece of jade suspended from his neck by a silken cord of five colors. At about the same time that he is born, the Crimson Pearl Flower is born into the Lin family as Daiyu (also styled as Tai-yü), or Black Jade. Her mother is Baoyu’s older sister, who is the wife of a government official named Lin Ruhai; hence Black Jade, the heroine of the novel, is Baoyu’s cousin. Thus, both the hero and the heroine of the novel are incarnations of celestial things and, though human, are semidivine.

Eventually, Black Jade’s mother dies, and her father, who in his official position lives away from home, sends her to live with the Jia. She and Baoyu become constant childhood companions, and by the time they are eleven or twelve years of age, each is passionately devoted to the other. In the meantime, however, another beautiful female cousin of Baoyu has come to live with the Jia, whom Black Jade soon regards as her rival for Baoyu’s affections. Despite his continual reassurances to Black Jade that she is the girl he truly loves, she remains insecure, jealous, disturbed, and resentful. She is also tubercular and delicate in constitution, and her health begins to decline.

On the appearance of the new cousin, named Xue Baochai, or Precious Clasp, Baoyu is surprised to discover that she wears a gold pendant suspended from her neck on which is inscribed, on the front, a single line of verse in four “seal characters” and, on the back, another in the same style, the two lines complementing the verses on his pendant. This conjunction of gold, a metal, and jade, a stone, is significant in terms of the scheme of the Five Elements (wuxing), which Cao obviously employed to heighten his meaning. In the permutation of these elements—earth, wood, fire, metal, and water—earth (in the form of the stone) generates metal, and metal destroys wood. In the novel, Black Jade is associated with wood in several ways.

Originally a celestial plant—a “crimson pearl flower”—her human surname, Lin, literally means “forest,” and part of her personal name, dai, does not simply mean “black,” as it is usually translated, but rather “to blacken the eyebrows” or “eyebrow blackening.” It means more than that, however, for Cao has “layered” the word, seeing that it is a homonym for “sash” or “belt” and also for “roots of grass.” Furthermore, the Chinese character for the dai that means “roots of grass” is interchangeable with the character whose sound is ti and means the “peduncle or footstalk of a flower.” In addition, this character can be used for a similar character that means “to weep and wail.” Daiyu’s birthday is in the springtime; in her yard grow luxuriant bamboos; in various scenes she is associated with flowers or burnt ashes; and it is the humor of wood (muqi) that is said to be responsible for her illness.

On the other hand, Hsüeh Pao-ch’ai is associated not only with the gold pendant of mysterious origin but also with a gold clasp or hairpin. Part of her personal name, ch’ai, means “clasp” or “hairpin,” and because the other part of her name is pao, meaning “precious,” her clasp or hairpin must be of gold. Her surname, Xue, is also of significance in the novel’s scheme of things, for it is homonymous with a number of words indicative of things with which she is frequently associated. The sound of her surname is the same as that for “snow,” for “cave,” and for “blood” and “blood relationship.” She is frequently associated with either autumn or the coming of winter, hence with cold, snow, whiteness, and even the plum. A pile of snow becomes a rebus for her surname, as the woods are for the surname of Lin Tai-yü. These things are brought out clearly, in chapter 5, in words that are part of Baoyu’s dream vision: “The jade belt is left hanging in the woods; the gold hairpin is buried in the snow” (Yü tai chung kua, chin tsan hsüeh li nieh). Pao-ch’ai’s temperament is said to be cool and collected. Her rooms are described as cold and simple, “like a snowy cave.” She is likened to the “pure whiteness and clear fragrance” of the plum. Her medicine contains “cold incense.” The snowy whiteness of her skin is emphasized. At the same time, she is likened to the famous beauty Yang Kuei-fei, as a woman who, although cold without—in her physique—is warm within—in her heart.

Since, according to the permutations of the elements, earth generates metal whereas wood destroys earth, Baoyu, the incarnation of stone and hence earthy, faces a dilemma respecting his relationship with his two cousins. It is hardly a wonder, therefore, that Black Jade is upset over his attentiveness to Pao-ch’ai, whose name, most accurately, is Gold Hairpin, and who is the possessor of a gold locket whose inscriptions suggest some predestined union with Baoyu. Hence, Tai-yü declares bitterly in chapter 28, “How can I compare with Pao-ch’ai’s gold and jade? I am nothing but a person of grass and wood” (Pi pu tê Pao-ch’ai ku shih-ma chin no yü ti, wo-mên pu kuo shih ko ts’ao mu jên-êrh pa-liao). The union of gold and jade is also seen in the Chinese compound chin-yü (literally, “gold-jade”), the conjunction of these two things signifying the abstract quality “precious.” Moreover, the personal names of Pao-ch’ai and Baoyu contain the word pao, which also signifies the quality precious.

The novel’s first commentator, Chih-yen Chai (Red-Inkstone Studio), whom it is known was as close to the author as another person could be, made much of these aspects of meaning. Indeed, several times in his commentary he declares that through them the author offers the reader the “key to the novel.” In recent years, Andrew H. Plaks has taken Chih-en Chai’s words seriously enough to have produced a book and a shorter study that have thrown much light on Cao’s allegory.

The titles Hung-lou meng and Chin-ling shih-êrh ch’ai are also powerfully suggestive. Both of these titles display the nostalgia the author felt about his youthful past, and this feeling had to do not simply with the vanished splendor he had known but more particularly with his memories of the numerous young girls with whom he had associated and whom he remembered with such affection and admiration. Hung-lou, commonly translated as “red chamber” or “red mansions,” refers in China to that part of a mansion that is set apart for the residence of young ladies. In China, too, the color red has certain other connotations that are not found in the West. It is emblematic of splendor, good fortune, prosperity, and earthly happiness. A hung-jên (red man) is a man who has reached the height of his career; a hung-jih (red day) is a lucky day; and a hung-chung-nü (red-dressed girl) is an unmarried girl, because only unmarried girls wore red trousers. The color red was associated with springtime, youthfulness, and the new year, but it was particularly linked to women and marriage: The terms hung-hsiu (red sleeves) and hung-fên (pink powder) both mean “women.” The term hung-sz (red silk thread) means “marriage.” A bride wore a hung-shai (red dress) and rode in a hung-chiao (red sedan-chair).

To the Buddhists, the term hung-chên (red dust) referred to the earthly life of unfulfilled desires and suffering. The meng of Cao’s title refers to “dream.” Here, however, this word is filled with ambiguity, and the author may have been pleased with this result. Were the splendor and the often happy days of his childhood like a dream to him when he recalled them as an adult, or did he hold to the Buddhist philosophy that the earthly life was nothing but an illusion that had no reality? Whatever the case, Hawkes’s view, that Cao’s “dream” or “vision” was perhaps more literary than psychological or philosophical, is probably correct. As Hawkes sees it, Cao used this idea in his own way as “a poetical means of demonstrating that his characters are both creatures of his imagination and at the same time the real companions of his golden youth.” Note Hawkes’s expression “golden youth” rather than “rosy youth.” He confesses that what readers of his fine translation will miss is the “pervading redness” of the Chinese text, which in the hands of an English translator tends to turn into “greenness” or “goldenness.”

One thing is clear. In writing his novel, Cao was dreaming primarily of one thing—the young women he had known in his youth. This motive is reaffirmed by the title he attempted to substitute following his choice of Dream of the Red Chamber—namely, “The Twelve Young Ladies of Chinling.” Altogether, he presents some sixty female characters during the course of his novel; the twelve of the title are the most outstanding beauties of Nanjing and are the principal young female characters of his narrative. In the dream sequence in chapter 5, while Baoyu is exploring the Land of Illusion presided over by the Goddess of Disillusionment, he finds the names of the twelve beauties of Chin-ling entered into the Main Register. This album also includes paintings and riddles concerning the lives of these young women, whose destinies are told in a cryptic fashion. Their names in sequence, from the first to the twelfth, are as follows: Lin Tai-yü, Hsüeh Pao-ch’ai, Jia Yüan-ch’un, Jia T’an-ch’un, Shih Hsiang-yün, Miao-yü, Ying-ch’un, Hsich’un, Wang Hsi-fêng, Ch’iao-chieh, Li Wan, and Chin-shih. Later in the same chapter, the life of each is reviewed in a suite of songs called “Hunglou meng,” composed by the Goddess of Disillusionment. She has a singer sing it to Baoyu. Each song is an elegy that laments the fate of its subject and thereby prophesies her future.

Chapters 1 through 5, then, form a prologue serving as a mythological framework for the human narrative, which begins in earnest in chapter 6 and continues to the final debacle of the Jia clan implied throughout chapters 70 to 80. This section might be called the middle story. It involves the rise and decline of the Jia clan, but, more particularly, it is the story of the hero, Baoyu, in terms of his various relationships with the maidens of the Grand View Garden (Ta-kuan Yüan), an enclosed and fantastic landscape located on a circumscribed plot of land between the two compounds—the Ning-kuo-fu and the Jung-kuo-fu—occupied by the two branches of the Jia clan. This enclosure tends to frame the middle story.

In other words, in this section the characters of the novel are arranged spatially in a fantasia that presents a medley of colorful images exemplary of an idealized world destined to disillusionment. It contains an artificial mountain, a tunneled passageway, a lake spanned by a bridge, and a richly landscaped central area where the three main characters reside—Tai-yü’s bamboo-groved, elegant Hsiao-hsiang Kuan, Pao-ch’ai’s sparse and simple Hêng-wu Yüan, and Baoyu’s lavish, colorful I-hun Yüan, done in brilliant five-color style and containing a hall of mirrors. Beyond a central eminence, or hill, is located the “main hall” (Ta-kuan Lou) and its adjacent structures. At a distance is a model “rustic village” (Tao-hsiang Ts’un). There are also whitewashed plaster walls, moon gates in the interior walls, pavilions, kiosks, lodges, winding pathways, zigzagging bridges, various rare artifacts, and so on. Undoubtedly, it was to maintain this sense of opulence, splendor, and plenitude, as well as the beauty and charm of the young women he had known, that Cao finally rejected the title of his last choice in favor of Hung-lou meng, or Dream of the Red Chamber. By this choice, he evidently intended to emphasize that his novel amounted to his vision of the lodgings or residences of the young ladies he had once known, but he might have had in mind the compartmentalized space of the Grand View Garden and its medley of fantastic images.

Lyric vision

As for Cao’s tentative title Fêng-yüeh pao-chien, which Hawkes has rendered “a mirror for the romantic,” Cao never repeated it in another form, as he did with Shih-to’u chi and Hung-lou meng. Nevertheless, it brought to the fore an important facet of the novel—namely, its lyric quality and the lyric dimensions of life. In short, he was conceiving of his novel as a mirror in which readers of a poetic temperament could view images with which they could identify and that would stir their feelings to lyric heights. In other words, the norm he had adopted for his narrative was the lyric poem. A lyric is a pictorial and musical form perceived almost instantly in terms of space and whose emotional intensity can be sustained for only a limited time.

About ninety years later, in the United States, Edgar Allan Poe was to maintain that a long narrative poem such as an epic was a contradiction in terms, because, according to this same principle, it could be nothing more than a series of lyrics interspersed with prose. It is the adoption of this lyric norm that no doubt accounts, in part at least, for the alternating patterns of excitement (jê-nao) and ennui (wu-liao) in the lives of Baoyu and his cousins, which Plaks has seen as “a major thematic dimension of the novel.” Mirror images, too, are prominent features of the novel, including doppelgänger characters. In chapter 12, the author indulges in a “set allegorical piece” when he presents the two-sided mirror of Jia Jui suggestive of the “true” image of objective reality as opposed to the “false” image of subjective illusion seen in a mirror. In chapter 17, the hall of mirrors in Baoyu’s residence confuses Jia Chêng, and later, in chapter 41, they also confuse Liu Laolao. Doppelgänger images are presented in the two Baoyus—the “true” Chên Baoyu and the “false” Jia Baoyu, who look alike but differ in their minds. Again, the author sees a Chên-Chia continuum in the mirror-image careers of Chên Shih-yin and Jia Yü-tsun.

It was no doubt the autobiographical character of his fiction, which contains substantial fragments of personal memory, that drove Cao in the direction of lyric expression. Like the lyric poem, autobiography requires self-reflection, and if the memories are viewed with nostalgia and deep feeling, they require the exercise of what has been called a “romanticized imagination”; both are necessary for the “lyric vision.” These matters are apart from the emphatic lyric tradition in poetry that had been long prevalent in traditional Chinese civilization, which the author had naturally inherited. At any rate, when he came to write Dream of the Red Chamber, he was moved by the interiorization of his own personal experience, which is the mainspring behind the lyric poem, rather than by the externalization of imagined experience, which is the mainspring of narrative. In this way, Cao produced the first “lyric novel” in the history of Chinese long fiction.

If the beginning of Cao’s novel is filled with intriguing promise, fulfilled in the middle section to the admiration of its readers (including most of those critics who have taken the novel seriously), the ending has not proved satisfactory to most critics, even if general readers have not been disturbed. These critics have declared that the style of the last forty chapters is inferior to that of the first eighty, and that the novel is simply unfinished. It is clear, however, that such a view has been based on certain critical assumptions rather than on a close and objective examination of the novel’s text. These assumptions are that Gao was the author rather than the editor of the last forty chapters and hence a “forger”; that he was an inferior stylist committed to a “happy ending”; and that Cao had left his novel unfinished and had intended an ending unlike that provided by Gao.

Later scholarship, however, has demonstrated that none of these assumptions is entirely true. Gao has been shown to have been what he claimed—namely, the editor and not a forger. Furthermore, he was not mediocre as an editor or a writer. If he lacked the genius of Cao, he was a conscientious editor and redactor who possessed both an aesthetic sense and a good understanding of the complexities of the first eighty chapters and made his redactions or fill-ins in an attempt to conform to those complexities. He was not perfectly consistent, but neither was Cao. The inconsistencies in style of the last forty chapters, such as the intermixing of northern and southern dialectical variants and the overemphasis on Pekinese linguistic forms, are to be seen in both sections. It is also now known that the 120-chapter version was available to Gao, even though it appears that some anonymous hand had tampered with the text. This unknown person was probably the author’s father, Cao Fu.

The novel’s movement

A traditional commentator using the name Ming-chai Chu-jên remarked that, whereas previous Chinese novels had structurally moved from sadness to joy and from separation to union, Dream of the Red Chamber moved structurally in the opposite ways. Plaks, however, has described the novel’s movement, much more accurately, as one from “sadness within joy” to “joy within sadness.” Cao’s aesthetic is derived from the Chinese cosmological principle of ceaseless recurrence and flux. His novel does not follow a “unilinear pattern of rise and fall” in the Western sense, but one of “cyclical sweep in ceaseless recurrence of existential flux” in the Chinese sense. In structuring his novel, Cao had in mind no unilinear, end-oriented goal but one of ceaseless alteration of the contrasts of human experience in close juxtaposition, with sadness adjacent to joy, union adjacent to separation, and never one without the other. Hence, although the idea of plenitude, whose chief emblem is the Ta-kuan Yüan, is a major theme of the novel, it is accompanied by the sense of incompleteness as an undercurrent of this major wave. If, throughout the main section of the novel, light and shade alternate in close juxtaposition to one another, by chapter 94 the shadows begin to lengthen when Baoyu loses his jade and, with it, his wits.

Up to this point in the novel, the issue of Baoyu’s marriage has been in abeyance, everyone assuming, however, that eventually he will marry Tai-yü. By now, however, everyone fears that Baoyu may die if the jade is not recovered or something drastic is not done quickly. Other bad things have happened, too: His sister Yuan-ch’un, the Imperial Concubine, has died, as has his uncle, Wang Zitong. In her anxiety over Baoyu’s illness, the Matriarch consults a fortune-teller who advises her that if her grandson is to be saved, he must be married as soon as possible to a lady “with a destiny of gold.” The Matriarch has already decided that Tai-yü, because of her temperament and frail health, would not make Baoyu a suitable wife, despite his utter devotion to her. The decision now is that the seventeen-year-old Baoyu should marry Pao-ch’ai without delay and despite the flaunting of the mourning requirements. Because of Baoyu’s attachment to Tai-yü, however, the family decides that the deception of both Baoyu and Tai-yü is necessary. Tai-yü, however, accidentally learns of the plan, and, deeply shocked, she spits blood. She burns her poems to signal the end of her “heart’s folly,” and her health rapidly deteriorates.

The wedding of Baoyu and Pao-ch’ai takes place in chapter 98, and Tai-yü dies at the moment they are married. Not until Baoyu unveils his bride does he see that he has married Pao-ch’ai instead of Tai-yü. He thinks he is dreaming and falls into unconsciousness. Pao-ch’ai thinks it would be wise to tell him of Tai-yü’s death. The shock of this news produces a recovery.

In chapter 105, Jia Chên and Jia Shê are charged by the Imperial Censors with corruption. They are arrested, and their properties, the Jung-kuo-fu and the Ning-kuo-fu, are confiscated. Baoyu’s father, Jia Chêng, however, is completely absolved of any wrongdoing. Later, both the Matriarch and Phoenix die. During the funeral services for the Matriarch, the Ta-kuan Yüan is raided by bandits. The nun Miao-yü is taken away by them to meet a horrible fate. Jia Baoyu meets his look-alike, Chên Baoyu, and is made ill.

He recovers quickly when the mangy Buddhist monk unexpectedly appears with the lost jade. He and Baoyu converse in a friendly way, but no one else can understand their enigmatic words. During this conversation, however, suddenly Baoyu understands his relationship to the universe; in short, he experiences what the Chan (Japanese, Zen) Buddhists call k’ai-wu, an awakening (Japanese, satori). To the dismay of his wife and mother, he informs them that he would like to become a monk. Yet, surprisingly, he immediately plunges into his Confucian studies to prepare for the examinations. When he leaves in the company of Jia Lan to take the examinations, he solemnly bids everyone good-bye and promises them he will do his best to earn the degree. His wife feels a presentiment that she will never see him again.

When Jia Lan returns, he informs the family that Baoyu simply disappeared after having taken the examinations. In a few weeks, the family receives the good news that Baoyu took seventh place in the examinations and earned his degree, but Baoyu himself is still missing. As a result, however, of the success of Baoyu and Jia Lan, who had stood one hundred thirteenth in the examinations, the Emperor pardons Jia Shê and Jia Chên and restores their titles and property.

Baoyu’s father returns from the South aboard a canal boat and is overjoyed after learning of the success of his son and of the pardon granted to his brother. He anchors the boat for the night by a snow-covered bank, and then begins to compose a letter, because his joy is mixed with the sorrow he feels over Baoyu’s disappearance. He wants to write something about his son. Suddenly he perceives a strange man standing at the bow who is wearing a flaming red cape but is barefooted and bareheaded. His red cape contrasts sharply with the white snowbank of the canal. Jia Chêng hurries toward him to find himself confronting Baoyu, now kneeling and knowtowing to him. “Is it Baoyu?” he asks. Before the young man can reply, the Buddhist monk and the Daoist priest suddenly advance toward Baoyu and, each seizing an arm, say, “Come with us without delay! Your worldly obligations have been fulfilled.” The three then leap to shore and disappear into the landscape. When Jia Chêng reaches home, he learns, to his joy, that Pao-ch’ai is pregnant with Baoyu’s child, which later proves to be a son. Thus Dream of the Red Chamber reaches its conclusion.

At the end, then, the reader is returned to the creation myth with which the novel began. Events have come full circle. The so-called unfinished text has shaped itself into a complete literary unit in which the note of finality at the end is another beginning. Nothing is conclusive. Torn between the claims of love and personal liberation, between his active sympathy and compassion for others and his desire to transcend himself and thus escape his hopeless involvement in desire and suffering, Baoyu concludes that love, whether romantic or marital, involves too great a commitment to the outside world and is harmful to the self-contained inner world of the spirit; hence he decides to become a monk. There is nothing inexorable about his logic, however, and he may be embracing an illusion of less substantiality than that of human love and sympathy. In its message, the novel is ambiguous. If the hero’s ultimate decision to become a monk appears to reinforce the Buddhist-Daoist teaching of individual liberation, neither romantic values nor Confucian ideals are neglected or underemphasized.

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