Other literary forms

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

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...

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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.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

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 through the efforts of two literati who had long been enthusiastic admirers of Dream of the Red Chamber, Cheng Weiyuan and Gao Ê. The former had managed to purchase a 120-chapter version of the novel. Having decided to publish it in printed form, he obtained the services of the latter to edit it for the press in a definitive edition. The result was that two Cheng-Gao editions were published, the first dated 1791 but actually published in 1792, and the second, a corrected edition, also published in 1792.

When Cheng and Gao had published their editions of the novel, they had not been certain of its authorship, although they acknowledged that Cao Xueqin had had a hand in its composition. Not until the 1920’s did Hu Shi confirm that Cao had been the author of the first eighty chapters. Hu did not believe in the verity of Gao’s preface, however, considering him to have been a forger who had authored the last forty chapters. Even the later distinguished authority on the novel, Yu Pingbo, believed Gao a forger until sufficient evidence proved that Gao had been telling the truth in his preface when he stated that he had merely edited the work. Gao had performed some redactions and filled in some gaps to eliminate inconsistencies.

In 1964, Yu therefore reversed himself on his position that Gao had been the author rather than the editor of the last forty chapters. Also, until the mid-twentieth century, no one knew the identity of the commentators Red-Inkstone Studio and Old Man Odd Tablet; in 1960, another distinguished authority convincingly argued that the former was Cao’s slightly older cousin, Cao Yufeng, the “posthumous son” of Cao Xueqin’s great uncle Cao Yong, who had inherited a prized antique red inkstone from his father that once had belonged to his grandfather, Cao Yin. As for the identity of Old Man Odd Tablet, David Hawkes has expressed a strong suspicion that he was Cao Xueqin’s father, Cao Fu, a nephew of Cao Yin who had been adopted as Cao Yin’s posthumous “son.” In any event, the evidence indicates that Cao Xueqin’s full intentions were known before he died. If the last forty chapters were withheld from circulation for fear that parts might be interpreted by the government as seditious, some parts may have been deleted or softened by an unknown hand before Cheng purchased his manuscript.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

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 theory to analyze the themes, point of view, narrative structure, and other elements of Dream of the Red Chamber.

Plaks, Andrew H., ed. “Leaving the Garden: Reflections on China’s Literary Masterwork.” New Left Review 47 (September/October, 2007). An evaluation of Dream of the Red Chamber. Describes how many Chinese readers cherish the book as a national treasure and how the book depicts the venerable Chinese ideal of four generations of a family living together.

Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Focuses on Chinese stone symbolism and lore in Dream of the Red Chamber, comparing it to the stone symbolism in other Chinese novels. Provides insight into the novel’s main character, who is symbolized by stone.

Xiao, Chi. The Chinese Garden as Lyric Enclave: A Generic Study of the Story of the Stone. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 2001. A history of the garden in Chinese culture and literature, including its symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber and its importance to the Chinese literati during the Qing Dynasty.

Yi, Jeannie Jinsheng. The Dream of the Red Chamber: An Allegory of Love. Dumont, N.J.: Homa & Sekey Books, 2003. Yi analyzes the allegorical and structural role of dreams in the novel, interpreting them as symbols for the impermanent nature of love. She argues that Western literary theory cannot be applied to Chinese literature, unless that theory is seriously modified.

Yu, Anthony C. Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Yu argues that the novel is a story about fictive representation; through a maze of literary devices, the novel challenges the authority of history, as well as referential biases in reading.

Zhou, Zuyan. “Chaos and the Gourd in The Dream of the Red Chamber.” T’oung Pao 87, no. 4/5 (2001): 251-288. Explores the importance of the novel in Buddhist and Daoist philosophy by analyzing the religious life of its fictional character as well as its author. Also examines the concepts of chaos and gourd.

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Critical Essays