Chao Zhan Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cao Xueqin (tsow shew-ehch-ihn), also spelled Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in, was born as Cao Zhan (Ts’ao Chan) into a wealthy and influential family of Nanjing Bannermen, the descendants of the bond servants to whom the Manchus had entrusted administrative positions when they established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. For three generations the family held the post of commissioner of imperial textiles, first in Suzhou and later in Nanjing, effectively controlling a large part of the silk trade. The clan was wealthy enough to entertain the emperor four times during his tours of southern China.{$S[A]Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in[Tsao Hsüeh-ch’in];Cao Xueqin}{$S[A]Cao Zhan;Cao Xueqin}{$S[A]Ts’ao Chan[Tsao Chan];Cao Xueqin}

In January of 1728, when Xueqin was thirteen or fourteen, the Caos lost favor with the emperor, and their estate in Nanjing was subjected to an imperial confiscation. The impoverished family then moved north to Beijing, where they were to spend the rest of their days in poverty, probably in the role of poor relations to a wealthier and more fortunate branch of the family. Here Xueqin wrote poetry, painted, and earned a meager living at least in part by selling paintings.

Around 1740, he began to describe the lost days of his youth in what would become one of the most widely loved and admired of Chinese novels, Dream of the Red Chamber. No previous work of Chinese fiction had been so popular or had embodied so forcefully the sensibilities of Chinese society. Certainly the scope of the novel is vast: Hundreds of characters from every social station and walk of life interact with one another in almost every conceivable relationship. All these characters are portrayed with such vivid attention to realistic detail and speak in such distinctive and particular ways that generations of readers have viewed them as “real” people rather than as fictional characters.

The truth of what is normally thought of as fiction and, by extension, the unreality of what is normally thought of as real forms a major theme of the novel. This idea is reflected, for example, in the surnames of the two families in the novel, one northern and one southern, whose actions...

(The entire section is 896 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Not a great deal is known about the life of Cao Xueqin, whose original name was Chao Zhan. The name by which he is best known, Xueqin, was a hao—that is, a sobriquet or literary name. He had two other haos that are not widely known: Qinbu and Qinji. Xueqin was born in Nanjing in about 1715 into a wealthy and powerful official family. His father, Cao Fu, was the superintendent of the imperial textile factory at Nanjing. Apart from Xueqin’s father, four Caos had held the important official position of either salt controller or textile superintendent over four generations, both posts being among the most lucrative in the empire. Fu was appointed the superintendent of the imperial textile factory in Nanjing in 1715 after an unusual arrangement had been worked out by the emperor. At this time, Fu was in his twenties and was married to a woman who was or was soon to become pregnant with the future Xueqin.

Xueqin lived with his family in Nanjing until 1728. He grew up accustomed to all the comforts and luxuries that came with his father’s position. As 1728 approached, however, the fortunes of the Cao family were taking a turn for the worse. The family was not economy-minded and was living beyond its means. Fu proved not to be a very competent manager and was running up a debt to the government. In January, 1728, Fu was dismissed from office, and his property in Nanjing was confiscated. This property consisted of some thirteen residences, some 275 acres of land, and miscellaneous holdings. Fu’s household of about 114 people, including servants, was uprooted from Nanjing and removed to Beijing, where the family was quartered in a house (or houses) it owned and was graciously allowed to retain.

When this brutal blow fell on his family, Cao Xueqin was about twelve years of age. Undoubtedly a boy of delicate, sensitive awareness and responsiveness, he must have been keenly affected by the...

(The entire section is 789 words.)