Chao Zhan Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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 seem to mirror each other as the plot progresses: One branch is “Jia,” or “false,” the other “Zhen,” or “true.” The novel testifies to how real memories of the past can be.

The minutely observed world of the novel, moreover, takes place within a supernatural framework. Bao-yu, or Precious Jade, the protagonist, is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. He is actually the incarnation of the single stone left over when the goddess Nü-wa finished repairing a break in the firmament, and he had once before been incarnated in the realm of the Fairy Disenchantment, where he had saved the life of a being called Crimson Pearl Flower. The stone’s incarnation as Bao-yu has taken place long before the action of the novel commences and is imagined as the inscription copied from the stone by a Daoist priest and circulated for the moral education of the reader.

The “realistic” action of the novel’s narrative begins as a character named Zhen Shi-yin (his name puns with the phrase “true things hidden”) eavesdrops in a dream as the stone is brought to earth for its incarnation as Bao-yu by the scabby-headed Buddhist monk and lame Daoist priest who criss-cross the seen and unseen worlds of the novel. The goal of the stone’s life as Bao-yu is a Buddhist one: to arrive at knowledge of the Void (enlightenment) through Form (illusion), in a sense transcending the world of relationships and passions by exhausting them. The two women central to his life are the fragile, doomed Dai-yu (an incarnation of Crimson Pearl Flower) and the pragmatic, reasonable Bao-chai, whom Bao-yu is tricked into marrying by his practically minded family. The two women in many ways embody the polarities of Confucian gregariousness and Daoist individuality between which the novel runs its course. The plot...

(The entire section is 1,685 words.)