Dream of the Red Chamber

by Chao Zhan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232

Garden of Enchanted Vision

Garden of Enchanted Vision. Also translated as Prospect Garden, a magnificent garden containing ten gates, archways, and buildings built for the visit of the daughter of Jia, who has become an imperial concubine. To find a name for each of the garden’s special features—each of which must allude to places described in classic Chinese poetry—Jia holds a literary contest, which is won by Bao-yu. After her single visit to the garden, the concubine allows her family to use it, rather than keep it as extravagant symbol of enormous wealth. She tells Bao-yu and his cousins to move in.

Each of the quarters of Bao-yu and his cousins, Bao-chai (rendered Black Jade in some editions) and Dai-yu (also called Precious Virtue) represents one of the three main teachings of Chinese civilization. Bao-chai’s house is surrounded by bamboo that grows straight up toward the sky. Moreover, it does not have colorful or fragrant flowers to attract people. Most importantly, the inside of a bamboo stalk is empty. These characteristics match the essence of Buddhist teaching that purity and the “emptiness,” or absence of desire and fear, lead one to reality and incorruptibility.

Dai-yu’s house is named after fragrant herbs. Flowers and trees are absent; only mosses, rare herbs, and trailing plants that exude aromatic perfumes are visible there. In traditional Chinese culture, a person of virtue is compared to fragrant plants. Confucianism concerns itself with social life, and Dai-yu is a completely social person.

Bao-yu’s Daoist commitment becomes obvious inside his rooms—from the Daoist authors and texts that he reads to the dominance of mirrors, which are Daoist images of place and spiritual vision. In yin-and-yang fashion, the mirrors show that endings and beginnings are impossible to separate, and that when any reality becomes extreme, it reverts to its opposite. These are Daoist insights. Bao-yu’s quarters are alive with spiritual forms; a circular hall contains a number of “mirror doors,” forming a pattern that is so confusingly continuous that it is impossible to see where it begins and ends. Each mirror door is an opening into a different spiritual place that cannot be controlled by human will but only by harmonizing with the Dao. Bao-yu opens himself to the bending and flowing of the Dao represented in the fluid forms carved into the walls of his rooms. Especially at the end of the novel, he gives up everything to return to the Great Void.

When punishment hits its inhabitants, the garden also suffers. The place is brutally searched for evidence of a maid’s forbidden affair. In protest, Bao-chai moves out, diminishing the garden’s attraction. When Bao-yu is tricked into marrying Bao-chai because one of the garden’s trees blooms out of season, his true love Dai-yu dies of grief. Her pavilion becomes haunted, and dread creeps into the garden. After the Ning-guo House is confiscated, the garden is boarded up. Its desertion at the novel’s end signifies that the dream of golden days is over.

The number ten in the garden has a special significance. The Chinese character for “ten” is written like a mathematical plus sign; when dots are placed around this character, Chinese readers would regard the result as a complete circle. This shape gives a center and the four geographical directions; the top is considered heaven, while the bottom indicates the earth. This makes it a complete miniature world.

Great Void

Great Void. Place of “nonplace”; the spiritual realm that both precedes and follows life on earth. Also variously called the Land of Illusion and Paradise of Truth, a place in Fairyland that coexists with the...

(This entire section contains 1232 words.)

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realistic places. The Great Void is the “place” where souls are located between reincarnations. Bao-yu’s two dream-visits there foreshadow and confirm the fate of the female characters. The novel’s inclusion of this magical place underlines its idea that life itself is an illusion. A prominent feature of Fairyland is Greensickness Peak, at whose foot a Taoist finds a stone bearing a long inscription that turns out to be the text of the novel.

Jinling (Jing-Ling)

Jinling (Jing-Ling). Fictional capital of China in which most of the novel is set. Using Jinling, the ancient name of Nanjing, to describe a city modeled after eighteenth century Beijing, the author creates a composite place, one that corresponds to his creation of composite characters. Jinling is the essence of the Red Dust of this world because jing means gold and ling means mound or grave. Near the end of the novel, the coffins of Bao-yu’s grandmother and Bao-chai are carried back to Jinling for burial. Jinling is the place of the past and of death. It is also the place where Bao-yu bids farewell to his father and returns to the Great Void, after his awakening from the mortal dream of the Red Dust.

Rong-guo and Ning-guo Houses

Rong-guo and Ning-guo Houses. Western (rong) and eastern (ning) compounds of the great Jia family, located on the northern side of one of Jinling’s main roads. Facing south, like the imperial palace, both complexes are so vast that carriages are employed for travel among their many buildings. More than three hundred people live in each compound, the vast majority of them servants. Each adult member of the Jia family has a private residence, with the adolescents living in rooms close to one another. The young Bao-yu spends most of his time among his sisters and female cousins. His free travels between the male and female areas of the compounds indicate his special position in the novel. Just as the novel is primarily interested in the Jias’ fate, the living spaces of the Jias are described with loving attention to detail. In contrast, the dwellings of servants remain obscure.

The fate of the houses is tied to the family. When two senior male Jias are convicted of misconduct and sent to the remote Mongolian frontier and the pirate-infested south coast of China, Ning-guo House is confiscated. At their lowest point, after the death of Grandmother Jia, burglars break into her apartment, indicating how steeply the Jias have fallen. After the emperor’s pardon, Ning-guo House is restored to the family, while the exiled Jias can return.

Aroma’s mother’s house

Aroma’s mother’s house. One of the few places of ordinary people. Once only, Bao-yu escapes to visit his maid Aroma at home. The singularity of this adventure indicates that rich adolescents and women were virtual prisoners of their families’ compounds.

Temple of the Iron Threshold

Temple of the Iron Threshold. Temporary burial place of the Jias. Funeral processions to it provide rare opportunities for the young and female Jias to leave their compounds. In keeping with Chinese tradition, after a few years, the bodies of the deceased are transferred to the Jias’ family tombs in Nanjing.

Pear Tree Court

Pear Tree Court. Borderline dwelling at the outer edge of Rong-guo House, with easy access to the city outside. This access suits Xue Pan, a young male Jia with erotic designs on the boys of Jinling.

Bottle-gourd Temple

Bottle-gourd Temple. Minor monastery at the end of a blind alley in the river town of Suzhou (near Shanghai). The first place outside of Fairyland, it is accidentally burnt to the ground by a careless monk, indicating the random nature of human experience.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

Knoerle, Jeanne. “The Dream of the Red Chamber”: A Critical Study. Foreword by Lui Wu Chi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972. Evaluates Dream of the Red Chamber in aesthetic terms and applies Western literary tenets. Places the novel in perspective within the history of Chinese literature, and examines the novel’s ethical considerations and its religious and cultural influences. Shows how the tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are woven together for a unified whole. Especially helpful are the illumination of structure and technique.

Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in. Dream of the Red Chamber. New York: Twayne, 1958. Translated by Chi-Chen Wang, 1958. Most recent translation, by a well-known Chinese American scholar. Leans toward colloquial English style, and thus loses the style of the original. The symbolism, allegory, and structural significance, however, are highly accessible.

Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in “Dream of the Red Chamber,” “Water Margin,” and “The Journey to the West.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Thorough discussion of the stone symbolism and its relationship to intertextuality, myth, and religion. An excellent section devoted to folk belief systems in the 1600-1899 Ching Dynasty period.

Wu Shih-Ch’ang. On the Red Chamber Dream. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. Thorough, accessible discussion restricted mainly to textural problems that were involved when scholars attempted to identify the original/authentic version of the novel. Excellent discussion of the varying and conflicting views concerning authorship.


Critical Essays