Summary of The Dream of the Red Chamber

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The Dream of the Red Chamber book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Zhou Dynasty

What It’s About

The Rise and Fall of a Chinese Civilization

The sinologist John Minford, who was involved in the complete translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber in the 1980s, can testify to the novel’s enduring popularity and quality as a magic window into the Chinese mind: “Mention of it triggers an instant gleam of recognition, and opens up new possibilities of communication.” At the same time, it is also a tremendous challenge. Depending on the edition and translation, the reader has to process well over 300 characters with names that all sound similar to the Western ear. It features an eclectic mix of elusive, expressionistic prose and poetry on the one hand, and realistic, scathing social criticism on the other. The sexual act is circumscribed as a “Sport of Cloud and Rain,” mortal illnesses are cured with yummy swallows’ nests (or not) and tea is made from the previous year’s melted snow. Sometimes the novel’s main characters seem surprisingly familiar, and at other times they appear strangely alien to the Western reader. Reading the book is a bit like looking at an intricate Chinese artwork from that era: precise lines, perfect composition, opulent coloration – yet also a window into an entirely different world.

Take-Aways

  • The Dream of the Red Chamber is considered the greatest novel of Chinese literature.
  • The son of a wealthy, noble family is born with a magic stone in his mouth. A darling and admirer of all the women and girls in the household, he rebels against his stern father and the social barriers of the time. After his family crushes his romantic love affair with his favorite cousin, both lovers renounce earthly life. 
  • Set during the Qing Dynasty in 18th-century China, the novel shows how true love and basic humanity fail due to society’s patriarchal-feudal structures. 
  • The magic stone symbolizes the innate good in humans. Those who stay true to themselves, shall be saved. 
  • Author Cao Xueqin descended from a rich noble family that fell from grace under Emperor Yongzheng. 
  • The author drew from his own experiences in an unusually realistic way, thereby painting a detailed portrait of his contemporaries. 
  • When he died around 1763, the epic work of 80 chapters remained unfinished. Some believe that the editors of the first print edition in 1791 added another 40 chapters based on the late author’s drafts. 
  • In China, the academic discipline of “Redology” tries to shed light onto the many mysteries surrounding the novel. 
  • The novel’s main characters are just as well known in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the Western World. 
  • “When seeming is taken for being, being becomes seeming. Where nothing is taken for something, something becomes nothing.”
 

Summary

The Magic Stone

The worthy citizen Shih-yin has a strange dream: A Taoist priest and a bald-headed Buddhist monk are wandering through an unknown land, talking about a magic jade stone in their possession, the Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding. They show it to Shih-yin, and as his dream ends he watches his companions walk through a high stone archway bearing the words “The Visionary limits of the Great Void.” On the pillars he reads a couplet:

“When falsehood stands for truth, truth likewise becomes false,

Where naught be made to aught, aught changes into naught.”

Later he encounters his neighbor Yu Tsun, a poor but educated young man. Yin pays for his trip to Peking, so his neighbor can pass the state examination there. However, in the following years Shih-yin is met by terrible misfortune. First his only child is kidnapped, then his house in the city burns down. Impoverished and embittered, he retires to the countryside to live off the land. One day a wandering Taoist comes limping along, murmuring verses of the transient nature of worldly belongings and happiness. Shih-yin drops everything and joins the man, wandering off into the unknown.

Black Jade and Precious Stone

Because of his presumptuous and disrespectful behavior, Yu Tsun falls from grace at the Imperial Court, losing his position. He spends several years traveling, before becoming the tutor of Black Jade, the only daughter of a noble family to whom he is remotely related. In his new position, Yu Tsun learns all sorts of strange things about the Chia clan. For example, Madame Shih Lady Dowager’s 12-year-old grandson, Chia Pao-yu, was born with a glittering jade stone in his mouth. The boy can think of nothing other than girls, causing much distress to his father, Chia Cheng. Then, when Black Jade’s mother dies, her grandmother Lady Dowager takes the 12-year-old with her to the family mansion. The girl is full of awe: There are marble lions and golden dragons cowering everywhere, and the many living quarters and pavilions are brightly colored and richly ornamented. The splendor is only outdone by her cousin Pao-yu. His fine features look picture-perfect, and his gaze radiates deep emotions. She immediately chooses him as her soul mate.

The Dream of the Red Chamber

One day, Pao-yu has a midday nap in the delightfully perfumed and furnished room of his young relative Ko-ching. In his dream he encounters the Goddess of Disenchantment, who tells him that she is in charge of settling the debts between maidens and youths unhappily in love with one another. Moreover, she instructs him to keep the family of his honorable ancestors from descending into ruin. Then she leads him into a luxurious chamber, where he finds a young girl that resembles his beautiful cousin Precious Virtue in appearance and Black Jade in demeanor. With her he indulges for the first time in the delights of “the sport of cloud and rain.” When he awakens from the dream, his maid Hsi-jen is with him. She grasps what happened and offers to initiate him to the game in the real world. A little later he realizes that Precious Virtue wears a golden medallion with a saying that complements the one on his jade stone.

Since Pao-yu’s dream, Ko-ching has been gravely ill. The night of her death she appears to her girlfriend Phoenix, imploring her to invest parts of the family fortune into a foundation. True, she concedes, the Chia clan is still strong and powerful. But in good times they should provide for the bad times that are inevitably coming, just like blossoming is followed by decay. The foundation is meant to ensure the continuation of the family school and the quarterly sacrifices to the ancestors. But Phoenix ignores her dream. She couldn’t care less about establishing a family foundation.

“Never lose me, never forget me! Glorious life lasting prosperity!” (jade stone)

“Never leave me, never reject me! Precious youth lasting bloom!” (golden medallion)

Instead, Phoenix engages in shady deals to enrich herself. After the pompous mourning ceremonies, the family is informed that Pao-yu’s sister, Beginning of Spring, has been raised to the position of a “noble and virtuous” Imperial wife of the first rank. Soon thereafter the Emperor issues a decree that allows all his first and secondary wives to visit their families. He wants to reinforce the children’s piety and devotion toward their parents. Construction begins at once, so that Beginning of Spring can be provided with worthy accommodation.

Grand View Garden

The result is a magnificent park with shimmering lakes and foaming waterfalls, twisting paths and flowery fields, straw-thatched farmhouses and splendid palaces. Pao-yu is particularly good at inventing witty mottoes and inscriptions for the numerous lookout points, rest areas and pavilions. A week before Beginning of Spring’s scheduled visit for the Lantern Festival, the Imperial chief eunuch comes to inspect the grounds. He stations eunuchs for guard and sentry duties all around the park. Beginning of Spring is choked with emotion, having missed her family terribly during all those years of isolation in the palace. She names the magnificent grounds “Grand View Garden” and invites her brother Pao-yu and his cousins to a poetry contest, in order to immortalize the different places of the park in beautiful verses. Beginning of Spring is distressed at the thought that the park is to lay idle and fall into decay after her brief visit. She gives orders for Pao-yu, his cousins and their maids to move into the new living quarters.

“‘The poor peasants who live on salted cabbage and dress in shoddy cotton are better off than we are,’ lamented Beginning of Spring through the screen. ‘They can foster and satisfy their natural desire for family life to their hearts’ content…What good to us are all of our splendors and riches?’”

Pao-yu’s half brother Chia Huan, an ugly, malicious and envious boy, splashes hot wax over Pao-yu’s face on purpose. The boy’s mother, Chia Cheng’s secondary wife, is scolded for her wayward and spoiled offspring. Humiliated, the woman vows vengeance. She tells the sorceress Mother Ma to bewitch Pao-yu and her foe Phoenix. That same afternoon the spell shows its force: The two of them act as if they were possessed, babbling incoherently, raging around the park and rolling their eyes. Holy water, magic incantations – all in vain. The family is already getting ready for their funeral, when a limping Taoist and a mangy Buddhist monk show up and ask for Pao-yu’s jade stone. Under the influence of the flesh and senses, it has lost its powers, the Buddhist explains. With a magic spell they restore its efficacy, and 33 days later Pao-yu and Phoenix are healed.

Tempestuous Love

The relationship between Black Jade and Pao-yu is a constant up and down. The girl is jealous of her cousin Precious Virtue and the maids; misunderstandings, violent quarrels and tearful reconciliations alternate. Then Pao-yu is caught trying to seduce the waiting maid Gold Ring, so that the girl is driven out of the house. Grief-stricken, the maid commits suicide. When Pao-yu’s father learns about the incident, he beats Pao-yu until he passes out. His mother, Madame Cheng, intervenes at the very last moment and saves him from certain death. Now Black Jade’s maid Cuckoo wants to test Pao-yu’s feelings for her mistress and tells him that Black Jade will soon return to her home province. The news hits the boy like a lightning bolt, and he falls seriously ill. After his recovery, Black Jade hopes that he loves her as much as she loves him, after all.

The Yus’ Misfortune

Chia Ching, the Prince Hermit, who has lived in a mountain hermitage for many years, has died. During the funeral rites, Phoenix’s husband Chia Lien falls in love with his cousins, the two unmarried, extraordinarily beautiful Yu sisters. Sick and tired of his bossy and jealous wife, he decides to make the second Miss Yu his secondary wife. The fact that the girl is already engaged isn’t much of an impediment, since the family of her betrothed is poor, and Chia Lien pays the lad’s father an indemnity for renouncing the engagement. Fearing Phoenix’s wrath, he marries the second Yu in secrecy. His second wife is supposed to live secluded in a shared love nest, in a small house near the eastern palace.

For a time, everything is fine. The only problem is the third Yu sister. She has fallen in love with the Cold Knight and refuses to consider any other marriage options. Chia Lien, who wants to get rid of the third Yu, manages to talk the Cold Knight into an engagement with her. However, at the very last moment he pulls out of his commitment, saying that he was already promised to another bride his aunt had chosen for him. Having overheard their conversation from the next-door room, the third Yu, while pretending to hand back the sword the Cold Knight gave her as a betrothal gift, draws out the blade and thrusts it into her throat. Now the Cold Knight regrets his callous act. The deceased appears to him in his dream, saying that the Goddess of Disenchantment has sent her and that it’s now her task to register cases of unhappy love and unpaid debts. When he wakes up, a lame Taoist priest is sitting next to him. The Cold Knight cuts off his hair and follows the stranger.

From a servant, Phoenix learns about her husband’s sneaky hidden marriage. As soon as he is out of town, she spins a web of intrigues: Feigning understanding and affection, she convinces the second Yu to move in with her. She makes a show of being a kind-hearted first wife, yet secretly orders her servants to harass the young woman. Then she pays the Chengs money to sue the Chia clan over breaking off the original engagement. Chia Lien returns from his trip with a 17-year-old concubine in tow, a gift from a senior family member, and now Phoenix mercilessly pitches her two rivals against each other. She also spreads nasty gossip about the second Yu until the latter falls ill from distress and suffers a miscarriage that is brought on by a quack doctor Phoenix arranges for her. The stillborn child is a boy, the heir his father has been hoping for. Finally, the second Yu can’t stand it any longer. She swallows a piece of crude gold to end her life.

The Decline

There is something rotten in the Grand View Garden. The servants are engaged in forbidden gambling, theft and other vices which spread like weeds. During a boisterous banquet hosted by Prince Chen, howling gusts of wind sweep across the park, and to make matters worse, the doors of the spirit porch in front of the Temple of Ancestors open and shut with a loud bang, leaving the party with an awful sense of foreboding. The senior family members try to restore order by starting a purge among the servants. Pao-yu’s favorite waiting maid Bright Cloud falls victim to it, although she is entirely without fault. She is chased away while critically ill and dies soon thereafter. The park becomes desolate and falls into ruin. Cousin Taste of Spring is married off to a brute man and goes away. Precious Virtue moves back in with her mother. And after a gap of several years, Pao-yu is forced to attend the family school again.

Black Jade, too, is getting worse. She is coughing up blood and is haunted by nightmares about being separated from Pao-yu. She is convinced that he has been promised to another one and almost starves herself to death. When the whole thing turns out to be a misunderstanding, her good spirits return.

“She got up next morning so exhausted and underslept that she found it an effort to wash herself, and rinse out her mouth, and eat her swallows’ nest cream.” (about Black Jade)

But Phoenix and Lady Dowager now decide that Pao-yu needs a more robust woman at his side. They are secretly preparing for him to marry Precious Virtue. Then, in the middle of winter, the withered side of a golden begonia tree blossoms. Many interpret this as an evil omen, and indeed their worst fears come true: The Imperial wife Beginning of Spring dies of pneumonia, and then Pao-yu’s magic stone suddenly disappears. His character changes dramatically: He becomes listless, feeble-minded and stupid.

The False Bride

Finally, Black Jade learns about Pao-yu’s and Precious Virtue’s impending marriage and lays down and dies. Meanwhile, the insane groom is led to believe that he will marry Black Jade. His condition improves after that. Although he falls back into his stupor after seeing Precious Virtue sitting on the bridal bed, they go through with the wedding. Then, to the family’s great surprise, the Minister of Finance occupies the buildings of the palace with a horde of soldiers and bailiffs, who swiftly move to search and loot the place. Several members of the Chia clan have been charged with abuse of office, fornication and corruption. It turns out that Phoenix is involved in usurious business with money she is privately stockpiling. Moreover, the family has lived beyond their means for many years: The coffers are empty. Therefore, Lady Dowager assumes responsibility for all the sins her clan members have committed and generously distributes the family treasures among her shocked and impoverished relatives. At long last the Emperor shows mercy and passes on the princely title from the arrested Shieh to his brother Chia Cheng, thereby allowing the family to save face. Shortly after, Lady Dowager and Phoenix die.

The Last Test

In the midst of confusion the Buddhist monk shows up and returns the magic stone. Pao-yu’s mental health is immediately restored. His spirit travels to the Goddess of Disenchantment, where he meets the spirits of all the dead girls and women that he once loved. Frightened, he watches them transform into grotesque looking, red-faced and white-haired devils. The Buddhist monk explains to him that he is still trapped by worldly desires and that he could only be admitted into the Realm of the Blessed once he is truly awakened. At his father’s behest, Pao-yu now prepares for the examination to become a state official. He passes the exam and saves his family’s reputation. However, he never returns home after that. Pao-yu appears once to his father in a monk’s habit made of monkey-hair wool, before he silently floats away with his companions, the Taoist and the Buddhist, into the white, snowy landscape.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Franz Kuhn’s abridged German translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber, which this abstract is based on, comprises 50 chapters, while in the Chinese original the total number is 120. The epic story is framed by a prologue and an epilogue (namely the background story of Shih-yin and Yu Tsun). At the closing of a chapter, the omniscient narrator often steps onto the stage and titillates the reader – like dramatic music does in a telenovela cliffhanger – with phrases such as: “If you want to know what happens next, you must read what the following chapter has to report.”

The novel features detailed descriptions of nature, art and architecture, the discussion of ailments and their remedies, poetry, worldly wisdom and, of course, dreams. Cao Xueqin makes ample use of the yin-yang principle, juxtaposing themes and characters such as female and male nature, excitement and boredom, joy and sorrow, and, last but not least, pride which inevitably leads to a fall. A narrative arc, common in most of Western literature, is mostly absent, adding to the feeling of entering an alien world that doesn’t share many cultural clues with our own. Still, Xueqin shaped a style that was unusually realistic for his era: He thought that literature should tell “true” stories and reflect reality as much as possible.

Interpretation

  • The novel deals with true love corrupted by external circumstances: family traditions, social barriers and money. To forsake all worldly matters is the only way out: Pao-yu becomes a monk, and Black Jade dies.
  • It also criticizes patriarchy: Most of the male figures are irresponsible, lewd good-for-nothings, who betray and abuse their wives, concubines and servants – with Pao-yu being the main exception to this rule. The author once said that, looking back at the failure of his own life, he realized that the girls of his youth “were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the ‘grave and mustachioed signor’ I am now supposed to have become.”
  • The decline of the Chia clan exemplifies the moral decay of the feudal ruling class in 18th-century China, which was rife with corruption and nepotism. Its fate mirrors that of the author, who descended from a noble family that was disgraced and dispossessed when the political tides turned.
  • In the novel, the virtuous Confucian Chia Cheng represents the height of moral righteousness. Some interpreters see in him the embodiment of Emperor Yongzheng, who ruled from 1723 to 1735 and became famous for his purges within the Chinese bureaucracy, a massive power shift that proved fateful for Cao Xueqin’s own family.
  • Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the three main philosophical-religious schools of thought in China, provide the moral and spiritual framework. They are not mutually exclusive. The novel’s focus, however, is on the Taoist approach of spiritual purity through abstinence (Taoism – teaching the way).
  • Pao-yu’s path leads from enjoying earthly pleasures and being a good son towards complete self-abandonment, brotherly love and enlightenment – the only chance to bring about true harmony between people. The jade stone symbolizes the innate good in humans, something we should never deny.
  • The author created a veritable encyclopedia of his era: Whether funeral and marriage rites, eating habits, artistic preferences, sexual mores or funny hairstyles – he touches on even the tiniest detail in everyday life of the Chinese nobility, its servants and underlings.

Historical Background

The Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty

The Dream of the Red Chamber is set in China in the first half of the 18th century, at the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Manchu people had toppled the Ming Dynasty of the Han Chinese in 1644, forcing a number of brutal policies onto the conquered that were meant to establish a two-tier society. Among other things, male Han Chinese were forced, on pain of death, to wear the Manchu hairstyle – shaved front of the head with a queue – which challenged Confucian values and was deeply humiliating to the men. In the course of the centuries, however, the new rulers adopted many cultural customs and political structures from their predecessors, including the Chinese civil servant system with its famous state exam.

The period under the three Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong is considered the Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty. Under their reigns agricultural taxes were lower than ever before, new cultivation methods and the technological progress of the pre-industrial era were employed to the fullest, and the fine arts flourished. Following a tough power struggle with his rivals, Kangxi’s fourth son, Yongzheng, succeeded his late father to the throne in 1723.

Yongzheng was known as a strict Confucian, harshly clamping down on corrupt state officials, but also using the purges to get rid of political enemies. The superficial image of a perfect and prosperous empire began to show cracks: More and more land and wealth became concentrated in the hands of privileged noblemen and civil servants. Smaller landowners, peasants and textile workers sank into poverty, which sparked numerous rebellions. Internal uprisings, a rapidly growing population and the withdrawal from the rest of the world eventually marked the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty.

Development

As a member of a formerly distinguished family that had fallen from grace, Cao Xueqin was down and out when he began to write in the 1750s, sleeping rough, working in disreputable taverns and drinking too much. He wrote for relatives and friends, supposedly exchanging each chapter for a meal and a pitcher of wine. At the time, the penalties for “subversive writing” were severe, forcing him to hide his political criticism and disguised satire of eminent people in a romantic love story. By the time he died in 1763, Cao had completed the first 80 chapters. It is believed that Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan, who published the first 1791 print edition, added the remaining 40 chapters based on the late author’s unfinished draft manuscripts. The German translator Franz Kuhn wrote in 1932 that he simply couldn’t imagine it being otherwise, since there were no textual or stylistic inconsistencies between the two parts. According to Kuhn, the publishers would have needed near magical powers of “literary mending” to entirely invent the last third of the novel.

Among contemporary literary scholars, however, this is an issue of considerable debate. Some even see the last third of the Cheng-Gao version as a fake. First, on a qualitative level, the story’s surprisingly happy ending – the family is rehabilitated and its fortune mostly restored – doesn’t quite match up with the author’s own dramatic social decline. Second, three researchers claimed in 2014 that, using quantitative data analysis, they had found clear evidence for the hypothesis that the first 80 and the last 40 chapters were written by entirely different authors. Many unsolved mysteries remain, and it wasn’t even until the beginning of the 20th century that Cao Xueqin was identified as the novel’s prime author.

Reviews and Legacy

A few handwritten copies of the first 80 chapters were circulating around the time of his death. The manuscripts soon became a sensation, and people paid hefty sums to get their hands on one, before it went into print 28 years later. Over the centuries, the reading of the epic changed with the political wind. During the communist Cultural Revolution, for example, many party officials targeted it as reactionary and bourgeois, including Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, who criticized its “poisoning” influence on the minds of young people. Yet Chairman Mao himself admired the work. He claimed to have read it five times and encouraged everyone to do the same – albeit only from a strictly anti-feudal, Marxist perspective.

Today The Dream of the Red Chamber is considered the greatest of the four classical Chinese novels, to the point that there’s an academic discipline called “Redology”, which is exclusively devoted to studying the work. Yet in the West, it is scarcely known and little understood. In his 2012 article on “the best book you’ve never heard of”, the sinologist John Minford wondered whether we are just “too obsessed with China’s latest economic statistics to spare a thought for what’s left of its soul?” After all, the two tragic lovers in the story are just as well known in most of East Asia as Romeo and Juliet are in the Western world. It has been adapted into countless film, drama and opera versions, and twice into hugely popular multi-part TV series. When, during a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2009, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao received a copy of Shakespeare‘s works, the Chinese ambassador returned the favor by giving Queen Elizabeth II the five-volume translation by David Hawkes and John Minford. Their complete rendering of The Story of the Stone, as that edition of roughly 2,500 pages is titled, is considered the most comprehensive, lively and elegant English-language version to date.

About the Author

Cao Xueqin was born into a wealthy Han Chinese family around 1720. His ancestors had served in the Manchu army and were subsequently rewarded with prestigious posts in the Imperial administration. His exact date of birth remains uncertain. Cao’s great-grandmother is said to have been Emperor Kangxi’s wet nurse, and his grandfather Cao Yin was the emperor’s personal friend and confidant. During Kangxi’s reign the family enjoyed a high standing with the Imperial Court and amassed great wealth, holding the lucrative post of Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in the Southern Jiangsu province for three generations. After Kangxi’s death, however, the clan’s fortunes began to sink, as the stern Confucian Emperor Yongzheng came to power and started to clamp down on corruption and illegal financial dealings. Having issued several warnings, he had the family’s entire property confiscated and its patriarch arrested in 1727. Subsequently, the family was forced to leave their mansion in Nanjing and move to a modest dwelling in Peking. Cao Xueqin was still a child then. A brilliant boy and talented painter and writer, he proved unfit for an academic career. He was hired as a private teacher of Manchu children, only to be fired after impregnating a maidservant. By the middle of the century he hit rock bottom, selling the occasional painting, drinking too much and writing The Dream of the Red Chamber in small installments over some 10 years or so, often providing a new chapter to family and friends in exchange for some food and wine. Cao Xueqin died around 1763, purportedly from a broken heart after the death of his only son. Around this time, several handwritten copies of the novel’s first 80 chapters began to circulate.


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