Dream of the Red Chamber
by Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsueh-Chin)
“Nowadays it is necessary for every official to have his own private list of the powerful families in his district. Without such a list to guide him, he might unwittingly offend one of these families, in which case he will not only lose his office, but lose his life as well,” a character tells a newly-appointed magistrate early in Cao Xueqin’s 18th century classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, sowing the seeds of hypocrisy and corruption that will doom not only the romance of two young people but their families’ well-being.
By the time the spoiled hero Jia Baoyu (Precious Jade) declares his love for his cousin, Lin Daiyu (Black Jade), who came to live in his family household following the death of her mother, he has already tried to seduce one of the maids of his mother, who is outraged, not at him, but at the maid, sending her home in disgrace.
And “though he was sorry and ashamed for having got (the girl) into trouble, he was not particularly concerned over it . . . (and) thought nothing more of the incident.”
(In the course of his doomed love affair with Daiyu, Baoyu will also be seduced by another young woman in the household, although Wang Chi-Chen, the translator of my 1958 edition, leaves open the possibility that Baoyu’s sexual initiation may have been a dream rather than a reality.)
Last Friday I wrote that Dream of the Red Chamber made me think of the stories of Jane Austen, a product of the same century as Cao Xueqin. Austen wrote about illicit liaisons with what seems startling frankness for an unmarried woman of her time. But the randiness that keeps readers coming back to romances set in Austen’s Regency England would have applied as much to Cao’s China. And although both writers accept such affairs as the way the world goes round, at the distance of the 21st century readers must wonder if Baoyu’s willingness to succumb whatever temptations come his way isn’t the real reason for his apparently heartless abandonment of Daiyu at his family’s insistence.
So now we’re back to the acceptance of social and political pressure that led the young magistrate at the beginning of this post to accept that there was one justice for the powerful and another for the powerless.
It was a system Cao was only too familiar with. As Baoyu’s family had risen to its greatest prominence through his older sister’s position as an imperial concubine, Cao’s family rose to power when his grandfather became the favorite courtier of Emperor Kangxi (K’ang Hsi). (Cao discreetly omits mentioning the time in which his novel is set, but there is no doubt that it describes the time of the Qing dynasty in which he and his family lived.)
Although Cao’s grandfather was a man of letters, he also entertained lavishly, writes translator Wang, entertaining the emperor to the point of bankruptcy. From then on, the Cao family fortunes fluctuated wildly. Will the emperor find a lucrative post for his favorites? Will a new ruler rescind previous privileges? By 1742, Cao was living in near poverty. By the mid-1760’s, he was dead, grieving for the loss of his son, but leaving behind not only a “new wife” and 80 chapters of his literary masterpiece.
After his death, the manuscript circulated privately until a 120-chapter version surfaced in 1792. The final 40 chapters restored the fortunes of the Jia family following the tragic love affair of Baoyu and Daiyu. But was it all the work of the master, or had another (possibly the “new wife” mentioned in a friend’s memoriam poem) added a happy (or happier) ending to make the manuscript more palatable to readers of the period? Most likely all we will ever know is that Cao’s original resonated so strongly that nearly a dozen “continuations,” the equivalent of today’s fan fiction, exist, tying a happy ending onto the original tragedy.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a June of writings about Texas and the Southwest with Native American author N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child.)