Friday, May 22, 2015

Adventure classics – Channeling Austen (or Cao Xueqin)

Dream of the Red Chamber
by Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsueh-Chin)
The 18th century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin (or in the earlier method of transliteration, Tsao Hsueh-Chin), is sometimes compared with Romeo and Juliet because of its tragic love story. A 21st century adapter, Pauline A. Chen, compares it to Gone with the Wind for its depiction of a young man torn between the love of two women as his aristocratic society falls into decline. But the comparison that most struck me when I began the 1958 translation by Wang Chi-Chen was to . . . Jane Austen.

Written by a near contemporary of Austen on the opposite side of the world, Dream of the Red Chamber’s depictions of ordinary life, and especially of the interests of women, broke with the classical Chinese literature of its day.

As we learn in the opening chapter, the story is ostensibly written on a celestial stone (previously incarnated as the novel’s hero). Wise critics object to publishing the story on the grounds that “There is no mention of exemplary virtues and illustrious deeds. We have here only a tale of a few romantic and sentimental maidens.” The stone rebuts their objections, citing the flaws of standard literature – its stereotyped heroes, heroines and villains. “It is much better, it would seem to me,” the stone says, “to record the lives of the several maidens whom I have seen with my own eyes and have listened to with my own ears during the short span of my life on earth.”

And so the story was told – of the love of the spoiled hero, Baoyu, (Precious Jade, literally born with the immortal stone in his mouth) for both the beautiful but unconventional Daiyu (Black Jade) and the equally lovely but conventional Baochai (Precious Virtue), whose translated name alone is enough to make her anathema to Janeites.

So what have we got? A handsome but entitled hero, Baoyu, (shades of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy as well as of the more sinister John Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility). Then there’s the thinks-for-herself Daiyu (P&P’s Elizabeth Bennett); the daughter of a widowed, self-absorbed father (Emma); the large, unruly and uncongenial family to which she is sent following her mother’s death (more P&P, not to mention Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park); the sometimes stultifying conventions of etiquette and mores; and the familial, economic and social pressures to marry the “right” person, regardless of the claims of the heart. All of these being tropes devotees of either Red Chamber or Austen’s novels know by heart.

It’s enough to make a reader wonder whether there was something catching in the worldwide atmosphere of the late 18th century. Or more fancifully, to wonder whether Austen (born 1775) might have been a reincarnation of Cao (died approximately 1764).

The simpler reason for the convergence, the reason that made Red Chamber a hit with everyone from its 18th century readers to Mao Zedong (despite later outlawing the book during the Cultural Revolution) to readers of Pauline Chen’s leaner modern adaption is that, as the now sadder but wiser hero/stone says, “the average man of the marketplace generally prefers unpretentious works of fiction to treatises with a serious purpose. . . I do not wish people to praise my story as unique and wonderful, or to consult it for moral guidance. I only hope they may find distraction in its pages when they are satiated. . . or when sorrow and disappointment cause them to seek solace. . . .”

The stone, of course, may be less than ingenuous in his/its protestation. Dream of the Red Chamber (like the Gothic thrillers Northanger Abbey heroine Catherine Morland delighted in) is actually a huge book. With its nearly 40 major characters (and another 300 or so minor ones), and extensive depiction of Chinese life and culture of the time, it’s complex enough to have spawned its own academic field, dubbed Redology.

I’ll take next Friday’s post to explore at least the love story of Dream of the Red Chamber, without getting overly scholarly. In the meantime, consider tasting the modern-language sample of Pauline A. Chen’s version at NPR Books. And imagine, in some literary heaven, Jane Austen and Cao Xueqin sitting down to a fine chat over afternoon tea.

(On a completely different note, there’s some serious literary adventure going on with DL Hammons WRiTE CLUB 2015 contest. Check out the contenders and vote for your favorite on his blog.)

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