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The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 1: The Golden Days Paperback – March 30, 1974
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"The Golden Days" begins in amusing, but sympathetic fashion: the goddess Nü-wa is repairing the sky with 36,501 stones. When she finishes, one remains, which is cast off. Having been touched by a goddess, this stone has magical properties, able to move, change size, and even talk. One day, a Buddhist monk and a Taoist come upon the stone, and promise to let the stone have an adventure - to become human. As the stone waits by a pond, it falls desperately in love with a Crimson Pearl Flower, which is also selected for incarnation by the Fairy Disenchantment. The stone and the flower are incarnated as the novel begins in earnest, as a young minor nobleman named Jia Bao-yu, and a commoner related to the family, a girl named Lin Dai-yu - both unaware of their heavenly origins. "The Golden Days" centers around the daily events and occurrences in the lives of these two teenagers, as they come to grips, as we all must, with human life.
The Rong and Ning branches of the Jia family, on opposite sides of Two Dukes Street, are the centerpieces of the novel's action. Like the "big house" fiction of the English eighteenth century, these ancestral manses provide a locus of activity, as the nobles, their extended families, friends, and servants mingle and interact constantly. Cao marks himself as a remarkable author by the way he handles a massive cast of characters, letting us into the private lives and concerns of all ranks of society, as well as the forms of etiquette that determine their relationships. Another terrific facet of the novel's construction is the almost stream of consciousness style Cao employs - as characters pass in and out of the immediate action of the novel, the narrative seems to choose the person it's most interested in and follow them for pages at a time, before seamlessly passing to the next character. It's really quite amazing, how, in this way, we come to understand the motivations, fears, and hopes of so many individuals. Time, distance, culture, Cao levels distinctions, making historical China accessible to even 21st century readers - he reduces people to their human concerns.
Cao Xueqin's novel is also remarkable for what I can only call it's pro(to)-feminist tone. While we are reminded by certain characters that male lineage is of major importance to the structure of the society, the narrative consistently shows the power, ability, and influence of women. At the novel's beginning, a Taoist named Vanitas finds the stone, and is asked to transcribe its story, but complains initially that it is about a "number of females". The stone obviously insists that the story be written out. Later, Bao-yu, the major male character, says he is more comfortable around women - that they are like water, while men are like mud, castoffs, unclean. One of the main characters of this volume is Wang Xi-feng, a young woman in her early twenties, who for an extended period, manages the affairs of both the Ning and Rong mansions. Cao's respect and admiration for the strong women in Bao-yu's life: Xi-feng, Dai-yu, and two particular servants, Aroma and Caltrop, is quite obvious and important to the novel.
If you are like me, and know tragically little about Chinese literature and culture, Cao takes care of that too - there is a heavy emphasis throughout the novel on the cultural productions of China. The book integrates a wide range of poetry, drama, fiction, folk wisdom, and mythology as a central part of Bao-yu and Dai-yu's upbringing. One can sense Cao's insistence in the novel that education and cultural production is of vital importance, particularly to children. While the Fairy Disenchantment seems to be the guiding spirit of the novel, hinting at the diappointments inevitable in the course of life, this is a novel about youth, and hope for the future, even in the midst of concern about how long prosperity can last. Taken altogether, "The Golden Days" cannot be recommended enough. David Hawkes's translation is first rate, and his introduction, pronunciation notes, and appendices are thorough and very helpful.