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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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Text: English, Chinese (translation)
About the Author
Cao Xueqin (1715-63) was born into a family which for three generations held the office of Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in Nanking, a family so wealthy they were able to entertain the Emperor four times. However, calamity overtook them and their property was consfiscated. Cao Xueqin was living in poverty when he wrote his famous novel The Story of the Stone.
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The other reviews on Amazon summarize the book well. Some of them comment on the translation's accuracy, which I cannot do, being too feeble in my Chinese to follow its difficult prose. There are several things to add, however.
I'm currently reading it for the 3rd time (I have also read the abridged translations), with an eye to studying the ways emotion is represented, for some work on emotions across cultures that I am involved in. The interesting thing here is that the whole incredibly diverse, elaborate, and minutely described emotional landscape of the novel is instantly and totally accessible and comprehensible to a sensitive western reader (at least, to with some knowledge of Chinese conventions). There is nothing remotely like the utterly alien, incomprehensible emotional and personal landscape that stereotypes and superficial western accounts ascribe to the Chinese. There is also nothing like the utterly socialized Chinese, incapable of individuality, seen in most western accounts of cross-cultural psychology. In fact, Cao's characters are sometimes quirky, sometimes downright eccentric, and always individuals and characters. This is (of course) a much more accurate portrayal of Chinese persons than the stereotyping western literature.
The western reader is even apt to do as Chinese readers often do, and identify Cao's characters with people they know. Cultural psychologists take note.
First is the stunning level of social commentary here, focused tightly and relentlessly on the plight of women in a traditional elite North Chinese household, but also on the plight of the servant and commoner classes in that elitist situation. Cao Xueqin explores every possible misfortune that can befall good women (including being corrupted into not-so-good women).
Cao was humorous and gently ironic. The brilliant but feckless and unpredictable hero Bao-yu survives largely because of his infinitely caring, sensible, always-there maid and lover Aroma. Several of the other characters also depend on servants who are conspicuously more sane and competent than their masters and mistresses.
Nobody in the English-language literature seems to point out that this was part of a movement. The great poets Zheng Xie and Yuan Mei were exact contemporaries of Cao Xueqin. Cao would probably have known their work. They had the same socially critical stance. They had the same highly empathetic attitudes toward women, including women of the servant class. If the latter phrase sounds very feudal and hierarchic, reflect, American readers: our poets and novelists are very often elite New Englanders and New Yorkers; you know they have servants; yet it will be a cold day in Hell before you find a sympathetic portrait of a maid in any of their stuff. Cao is way ahead.
Zheng and Yuan were also capable of the same sort of intensely personal, intimate, open writing about love that Cao managed so well. There is a wonderful translation of one of Zheng's more painful and personal love poems in V. McHugh and C. Kwock, WHY I LIVE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a booklet that should be more widely known--alas rare and obscure.
Moreover, this humanistic attitude--toward women, or just toward everybody--spread to Japan; think of Rai Sanyo and Ryokan. I doubt if they ever heard of Cao, but they surely had read Yuan Mei and very likely had read Zheng and others.
There were a good number of women writers at the time. Some were proteges of Yuan Mei. No one seems to know what happened to the women in Cao's own personal life.
Chinese society in the early Qing Dynasty was horribly hierarchic and oppressive, not least to women, but the countercurrents represented by Cao and others were powerful and important. They lie behind modern women's movements in East Asia.