Dream of the Red Chamber Background

Dream of the Red Chamber Background

Cao Xueqin(Tsao Hsueh-Chin)'s Dream of the Red Chamber, also translated as The Story of the Stone, is widely considered the greatest and most studied of Chinese classical literature. Initially written in the mid 1700s, the work has since been released in innumerable conditions and many languages. Spanning twice as many pages War and Peace, it’s also one of the longest; the cast includes hundreds of characters in or related to the courts of two branches of a noble yet economically diminishing family in Beijing. At the fore are the character’s competition over romantic partners, power, and materials.

The novel is narrated by a third-person (occasionally second-person) semi-omniscient narrator with strong parallels to the Stone, a celestial being that decided to concern itself with “the Red Dust,” i.e. earthly affairs. The narrator, however, exists outside the Stone, the backstory of which the narrator establishes in the third person. Additional theories as to the narrator include his being Cao (and Gao E, who added forty chapters to the initial eighty) and the book therefore a historical piece. In this theory, Cao and Gao’s work can be interpreted as largely a critique of political, social, and economic structures of classical China.

Largely, the novel is a portrayal of the corruption, ephemerality, stark realism, and mortality of the material world. Therefore, all the chapters – the bulk of the book – concerning the Jia Family, which includes the aforementioned houses of Rongguo and Ningguo, can be seen as a foil by which Cao compares the worldly inferiorities of our world to the transcending superiorities of the heavenly. The text is heavily entrenched in Taoist and Buddhist thoughts on nature and materials.

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