When I was a 19-year-old undergraduate majoring in East Asian studies, I read a translation of the classical Chinese masterpiece The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber), by Cao Xueqin. The complete novel fills five volumes, and I was assigned to read only volume one, but I was so taken by the story and characters that I continued the read the subsequent volumes. I was sucked into the epic tale of the 18th century Jia family, whose operatic story was a complicated web of love triangles, ambition, filial piety, rebellion, and betrayal. It’s the stuff of great drama.
To my mind, it is no small feat for an author to re-imagine and translate the world of The Story of the Stone for a Western audience. This is the task Pauline Chen set herself in writing her novel, The Red Chamber. Readers are informed in an author’s note that The Red Chamber is “inspired” by Cao Xueqin’s original classic, rather than a faithful re-telling of the epic novel.
The original novel centers around the character of Jia Baoyu, an adolescent male heir of a wealthy aristocratic family in 18th century China. Jia Baoyu was born with a jade in his mouth, a sign that causes his family to believe him chosen by the gods. Baoyu lives in his family’s extensive compound, Rongguo Mansion, cloistered in an inner garden with his female cousins and flirtatious maids, an arrangement that would have been considered inappropriate, but is allowed by Baoyu’s grandmother because of his jade.
At the opening of The Red Chamber, Jia Baoyu is 18 years old and has yet to pass the Imperial Examination, despite his promise of greatness. He is more worldly than in Cao Xueqin’s original, leaving Rongguo Mansion to attend school and parties with other prominent political families. In the original novel, Baoyu comes across as immature, effeminate, and clownish. In The Red Chamber, Baoyu has morphed into a metrosexual stud muffin.
Jia Baoyu plays a less prominent role in The Red Chamber than three female characters who circle around him. Lin Daiyu, a cousin related to Baoyu on his father’s side, arrives at Rongguo Mansion after her mother passes away in the South, where she and her father lived a modest scholar’s life. Daiyu is as well-educated as a boy of this time period, passionate and a romantic at heart. Baoyu is instantly smitten with her.
Xue Baochai, a cousin related to Baoyu on his mother’s side, has been living at Rongguo for a few years. She is sensible and level-headed, cool and implacable. Growing up with Baoyu, they share a flirtatious, affectionate relationship. Their parents have long joked of betrothing Baochai to Baoyu, an unspoken arrangement which is fraught with tension when Daiyu arrives on the scene. Evidently, kissing cousins were the norm during the Qing Dynasty.
Wang Xifeng -- the third central female character -- is married to Baoyu’s elder male cousin, Jia Lian. Only a few years older than Baoyu and his female cousins, Xifeng assumes the senior daughter-in-law position of running the household and runs Rongguo with great efficiency. Shrewd and cunning, Xifeng is forced to defend her position in the family as she fails to produce an heir. Her husband is prone to gambling and prostitutes and treats her with scorn. In addition, Xifeng is in charge of the family ledgers and sees the writing on the wall as the family’s fortunes decline. Caught in an unhappy life with no way out, Xifeng struggles to find pockets of tenderness to preserve her humanity.
Photo of the author by Michael Levy
As someone who has read the original, I appreciate how Chen remained true to these three female characters, even as the plot and scenes may have diverged. I found myself rooting for all three women to find happiness, even if their fates seem inevitable. At one point, Wang Xifeng voices the open secret to a group of the younger female cousins:
A woman doesn’t have any choices in life. Even from a good family like ours, she has to marry whomever her parents choose for her. If, by stroke of luck, he is a decent fellow, then she might be fortunate. But if he is a bad man, as is far more likely, she will suffer.
At the same time, the narrative is not entirely unsympathetic to “traditional family values,” as is noted in a later chapter through the character of Baochai, who silently chastises a rebellious Daiyu:
Didn’t she understand that belonging to a large household was like being suspended in a web? You could not move a muscle without feeling the cling of gossamer threads, without knowing that your movements sent reverberations up and down the entire structure. Didn’t she know how she would fall without those invisible threads to hold her safely aloft?
Much of The Red Chamber takes place within the walls of Rongguo Mansion, seemingly impervious to the goings-on in the real world, where the question driving the narrative seems to be who will get to marry Baoyu: Daiyu vs. Baochai, or “true” love vs. tradition? Two-thirds into the novel, the Emperor dies a suspicious death and the Jia family falls out of favor with the new regime. This is when the novel really takes off. The characters, previously sheltered by obscene wealth, are forced to survive on little more than their wits and the kindness of strangers. That’s the other stuff of good drama.
When you distill a sprawling 2500 page epic into a tight 400-page novel, you’re bound to lose something in translation. In The Red Chamber, Chen is forced to sacrifice some poetic subtleties for more obvious descriptions that may appeal to the Western audience. For example, in the original, there is one volume filled with beautiful, detailed descriptions of the gardens. As an undergrad, I skimmed over these sections. I was later to learn that flowers are sexual metaphors in Chinese culture and that I had totally missed the juicy parts. Chen doesn’t bother with the gardens; she just writes the sex scenes. An understandable decision in the interest of brevity, though I might add that the sex scenes made up some of the weaker writing in the novel. (When a character says, “I want you inside me,” it’s hard not to cringe.) Perhaps Chen might have taken a cue from the original and relied a little on metaphor in these scenes.
The Red Chamber will probably not be called a “masterpiece” like the classical text that inspired it. However, it is an enjoyable read and a good introduction to those interested in the original classic, The Story of the Stone. Perhaps The Red Chamber will inspire more Western readers to pick up the original, despite its five-volume heft. Do yourself a favor: don’t skim over the juicy parts.
Sabina Chen (no relation to the author) has her bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University. She reads, writes, and chases after her toddler in New Hampshire.