Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

Labyrinthine family saga
Hong Lou Meng, or Dream of the Red Chamber, is widely regarded as the greatest novel in the history of Chinese literature. It was written during the Qing dynasty by Cao Xueqin, who completed 80 chapters before his death in 1764, although earlier copies of the work exist that date back to 1754. The book was only circulated through hand-copied manuscripts until the first printed edition appeared in 1791. This printed edition contained 120 chapters, but there is disagreement over whether the last 40 chapters were written by Cao Xueqin or by the editors of the 1791 edition, Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan. English translations of Hong Lou Meng differ widely and vary in number of chapters. Wang Chi-Chen, a professor at Columbia University, published an English translation in 1929 and a revised and expanded edition in 1958. I am reviewing this 1958 translation of Dream of the Red Chamber, in its Doubleday Anchor Book paperback form. I believe this version of Wang’s translation, consisting of 60 chapters, is an abridged version of the original narrative, but it was plenty enough novel for me.

The story revolves around an extended Chinese family of wealthy aristocrats, the Jia or Chia clan, depending on which English translation you’re reading. The family is divided into two branches, who reside in adjoining compounds. The first thing that strikes you upon delving into the novel is that you are caught in a very tangled family tree. The cast contains over 400 characters, about ten percent of whom are considered major characters. How they are all connected is incredibly difficult to follow. You can find family trees related to the novel online, but they certainly don’t include everyone, and the spellings of the names may differ from your edition. In his translation, Wang uses the outdated Wade-Giles method of romanization rather than the more current Hanyu Pinyin system. He also translates the names of many female characters into English, like Black Jade, Phoenix, Precious Virtue, and Purple Cuckoo. The male characters, however, do not get the same treatment. The Chinese often refer to people by titles of familial relationships (e.g. second sister, maternal grandmother), which makes distinguishing one character from another even more difficult. I have more than a beginning familiarity with the Chinese language, in traditional characters and pinyin, but I still found Wang’s English translation a difficult read.

Nevertheless, Cao’s art still shines through. There is no denying this is a great work of literature. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, entire professorial careers have been built on the interpretation of this one work. The most prominent plot line involves a moving love story between two young cousins, and the fortune of the family as a whole follows an epic trajectory worthy of a classical Greek tragedy. Cao’s impartial depiction of high and low social classes is admirable for the 18th century. Also, Chinese literature seems refreshingly immune from the prudishness of its Western counterpart, judging from the fair amount of frank sexual content present in this novel.

The narrative structure and form of a Chinese classical novel differs from what Western readers are accustomed to, and for that reason Dream of the Red Chamber makes for a challenging read. That difference, however, is also one of the enticements to read the novel, because in doing so, the reader discovers firsthand the beauty and power of a foreign and unfamiliar art form. Any reader with an avid interest in Chinese history and culture will find this book worth the effort. I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend the Wang translation, but then again I haven’t experienced any other. Before investing a lot of time in the novel, I would suggest reading a few sample paragraphs from different editions to decide which version is the most comfortable.

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