Skip to main content

The Dream of the Red Chamber

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

Dream of the Red Chamber. By Tsao Hsuch-chin and Kao Ngoh. Translated and adapted from the Chinese by Chi-chen Wang, with a preface by Arthur Walcy. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Company. $3.00.

The story of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” moves in a background that is strange to Western readers. It is a story that one has to assimilate slowly. I have read it bit by bit in my study, in railway trains, in hotel rooms. But each time as I have lost myself in the slow movement of a chapter of the tale, there has seemed to fall over these surroundings familiar to occidental life a veil of oriental mystery. I have felt myself moving in scenes whose meaning was only fragmentary revealed, gazing at symbols which disappeared before I could master their significance, an untutored being reaching wistfully for knowledge that was beyond my ken.

One is caught at the very beginning by contemplation of a vast stone which had been rejected when the Empress Nu-Kua essayed to repair heaven, but which had derived such spiritual qualities from her touch that it could contract into a pendant of jade, enter into the life of a human family on the red earth, and afterwards expand again, bearing in thousands of characters the record of its adventures. It was a record of the multifarious life of the noble but unfortunate family of the Yungkuofu, in which complicated family relationships, the management of servants, the celebration of feasts, the rites of marriage and of death all follow strange formulas. Mysterious Taoist and Buddhist priests appear and disappear, dreams are more real than waking deeds, flowers and birds suggest strange symbolism, clouds and lakes appear in novel perspective, officials reach posts of distinction by mastery of the classics, and through the very music of the frequent poems sound the notes of an unfamiliar literature. As one slowly reads, the Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding is borne into a Great Void Illusion Land, over the gate of which are the words: “When the unreal is taken for the real, the real becomes unreal;

“Where non-existence is taken for existence, existence is then non-existence.”

Yet the effect is not sheer mystery. It has reminded me of Chinese feasts. Though during my years in the interior of China in sundry matters of the banquet ritual I learned to play my part, I could never lose the sense of foreign crudeness stumbling in the midst of an ancient and formal and subtle culture. But this feeling of my inadequateness was matched with a delightful sense of the comprehension and courtesy of my Chinese friends. Therein was no barrier of language or of etiquette, and my, heart was warmed with understanding. In like manner a contrast dawns upon the reader of “The Dream of the Red Chamber.” Even in the midst of the strange background there is being enacted a story that runs true to human nature whether of the East or of the West,

It is a story of family life and of young love. Pao-yu, the hero, and the maidens, Black Jade and Precious Virtue, have barely emerged from childhood. Their youth is spent within the walls that surround the spacious family compound. Within, skillfully ruling over the three hundred “mouths” of the Yungkuo family is the Matriarch. She is like a salty proverb, full of shrewd wisdom; and it is no empty reverence that is paid to this delightful dowager. Black Jade, a clever and beautiful girl of delicate health, on the death of her mother comes from her home to live with the family of her relatives. She is kindly received. She meets Pao-yu, the handsome and willful scion of the family, who had been born with a piece of jade in his mouth. At the first meeting he promptly loses his heart and his temper.

But life goes on. There are school scenes, told with the verve of Booth Tarkington. A poor country cousin makes a visit and convulses everyone with her quaint ways and homely wit. Bits of tragedy peer out from sad hearts. There are tales of unseemly intrigue; and amorous intruders are treated with Chaucerian contumely. Women exchange gossip and medicinal recipes. One of the daughters of the family is chosen as an imperial concubine, and the fortunes of the Yungkuofu are in the ascendant.

Summers succeed springtimes. The proud and sensitive Black Jade and the impulsive Pao-yu mutually attract each other. But each is somehow impelled to show the worse side to the other. Sparks of bad temper flash when they meet, and misunderstandings and regrets canker their absences. Pao-yu loafs in his studies and is chidden by his father. Lie falls ill. The kindness of Precious Virtue soothes him. His spirits are quickened by some new impulse and he recovers. A poetry club is formed. Pao-yu does not especially shine, but Precious Virtue wins laurels because of her depth of sentiment and Black Jade because of the cleverness and distinction of her verses.

Autumn leaves fall and New Years roll around. The youths and maidens reach their late ‘teens. Pao-yu loses his jade pendant. Black Jade’s illness develops alarming symptoms. The imperial concubine dies. The family fortunes decline. Some of its members incur the displeasure of the Emperor and are exiled. Pao-yu’s father is appointed to a distant magistracy. The Matriarch decides that Pao-yu must be married at once. Her choice of the bride is not easy, for the eyes of the wise old grandmother have not been blind. But the family must be served; and of all the maidens, Precious Virtue is most eligible. So it is decreed. Word reaches Black Jade cruelly by way of gossip, and her illness moves rapidly to a climax. By an ill-advised subterfuge Pao-yu is allowed to understand that Black Jade is to be the bride. He gladly accepts this rumoured decision. Simultaneously occur the agony of Pao-yu’s disillusionment at the moment of marriage and the heartbreaking scene of Black Jade’s death. The wedding is as tragic as a Greek drama. One’s emotion is purged to exhaustion. Only the honesty and understanding of the lovely and unfortunate bride, Precious Virtue, lighten the gloom.

The ending is hurried—at least in this rendering into English. A Buddhist priest presses his way in for a whispered word with the stricken Pao-yu, and the lost jade mysteriously reappears. Pao-yu gradually recovers, resumes his studies, and passes the official examinations with high rank. Some degree of prosperity returns to the Yungkuofu. The exiles are recalled. It becomes known that Precious Virtue will give birth to a child, which turns out eventually to be a son. But Pao-yu disappears forever in company with the priest.

Of course no mere summary can be just to the extraordinary content of such a realistic and diversified story of Chinese family life as “The Dream of the Red Chamber” presents within its strange setting. This is a great novel. With “The Three Kingdoms” it ranks foremost among the novels of the old Chinese literature. The characters and the incidents of these two tales are as familiar to one quarter of the world’s population as are the characters and incidents of “David Copperfield” and “Les Miserables” to the peoples of the West. It would be difficult to exaggerate the effect which these two novels, through the printed page and the voices of the professional story, tellers, have had upon Chinese life for many generations.

Yet it is odd that, in spite of the popularity in China of stories like “The Dream of the Red Chamber” and “The Three Kingdoms,” in the old Chinese literature fiction was placed near the bottom of the literary scale. The service rendered by such stories in revealing the intimate life of the people seems not yet to have had adequate recognition. Moreover fiction reached its public in large part through the mouths of the story tellers. It was replete with superstitious and supernatural elements—though sometimes the introduction of the supernatural may have been a device to lift such stories toward the plane of moral exhortations. Certainly moralizing about historic characters was not infrequent in the old Chinese novels. The author of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” feels called upon at the outset to explain why he does not link his story with a definite Dynasty and adorn his tale with allusions to the morals of the court. “In avoiding this convention,” he writes, “and confining myself to my own story, I am opening a chapter in the history of fiction.”

These words were written about the middle of the eighteenth century. It is significant that Professor Hu Shih, the brilliant leader of the twentieth century Chinese literary revolution which has turned literary expression into the freer channels of the colloquial and has thereby given new life and status to such forms as the novel, has recently made an exhaustive study of “The Dream of the Red Chamber.” In other words, it has remained for the Chinese of our day to discover in a novel material worthy of scholarly investigation. And one of Professor Hu Shih’s conclusions has been that the original author, Tsao Hsueh-chin (whose incompleted work was finished, in the version that is used for this translation, by Kao Ngoh), was actually venturing the innovation of writing about his own family.

A word should be added concerning the translation. In the form before us the twenty-four volumes and the three or four thousand pages of the original are reduced to a book only a few pages longer than “Jalna.” Many of the incidents, much of the poetry, all of the story-teller’s tags at the ends of the chapters are omitted. The background foliage is thinned out and the central story is woven together to give greater continuity and directness. The translator, Mr. Wang Chi-chen, has made a courteous and skillful attempt to adapt “The Dream of the Red Chamber” to the limitations of Western hurry. In this respect his work is in amusing contrast with the translation of “The Three Kingdoms” by Mr. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor.1 The Chinese translator has not feared to amputate his text in consideration for his Western readers; the Englishman has risked exhaustion on the part of his readers through reverence for the Chinese original.

At any rate the effort to read “The Dream of the Red Chamber” is eminently worth making. In these days there appears to be a commendable desire on the part of many Americans to know something about China. That desire tends to meet discouragements. When the story from China in Tuesday’s newspapers seems to contradict the story in Monday’s papers, on Wednesday we feel inclined to keep to items from Washington and Chicago and Wall Street which we flatteringly believe ourselves to understand. But the newspapers have to be too factual and occidental. The China of today is not springing full grown from the headaches of America or Great Britain or Russia. It is emerging out of the China of yesterdays. And into the life of old China the reading of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” offers a first lesson in real insight.

1. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. English version by C. H, Brewitt-Taylor. Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1925. Two volumes. The original was written about 1300 and deals with political intrigue and warfare in the second and third centuries, A, D.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading