Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Story of the Stone

There are four highly-acclaimed Chinese novels which all students of Chinese literature should read, all of them huge, multi-volume epics. Both Journey to the West (reviewed 9/23/04) and Outlaws of the Marsh (rev. 10/21/04) were excellent, the former a fantastic quest adventure, the latter a satirical look at justice in medieval China. Each was approximately 1500 pages, and it took me the entire summer of 1996 to read them both.

The next of the four classics is the 2200 page Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin. One description called the novel the Chinese novel of manners. In some ways that is a somewhat deceptive description, but in others it is quite appropriate. Another good description might be the Chinese Upstairs-Downstairs, since basically it is the saga of one household in 18th century China. But what a complex household it is! Hundreds of people reside in the twin Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions. A small minority of them are family members. The others, over 500 strong, are servants!

The head of the family is Grandmother Jia, an 80 year old matron and absolute authority in the household. She has two sons Jia She and Jia Zheng and a daughter Jia Min, each of whom has spouses and children, as well as various cousins and in-laws, concubines, and hangers-on. Each member of the family has their own personal staff, headed by a chief maid who rules over a strict pecking order of lesser servants in each family member's retinue.

Even in 2200 pages it is impossible to deal with the entire family and staff thoroughly, so that 95% of the people in the household are barely mentioned in passing, if at all. Another 4% have their single moments in the sun, specific scenes in which they play important parts. Or people such as chief household steward Lai Da who reoccurs periodically and is obviously an important part of the household, but he never becomes an important part of the novel.

And then there are the remaining people upon whom the novel focuses most closely. Gradually they become living, breathing people that we learn to know very well and, at times, very intimately indeed. As is true in any successful saga, we come to love some of them deeply, resent others just as deeply, and have a myriad of mixed emotions towards the others, not necessarily the same emotions for each person by each reader.

The main character is Jia Bao-yu. At the novel's start, he is a young teenager, very personable, particularly close to the females, both family members and servants. He is also quite caring so that many of his crises through the novel are caused by his emotional reaction to the setbacks of others.

Bao-yu is also very loathe to partake of his studies, which frequently becomes a major point of contention between him and his father Jia Zheng. However, Bao-yu is the personal favorite grandchild of Grandmother Jia, which gives him advantages in his playfulness and slothful study habits.

Lin Dai-yu is the love of Bao-yu's life. She is his cousin, and his playmate while growing up, but rather than develop deep fraternal feelings towards each other, they are hopelessly in love at the novel's start and remain so throughout it. Dai-yu's nickname among the other youth in the household is Frowner, which aptly describes her personality. She is deeply insecure, always anticipating the worst, and frequently reacting badly to the most minor problems. At times her physical reaction to some emotional setback is so deep she lies on the verge of death while other family members desperately try to determine what physical ailment has struck her.

Of course, in any great romance there must be a triangle, so here we have Xue Bao-Chai, another cousin who has a deep, although hidden, crush on Bao-yu. Her true personality is a point of contention between Fei Fei and myself, so rather than take sides here I will only say that she is one of the more intriguing of the younger generation in the family.

Another member of the younger generation, although somewhat older and more established in the family hierarchy, is Wang Xi-feng. She basically runs the household in Grandmother Jia's stead, making all important decisions concerning personnel and finances. Although another favorite of Grandmother Jia, as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly evident that Xi-feng is definitely not a nice person. This is portrayed most convincingly when her husband Jia Lian secretly takes on a second wife. Now the reader's natural instinct is to sympathize with the aggrieved wife in such an instance, but Xi-feng's actions towards the second wife are so vicious that I can almost guarantee every single reader will feel the same emotions towards her that I did after that instance.

Almost as important as the above characters are their chief maids. Aroma, Faithful, Patience and others are anything but faceless servants hovering in the background. They are accorded the respect almost due a true family member by the lower staff members, and deservedly so. More than just mere servants, they are confidantes, advisors and, in many instances, plan out and perform duties that save their charges from some very trying situations.

The novel's 2200 pages is chock-full of subplots, some which linger on for much of the novel's length, others which occur and resolve in the space of a single chapter. The novel's 120 chapters contain many wonderfully-exciting scenes involving every facet of human emotions from humor to adventure to romance to intrigue. As the characters grow and mature, the cast of the novel changes slightly. Some people leave the mansions, while others arrive. Several people die, often in scenes of great emotional impact. It is hard to imagine any reader not being moved to both tears of grief and tears of laughter while reading Story of the Stone.

An added bonus for a sinophile like me is the wealth of knowledge I learned from reading this novel. Everyday life in the twin mansions is strictly determined by centuries of Chinese philosophy and tradition, and steeped in glorious Chinese culture. More than just a novel, the 2200 pages are a virtual textbook in Chinese history and culture. Besides the numerous passing references to important historical persons and events, and the well-developed background in which the novel is steeped, there are entire scenes devoted to the study of Chinese poetry and Chinese philosophy. Not dry scenes of boring exposition, but thoroughly entertaining scenes such as when the younger generation of cousins form a poetry club.

The novel has a powerful ending that is nearly a full volume (out of the five) in developing. Author Cao Xueqin was a member of a rich, important Chinese family that fell on hard times, thus spending a good portion of his life in abysmal poverty. While Story of the Stone is not autobiographical, it is closely patterned on the events of Cao's own life.

Anybody who enjoys family sagas will absolutely love Story of the Stone. Yes, it is a soap opera, but a high class soap opera on the level of War and Peace and Upstairs Downstairs. You will love its people, its plots and subplots, its wondrous scenes, and, hopefully, the world in which it is drenched. I cannot possibly compare this novel to either Journey to the West or Outlaws of the Marsh because all three are so different indeed. I am just glad to have read all three of them, and wish I could have spent more time immersed in each of the worlds.


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