A Pillar of Chinese Literature

The world of literature is brimming with classical works that have developed into representatives of their origins. Great Britain has Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Spain has Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote and Japan has Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. For China, four literary classics, collectively referred to as Four Great Classic Novels, have been heralded by sinologists as the pinnacles of Chinese literature. Of pre-modern Chinese fiction, these four canons are the most extensively studied, and the most widely read. Their influences are prevalent and their impact still resonate in the contemporary. When the east slowly opened to the west, coupled with the ensuing globalization, these four classics were the representatives of Chinese literature, literary doors that introduced the west to Chinese society, culture, and history.

Of these four novels, Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is oldest, published in the 14th century. Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin was also published in the 14th century while Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West was published in the 16th century. While the influence of the first three novels are incomparable, it was the most recent, Tsao Hsueh-Chin’s Dream of the Red Chamber that many literary scholars have considered as the greatest of all Chinese novels. Tsao Hsueh-Chin begun working on Hung Lou Meng in 1740s, during the Qing dynasty, and continued writing the initial manuscript until his death in 1763/4. The influence of Hung Lou Meng was far-reaching that it even has a field of study dedicated to the novel: Redology.

Hung Lou Meng commenced with a frame story relating the origin of the Stone of Spiritual Understanding. It was the only Stone left over when Nügua, the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, repaired the Dome of Heaven. The Goddess inadvertently bestowed the stone a spark of life, imbuing it with supernatural powers. With its power, the Stone can will itself to change its size and. However, the Goddess’ rejection made it unhappy. One day, it came across a Buddhist Monk and a Taoist priest. It convinced them to take him along to experience life in the Red Dust (the mortal world). With his own power, the monk transformed the stone into a piece of pure translucent jade. The stone then enters the Red Dust, reborn as Chia Pao-Yu.

“You will be treasured now as a precious object, but you will still lack real distinguishing marks. A few characters must be engraved upon you so that everyone who sees you will recognize you as something unique. Only then shall we take you down to some prosperous land, where you will enjoy the advantages of a noble and cultured family and all the pleasures that wealth and position can bring.”

~ Tsao Hsueh-Chin, Dream of the Red Chamber

Chia Pao-Yu, whose name literally translates to Precious Jade, was the hero of the novel. Introduced in the novel when he was already in his teenage years, he was born into an affluent and influential family, the Chia clan. The clan was comprised of two houses, Ningkuo and Yungkuo, respectively founded by two brothers, Chia Yen, and Chia Yuan, with the members of the two houses occupying two adjacent compounds in the capital. With their connections to the Qing Dynasty Imperial Court, the Chia clan has risen in status and power. Pao-Yu was the first son of Chia Cheng and Lady Wang, and was the heir apparent to the House of Yungkuo.

The stone Pao-Yu was born with was the chief reason other version of the novel carried the title The Story of the Stone. Other versions have published the novel as A Dream of Red Mansions. The hung-lou in the Chinese title translates to red chamber, pertaining to the chamber where young maidens live. In hindsight, it was a subtle allusion to the fond relationship Pao-Yu forged with the female members of the household, from cousins to maidservants. His mother and grandmother, the domineering “Matriarch”, also spoiled him to no end. His closeness with the female members of the household, coupled with his carefree attitude and obstinacy, were causes of concern for his strict Confucian father, creating a gap between father and son.

Dream of the Red Chamber further zeroed in on the life of Pao-yu who was soon captivated by the beauty of his cousin, Black Jade. Following the untimely demise of her mother, Black Jade joined the Yungkuofu, and was warmly received by the Matriarch. Complimenting her beauty is a cleverness which matched Pao-yu’s own. She also shared Pao-yu’s love for music and poetry but was suffering from frail health. Nevertheless, her malady did not preclude her or Pao-yu from becoming mutually attracted with each other. However, because of their youth, they can only express their feelings through random flashes of anger when their paths cross. This made Pao-yu run towards the comfort of Precious Virtue, whose tact and worldliness was the antithesis to Black Jade’s unconventionality.

The relationship between Pao-yu, Black Jade, and Precious Virtue formed the mantle of the narrative. However, Dream of the Red Chamber does not reduce itself into a Chinese romance story. On the backdrop, the novel charted the story of the Chia clan. Vivid and intimate details of their opulent lifestyle were portrayed by Tsao. Due to their exponential rise to prominence, the clan became complacent of their status, with their financial affairs in disarray. Disaster struck when the imperial concubine (or consort), a member of the clan, suddenly died. Their fortune inevitably declined and some members of the family were thrown into exile after earning the ire of the Emperor.

“I never thought that there were such lovely persons in the world. Compared to him, I am but a pig wallowing in the mud and a mongrel afflicted with sores. What a pity that I should be born in a rich family and be kept from intimate associations such a lovable person!”

~ Tsao Hsueh-Chin, Dream of the Red Chamber

One interesting aspect of the novel is its textual history. Dream of the Red Chamber originally existed in manuscript form comprised of eighty completed chapters written by Tsao before his death. In 1791, almost three decades following Tsao’s death, a completed version of the novel was published by Gao E, a Qing dynasty scholar, writer and editor, and his partner, Cheng Weiyuan. However, the veracity of the published text was into question as it contained edits and revisions by Gao E that were not authorized by the author. Forty chapters were also added to the original eighty, the origin of which remains a question to redology scholars and literary pundits.

The translated version of the novel exists in varying length. The complete English translation was comprised of five volumes totaling a whopping 2,500 to 3,000 pages. The 1989 Anchor Books edition was an expanded version of the original abridged version published in 1929 and translated by Chi-Chen Wang, Professor Emeritus of Chinese at Columbia University. Professor Wang did away with some of the many incidents and of the poetry that inevitably fattened the original text, without sacrificing the central story. This resulted to a tighter narrative carefully woven together to suit a reader in hurry.

Despite the questions on the veracity of the published text and the disparities in the translated versions, it cannot be denied that Tsao did a commendable job of portraying 18th century Chinese society through vivid and intricate details. Through his astute observations, the novel resonated with several details of Qing Dynasty China, from the role of Chinese Opera in society, and intricacies of funeral rites. Arranged marriages, and imperial consorts and concubines were both passed down from earlier generations but remained prevalent in Qing China. Arranged marriages are still observed in the contemporary but to a more limited extent. The novel also depicted in evocative details the influences of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism on the every day life of both the aristocrats and the commoners.

Chinese cuisine, tea culture, proverbs, and festivities were also incorporated to the lush text, along with other important symbols of China. Jade, for instance, was important in spirituality and was part and parcel of Pao-yu. Oriental medicine, of which China would eventually became renowned of, was also a subtle but seminal facet of the society. One of the novel’s more interesting facets was the physical and psychological fragility that plagued the members of the clan. Frequent crying and emotional outbursts characterized some members whilst mental derangement and substance abuse riddled the family. Suicide, favorably accepted by the society as a solution to life’s problem, was also prevalent.

“You will be treasured now as a precious object, but you will lack real distinguishing marks. A few characters must be engraved upon you so that everyone who sees you will recognize you as something unique. Only then shall we take you down to some prosperous land, where you will enjoy the advantages of a noble and cultured family and all the pleasures that wealth and position can bring.”

~ Tsao Hsueh-Chin, Dream of the Red Chamber

The story of the Chia clan rippled with elements of Tsao’s own life. Whilst little is known about Tsao’s own life, his family records were uncovered by literary scholars. He descended from an affluent family who gained prestige and influence because of its ties to the Imperial household. The family’s prestige reached its peak during Emperor Kangxi’s reign (4 May 1654 – 20 December 1722). Tsao’s great-grandfather, Tsao Xi, was appointed as the Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in Jiangning (present-day Nanjing). The Emperor’s death was as prelude to the family’s decline. Kangxi’s successor confiscated the Tsaos’ properties. By the time of Tsao Hsueh-Chin’s birth, the family was already destitute, a shell of its former glories. Tsao also had very little firsthand knowledge of the height of his family’s success. The story of the Chias reflected the same fortunes and misfortunes of the author’s descendants.

A vast cast of characters was introduced by the novel, with the unabridged version revolving around 40 main characters and over 400 additional characters. Of these characters, it was Pao-yu, the hero of the novel, who propelled the narrative. His birth placed him into a prominent position, that of the scion of the House of Yungkuo. However, rather than living up to the family’s lofty standards, he refused to be burdened by what was bestowed him. He was carefree and has a will of his own, which further estranged him from his father. Instead of reading the Four Books of classic Chinese education, he chose to read Zhuangzi and Romance of the Western Chamber. He also enjoys poetry and music. Black Jade and Precious Virtue were also complex characters who complimented Pao-yu’s own complexity.

Rather than a straight forward plot, Tsao detailed the story of the Chias through a series of episodes. Poetry was a seminal part of the characters’ lives and daily interaction. These poems, composed by members of the family, deals with a vast array of subjects ranging from the quotidian to the complex. They were interspersed with the main prose, rendering it a different complexion. The story was also replete with elements of the superstitious and the supernatural. The novel, after all, commenced with the story of the Stone. The dream sequences that Pao-yu experience follows the progress of his own spiritual enlightenment.

Parts-family saga, parts-romance story, parts-social study, Dream of the Red Chamber is a masterpiece of storytelling. With its rich and complex evocations of Qing Dynasty China, Tsao painted a vivid portrait of China through the story of a family in decline. In a way, the story of the Chias is a microcosm of a society and an empire that was slowly declining in influence in power. Dream of the Red Chamber is a seminal canon in both Chinese literature and world literature. It is both rich and complex but despite its complexity, it is a hallmark of excellence that undeniably belongs in the company of the best of world literature.



Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 25%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Whilst I have been reading for some time now, I do admit that I have read very limited works of Chinese literature. It is because of this that I have made it my mission to read the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese literature. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been on my reading list for a long time but it was Dream of the Red Chamber that was the first of these four literary classics that I have read. Ironically, my knowledge about it was very limited when I purchased it; I bought it because it was available and because of my limited venture into Chinese literature. Curious as to what the book has to offer, I immediately indulged in it ahead of the other books in my bookshelves. I have to admit that I did have challenges in reading the novel. The mixture of long paragraphs and poems did confound me a bit. The story also took time to develop. Or perhaps because the version I read was abridged, I was forced to understand the narrative in compact sentences and paragraphs? To fully appreciate the prose, one has to be patient. Once I have established a sustainable pace, the narrative unraveled. It is still my desire to read the unabridged, all five volumes of it. For now, my goal is to read the other three (or five) representative works of Chinese literature.

Book Specs

Author: Tsao Hsueh-Chin (Cáo Xuěqín)
Translators: (From Chinese) Chi-Chen Wang
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: 1989
Number of Pages: 329
Genre: Family Saga


For more than a century and a half, Dream of the Red Chamber has been recognized by sophisticated readers in China as the greatest of its novels. In it we experience the lives of two households in Peking, belonging to the same family, in which five generations live together with their innumerable retainers, servants, relatives, and other hangers-on. One generation is the particular concern of the author: a group of sisters, half sisters, and cousins, among whom is one boy, the hope of the great house of Chia. The love of this boy and his cousin – a Romeo and Juliet story – is the central theme of the novel; but around them is woven the complex life of the two great palaces and of the capital itself. What emerges is a rich portrait of one of the world’s great civilizations.

About the Author

Very little is known about Tsao Hsueh-Chin (also Cáo Xuěqín). The grandson of of Cao Yin, the former Textile Commissioner in Nanking and greatly favored by Emperor Kangxi, his given name was Cáo Zhān and his courtesy name was Mèngruǎn. Tsao’s exact date of birth is a subject of debate amongst redology scholars. However, it is believed that he was born in either 1715 or 1724 in Jiangning (now Nanjing), Jiangsu province, China.

The known details of Tsao’s life were passed down from his contemporaries and friends. Tsao eventually moved to the countryside west of Beijing. There, he spent most of his later years in poverty and earning a living by selling off his paintings. However, his name was immortalized by his most important work, Hung Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), a novel he worked for about a decade. After its publication, it was heralded as one of the masterpieces of Chinese literature, and was even included as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

Tsao died suddenly in 1763/4, out of grief following the untimely demise of his son.