Dream Of The Red Chamber Summary

Cao Xueqin

Dream Of The Red Chamber

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Dream Of The Red Chamber Summary

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Dream of the Red Chamber, also named The Story of the Stone, was written by Cao Xueqin, and is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. Written sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, during the Qing Dynasty, it has long been considered a great masterpiece of Chinese literature. The novel is generally considered the pinnacle of Chinese fiction, although it is also believed to be semi-autobiographical. It follows much of the rise and fall of author Cao Xueqin’s family, and by extension, the Qing Dynasty. “Redology” is the field of study dedicated exclusively to this work. The title is up for debate, sometimes translated as Red Chamber Dream or A Dream of Red Mansions. It was circulated for some time with different titles until the official print publication of 1791. The first eighty chapters were written by Cao Xueqin, but in the first and second printed editions, another forty chapters were added by Gao E and his partner, Cheng Weiyuan, in 1791-2.

Dream of the Red Chamber is remarkable for the author’s detail in describing his many friends, relatives, and servants. It also offers a precise and detailed observation of life and social structures in eighteenth-century Chinese society and life. Reflective of the society and Chinese culture, themes include medicine, cuisine, tea culture, festivities, proverbs, mythology, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, filial piety, opera, music, funeral rites, painting, classic literature, and the Four Books. Dream of the Red Chamber is also well-known for its grand and beautiful use of poetry and verse.

Dream of the Red Chamber provides a detailed, episodic record of the lives of two separate branches of the Jia clan, a wealthy and aristocratic family. The first is the Rongguo House, the second the Ningguo House. Both branches live in two large, adjacent family compounds in the capital. Long ago, their ancestors were made Dukes and given imperial titles, and at the beginning of this story they are among the most illustrious of families in the entire city.

The eldest grandson of Duke Ning-kuo, Jia Fu, dies young, so the second grandson, Jia Ching, succeeds to the title. But Jia Ching’s heart is set on a religious life, so he gives his title to his son, Jia Chen, a free-spirited, indulgent libertine, who has an illicit affair with his son’s wife, Chin Ko-ching.

One of the clan’s offspring is chosen to be a Royal Consort, a great honour. A lush, landscaped garden is built to receive her visit. This is one of the great turning points, which lifts the Jia clan much higher up on the social ladder than they had been before.

A key plot point in the story is a sentient Stone, abandoned by the goddess Nüwa. Nüwa is the goddess responsible for mending the heavens many aeons ago, but on her way, she abandoned the sentient Stone. The Stone begs a Taoist Priest and a Buddhist monk to bring it with them, because it would very much like to see the world. The Stone, then, is given a chance to learn from human existence and is able to enter the mortal realm. The Stone has a “companion” with him for help; in some instances they are separate beings. In some versions, however, like the Cheng-Gao editions, the Stone and its companion are merged into the same character.

The main character, or protégé of the novel, is a carefree and innocent adolescent male heir of the family. His name is Jia Baoyu. He was born with a magical piece of jade in his mouth. In this life, he is gifted with a special bond to his sickly cousin, Lin Daiyu. The cousins share a love of music and poetry, but unfortunately can never be married. Baoyu is predestined to marry his other cousin, Xue Baochai. Baochai is presented as the ideal woman. She is graceful, intelligent, and beautiful, but to Baoyu she is nothing special. He cannot form any kind of emotional connection with her. This Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet is a main focus of the novel. The romantic rivalry and friendship between these three characters is set up against the backdrop of the family’s declining fortunes and good will.

The novel describes the family wealth and influence in great naturalistic detail. It charts the Jia family’s fall from the height of their prestige, following thirty main characters and more than four hundred minor ones. Eventually the Jia clan falls into disfavour with the Emperor, and their mansions are raided and confiscated.