China’s Best Classical Novel: Dream of the Red Chamber

A Timeless Epic

China's Best Classical Novel: Dream of the Red Chamber

Compliments of

Sophia Huang, Staff Writer

Last summer, I read a Chinese book Dream of the Red Chamber. It is one of China’s four greatest novels, and it has had a profound effect on Chinese literature. The other three are Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Tales of the Marshes. However, it is Dream of the Red Chamber that is considered to have achieved the most literary significance of the four.

Written during the 18th century, it reflects the people and society in Qing Dynasty by telling a story of a declining rich family. There are still disputes over its writer, but it’s mostly believed that Chao Xue-chin wrote chapters 1-80 and Gao Er completed the last 40 chapters after Chao’s death. Some scholars suggest that this novel is actually based on the rise and decline of Chao’s own family and is a memorial to the female friends, relatives and maids he knew when he was young.

Like many complex novels, Dream of the Red Chamber has an overwhelming number of characters, however if you are patient it will pay off.  The novel is a historically accurate representation of the 18th century “social structures typical of Chinese aristocracy” (Wikipedia). Readers will also enjoy learning about cultural elements like Chinese medicine, cuisine, tea culture, mythology, religion and philosophy, and the arts.

The novel tells a story of a god who saw a withered plant in heaven and saved it with a drop of his tears. Wanting to experience the real world, this god becomes a human baby called Baoyu, which means ‘jade.’ He was born with magical jade in his mouth, and this jade helped to make his family prosperous and rich. Now, the plant wanted to requite the god’s kindness, so she followed him into the real world, where she became his cousin Daiyu. Baoyu’s family tries to create an ideal world full of jewelry, poetry and happiness to protect him and his cousins from real society, which includes poverty and evil. Even the family’s last name works to achieve this goal, as they are called ‘Jia’ which is a homophone to ‘The fake, the unreal’ in Chinese.

One day Baoyu loses his jade and the extended family declines quickly. His grandmother dies and his esteemed cousins end up marrying coarse, humble and rude men. What happens to Daiyu and Baoyu? I’d like to tell you, but then it would spoil it. Let’s just say that the first chapter’s opening couplet helps reveal the overall atmosphere of this novel:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

The ending of the novel successfully proves this couplet that the whole vigorous and rich life of Baoyu ended and there was nothing but only snow covering everything in the world as if the prosperous ‘Jia’ family and so many stories of people in that family have never existed.

What happens to Daiyu and Baoyu has happened to so many before them and so many after. Perhaps that is one reason why Dream of the Red Chamber remains so beloved. Now, if you don’t read Chinese, do not worry, the novel is also available in English in paperback and Kindle options.