I learned about Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber in an Asian American Literature Fans Megareview earlier this year. I didn’t really think I would get around to this novel any time soon but I ran into a snafu getting the Crazy Rich Asians audio book and ended up with two. I selected The Red Chamber primarily because I thought it would be difficult to read (for me) and a dramatization of the saga by the reader would be engrossing. And I was correct.
Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber is semi-autobiographic and considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature. There is even a term for the field of study exclusively of this work, Redology. The original work has been translated to English, of course, but do you think I would read it? It is also one of the biggest works of Chinese fiction with a cast of 400 characters. Published in June 2012, The Red Chamber is Chen’s 400-page/16-hour 35-minutes reimagining of the 992 page (2010 Tuttle Publishing edition) story.
Like a good saga, there are several big storylines, each of which is fascinating and approaches from a different angle of the main themes.
The novel begins with Daiyu, the outsider cousin from Suzhou, arriving at Rongguo mansion that is filled with several of her mother’s siblings, the Jia family. Her mother, Min, was estranged from Granny Jia when she did not marry who the family wanted her to marry and Daiyu finds no favour from the matriarch either. She finds her quiet niche and proceeds to observe the drama unfolding in this opulent world so new to her.
In the Xue apartment, things kick off with Pan getting into some trouble getting into a fight and even more trouble when his victim dies. His uncle bails him out of trouble by bribing a magistrate while his sister, Baochai, and mother nervously wonder what other trouble he will bring. During a leave of absence, he meets a girl from outside of the capital and they are quickly married. Baochai and her mother’s elation is dashed when Pan all but disappears and when they track him down, the new wife shows her true colours.
Baoyu is the prized grandson and reaching maturity. He was born with a jade in his mouth and as a consequence has been spoiled rotten, especially by Granny Jia. While the other men in the family must study hard and pass the imperial exams in order to get jobs in civil service, on Granny’s command, Baoyu has slipped passed these requirements and oddly spends his time inside the usually closed to men inner chambers. His own brother is jealous of Baoyu’s automatically favoured status and his cousins and elders give him a wide berth. Only the outsider, Daiyu, tries to understand him and he finds in her a kindred spirit. However, Baochai, Baoyu’s cousin and childhood friend also has feelings for him and discovers the affair. As matters come to a head inside and outside the mansion, a match is made between Baoyu and Baochai and Daiyu is banished to the storerooms.
Lian and Xifeng are relatively newly married. Their first child died in a miscarriage and Xifeng fights to maintain her status by being a most efficient household manager. Lian slides through life without particular passion for his job and Xifeng tries to remedy some household finances by making loans and making them more official with his stamp. To increase the possibility of having a male heir, Lian takes a concubine and it is none other than Xifeng’s servant and close friend, Ping ‘er. The strain between the women tugs at your heart because neither of them can do anything about the situation and the friends have pride and constraint and that creates unnecessary friction between them. A distant cousin arrives at Rongguo and he gives Xifeng the attention she craves and they begin an illicit affair.
The women are hardly aware of the political unrest brewing outside their chambers and the beginning of the family’s hard times are precipitated by the death of the emperor and the prince son they did not support seizes the throne. A cleansing ensues as the new emperor asserts his power and the house is searched and Rongguo Jia men are taken away on charges of usury, assault, and conspiring with the enemy (with their support for one of the other princes). Rongguo mansion is seized and the women and children are suddenly living amidst reduced circumstances. Daiyu is whisked away by a sympathetic maid to stay with her humble family but her health declines rapidly as a result of the weather and her sorrow losing her parents and Baoyu.
When each woman struggles and the men are imprisoned, their strength and values are tested. Family and duty or love? You keep suspecting that Xifeng is pregnant but doesn’t know it somehow and her fall from the top of the household is dramatic with the loss of her husband, Ping’er, lover and household duties. I was a little surprised by her melodramatic departure. Meanwhile, Baochai shows her mettle and Xifeng’s fall is her opportunity to grab. When the Jia men are granted early pardon, and their fortunes are turning including the Xues who are better off than before, she makes the pragmatic decision to marry heartbroken Baoyu. Baoyu is conspicuously odd as a husband and doesn’t hide well he is not over news of Daiyu’s passing.
In the climax of the novel, Baoyu and his brother attempt the imperial exams but only one of them returns to the house after the exam sitting. Baoyu’s true motive and plan becomes clear – to leave his family with something with passing the imperial exam with flying colours and impregnating Baochai, but to run away because his broken heart will never mend. The through all the upheaval, the matriarchy passes from Granny Jia to Baochai who steadily gets stronger. Hopefully she does not harden completely like Granny and can love but circumstances like the miscarriage and being permanently alone do not encourage that.
In the epilogue, we fast forward 12 years and there are some family changes and for the better. Granny’s passing seemed to take with it old rivalries (perhaps that she fostered) and one cousin who wanted to enter the monastery finally could. Lian’s third marriage seems happy. Meanwhile, in a place unidentified, we learn that Baoyu is on the streets, begging for his living. He hasn’t gotten over his guilt for harming Daiyu and doesn’t have news from Rongguo. And – I didn’t believe it in a moment – Daiyu did not die. Close to death, her caretaker brought her back to Suzhou where her health improved and they realized their love for each other and were married. She hasn’t forgotten Baoyu and is shocked to find a stone in the market in the south that looks so much like Baoyu’s jade.
The Red Chamber is a memorable saga and I’m thankful to Chen’s re-imagining and an audiobook version because the original would be too many characters to enjoy the read and the dramatic antics in audio form were great fun to listen to while blasting through chores around the house. It is an all-encompassing story about the way of life in China in the 1700s – perhaps largely for women but with a glimpse of the men’s lives, too. I can see how a field of study can focus on the original work!