Several years ago I mustered up courage to read the entire The Dream of the Red Chambers. It was composed by Cao Xueqin, and is considered one of China’s four great classical novels. It was written in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It is considered to be a masterpiece of Chinese literature and is generally acknowledged to be the pinnacle of Chinese fiction. I, however, am not in possession with the erudition required to read the original Chinese text, which is interwoven with beautiful couplets and poetry.
To give you an idea of this complicated novel that chronicles the life of two branches of the wealthy and aristocratic Jia clan: One of the clan’s offspring was made an Imperial Consort, and a lush landscaped garden was built to receive her visit. The novel describes the Jias’ wealth and influence in great naturalistic detail, and charts the Jias’ fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones. Eventually the Jia clan falls into disfavor with the Emperor, and their mansions are raided and confiscated.
The main character of the novel is the carefree adolescent male heir of the family Jia Baoyu. He was born with a magical piece of “jade” in his mouth. In this life he has a special bond with his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu, who shares his love of music and poetry. Baoyu, however, is predestined to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai, whose grace and intelligence exemplifies an ideal woman, but with whom he lacks an emotional connection. The romantic rivalry and friendship among the three characters against the backdrop of the family’s declining fortunes forms the main story in the novel.
Lin Daiyu is the reason why Pauline Chen’s new book, The Red Chamber, catches my attention. This novel is inspired, obviously, by The Dream of the Red Chambers but is focused on Lin Daiyu. When orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to take shelter with her cousins in the Capital, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendor, presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering façades, she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue and hidden passions, reaching from the petty gossip of the servants’ quarters all the way to the Imperial Palace. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each woman must choose between love and duty, friendship and survival.
I cannot wait to read this book, another one-sitter which I save for another weekend in which I sit by the pool.