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[526] The Red Chamber – Pauline A. Chen

” Perhaps Baoyu, with his uncanny intuitions, had realized the truth beforehand. She had never believed something as strange as the jade’s disappearance in Baoyu’s mouth could be mere chance, just as she has felt that Baoyu, with his quicksilver sensitivity, never seemed to belong to the Jias. Surely the jade, and Baoyu’s coming and disappearance, must be part of some larger, fateful design. ” (Part Six, 5:359)

A lyrical re-imagining of one of the greatest classics in Chinese literature, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, The Red Chamber is set against the backdrop of 18th-century Beijing, in the exquisite world of the women’s quarters of an aristocratic household. Like the hefty original that inspires it, through stories that illustrate the decline of Qing Dynasty, in which corrupted, dissipated and arrogant upper class ran roughshod over peasants, The Red Chamber shows the Jia’s slow awakenings to the precarious foundation on which their privilege is built.

Didn’t she understand that belonging to a large household was like being suspended in a web? You could not move a muscle without feeling the cling of gossamer threads, without knowing that your movements sent reverberations up and down the entire structure. Didn’t she know how she would fall without those invisible threads to hold her safely aloft? (Part Three, 8:226)

In the original novel, Jia Baoyu (he was actually the stone dislodged from heaven to have a taste to be man on earth) comes across as immature and effeminate. He is spoiled by the whole family, especially Granny Jia, on the account that he was born with a piece of jade in his mouth. Although he is the presumed successor to his father as the head of the household, Baoyu neglects his studies and flirts with his female cousins and maids in the Inner Quarters, where women are cloistered away from the world. But in The Red Chamber, Pauline Chen focuses on the women around Baoyu and allows them to have interior lives and to exercise some free will of their own, no matter how futile, from Xifeng’s illicit affair to Baochai’s maneuverings to rescue her brother from his various scrapes. So in this re-writing, Chen weaves a much different story on which Baoyu’s voice is but one in a chorous of mostly female voices, in particular, those of Xifeng, Baochai and Daiyu.

The arrival Lin Daiyu after her mother’s death creates a tension between the first cousins, since Baochai has grown up with Baoyu and nourishes more than cousinly affection. Whereas Baochai is level-headed and implacable, Daiyu is well-educated and romantic at heart. Her arrival as a gesture to patch up estrangement between her mother and Granny Jia, has inspired Baoyu and brings a breath of fresh air into the stultified atmosphere of Rongguo mansion. Little does Daiyu realize that her determined passion would set off a chain of events that threatens Granny Jia’s selfish vision of the family’s future.

There is an intimacy, a tacit understanding, between the two of them. Baoyu loves Daiyu; Baochai has been foolish to ever think otherwise. (Part Three, 2:188)

If Xifeng hands her the baby, she can give back every ounce of humiliation and pain that Lian and Ping’er have inflicted on her. Instead she turns and thrusts the baby back into Ping’er’s arms. Ping’er bursts into tears, but Xifeng turns away dry-eyed. How will she survive in this world if she can’t harden her heart? (Part Three, 5:210)

The Red Chamber really boils down into a picture of women’s constricted lives and how they are deprived of any choices in life—not even on when they will marry. Marriage is taken into consideration on how it will further a family’s wealth and prestige. From mistress of the house to the lowliest servant, each woman holds a place in the hierarchy, and with that comes rigid expectations and inescapable duties. Although Xifeng, wife of the eldest cousin, has the job of running the household, keeping the ranks of servants in line, yet she is aware of her precarious position because she has yet to produce a heir. Caught in an unhappy life with no way out, she struggles to find pockets of tenderness to preserve her humanity. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each of the women must choose between love, duty, and survival. This book is not a re-telling of the classic, but it would be a suitable introduction of the original text. The Red Chamber has a more feminist poise, delving into the tough decisions that confront the women in a time when to choose love is to risk stability in life.

381 pp. Knopf. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

8 Responses

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