The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin is another instance for me of ‘me and my big mouth,’ as Bugs Bunny frequently said (the latter phrase, not the entire sentence). It looked interesting, and since it was old I figured I could get a free pdf copy for my Kindle (I have a Kindle, but I only use it to read free books). So, I told Kim I’d take this one. However, each pdf I found was a different length, with differing numbers of chapters. I couldn’t figure out whether I had the whole thing or not, so I just went and bought hard copy…all five volumes (Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, and Volume V). Yup, I’d put myself down for a five volume, 2480 page, monster of 18th century Chinese literature.
And, some people are going to start railing right away when I even call it The Story of the Stone. Apparently, the book has been translated with various titles: The Story of the Stone, Dream of the Red Chamber, Red Chamber Dream, and A Dream of Red Mansions. Heck, the book itself gives more titles than even that. I’m told that Dream of the Red Chamber is most correct, but my copies all say The Story of the Stone and The Story of the Stone is what was listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. As such, for this review I’m going to keep talking about The Story of the Stone.
Nor is the title the only confusion. There seems to be some dispute over at least part of the authorship. There is little dispute (at least as far as I know) that Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters, though apparently there were one or two people after him who did some editing. The last 40 chapters, however, may have been written by Gao E. Or, depending if you believe another set of people, the bulk of the material for the last 40 chapters was written by Cao Xueqin and then heavily edited by Gao E after Cao Xueqin’s death. Really, I have no idea. Heck, even when first published there was already different versions floating around. A complete text, and a real idea about who really wrote what, appears impossible to determine at this point.
For our purposes, let’s just stick to the story in the copies of the books that I have.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Arthur Golden.)
For the most part, The Story of the Stone details a wealthy and influential Chinese family (and some other closely related families), the Jia family, and their fall from fortune and favor. Of this family, Bao-Yu is pretty much the major character, a son who prefers hanging out with his girl cousins and such to study and advancement. Also, he is the human incarnation of a magical piece of jade that was rejected as building material for the heavens. He loves Dai-Yu, another immortal incarnated in human form who loves him as well, but is fated to be married to another. Around all this there is an incredibly richly woven tapestry of the incredible wealth of the Jia family, the debt they turn out to really be in, terrible fighting and betrayal, the crash of the Jia family, and so on. After all, this is a hell of a big book.
Really, though the life depicted is considerably old, the book does seem pretty modern for being almost three hundred years old in terms of characterization, realism (other than the spiritual elements that wander in and out), and structure. It definitely contains some interesting contrasts.
For example, as one might expect, there is a considerable amount of attention to status, politeness, and ritual that characterized the society from which the book came:
As she did so, she raised her head and saw Zhou’s wife with her two charges already standing in front of her. She made a confused movement as if to rise to her feet, welcomed the old lady with a look of unutterable benevolence, and almost in the same breath said rather crossly to Zhou Rui’s wife, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
By this time Grannie Liu was already down on her knees and had touched her head several times to the floor in reverence to her ‘Aunt Feng’.
‘Stop her, Zhou dear!’ said Xi-feng in alarm. ‘She mustn’t do that, I am much too young! In any case, I don’t know her very well. I don’t know what sort of relations we are and what I should call her.’
At the same time, there are certainly some crasser moments than I would have expected in a book of this time period (note, Qin Zhong and Darling are boys who are friends with Bao-Yu as a boy and attend the clan school with him):
Jokey Jin, now thoroughly cock-a-hoop, wagged his head and tutted in a most provoking manner and addressed wounding remarks to no one in particular, which greatly upset Darling and Previous for whose ears they were intended. A furious muttered altercation broke out between them across the intervening desks. Jokey Jin insisted that he had caught Qin Zhong and Darling in flagrante delicto.
‘I ran into them in the back courtyard, kissing each other and feeling arses as plan as anything. I tell you they had it all worked out. They were just measuring themselves for size before getting down to business.’
This is a huge book, so it is hard to talk about everything inside. Summation is extremely difficult. The life of this family is meticulously detailed, both in the pomp of their extravagance and in how they meet their downfall. Amidst all this and a hundred other things, there are also some startlingly beautiful moments:
It was with such apprehensions that she made her way stealthily towards Green Delights, her intention being to observe how the tow of them were behaving and shape her own actions accordingly. Imagine her surprise when, just as she was about to enter, she heard Xiang-yun lecturing Bao-yu on his social obligations and Bao-Yu telling Xiang-yun that ‘Cousin Lin never talked that sort of rubbish’ and that if she did he would have ‘fallen out with her long ago.’. Mingled emotions of happiness, alarm, sorrow and regret assailed her.
Because after all (she thought) I wasn’t mistaken in my judgment of you. I always thought of you as a true friend, and I was right.
Because if you praise me so unreservedly in front of other people, your warmth and affection are sure, sooner or later, to excite suspicion and be misunderstood.
Because if you are my true friend, then I am yours and the two of us are a perfect match. But in that case why did there have to be all this talk of ‘the gold and the jade’? Alternatively, if there had to be all this talk of gold and jade, why weren’t we the two to have them? Why did there have to be a Bao-Chai with her golden locket?
Because though there are things of burning importance to be said, without a father or a mother I have no one to say them for me. And besides, I feel so muzzy lately and I know that my illness is gradually gaining a hold on me. (The doctors say that the weakness and anaemia I suffer from may be the beginnings of a consumption. So even if I am your true-love, I fear I may not be able to wait for you. And even though you are mine, you can do nothing to alter my fate.
So how do I sum up something that is too big for me to sum up? I guess I’ll just have to wing it and hope for the best.
The Story of the Stone is a captivating story. It’s one of the longer books I’ve ever read (though not the longest I don’t believe), but it’s well worth hanging in there. There aren’t a whole lot of books that take on something of this depth and scale, and not all that do manage to do so well with it. It’s a classic, and disapprovingly a classic that few I know are familiar with. I know it’s long, but I think more people I know should have read it. Those who manage it will have honored their literary ancestors.