The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng) is one of the great novels of all time. Spanning 5 volumes in David Hawkes English translation, it is longer that Proust, but much more interesting. We follow the life of Jia Baoyu, as he is pulled between living his dreams and conforming to the expectations of society. But that is not all; the whole Jia family, living a life of ease at the height of traditional China's civilization, is presented to us, from the revered matriarch to the lowest servant. Baoyu comes to live in Total Vision Garden, which had been built for the visit of his older sister, a concubine of the Son of Heaven. There also, in little houses, dwell many of his closest female relatives. Together they try to form an ideal society rooted in poetry and beauty, but the real world intervenes most harshly, and none of them are able to escape their fate.
But I oversimplify. I cannot even begin to summarise 2,500 pages. The scenes that most stick in my mind include an exhibition of patriarchal authority that would make the Old Testament proud: "Tie him up! Beat him to death!" shouts the overwrought father at his seemingly worthless son (until grandmother interveves). My favorites have to do with the Crab Flower Club, the garden's poetry society. I have always loved the company and conversation of girls, and living like Baoyu in a fantastic garden with several talented girls would be my ideal life. Shi Xiangyun is my favorite, she is the girl who drifts toward the male gender as Baoyu drifts toward the female gender. In fact gender boundaries blur throughout, especially in the running of the household by the adults. For the traditionalists, Lin Daiyu is the ideal of fragile beauty, whereas Xue Baochai in the practical conformist, who puts herself back into her traditional place.
Within the poetry club, the members seek the ideal hearer for their works. Who is the one whose heart was meant to receive that which their heart has poured out? And how can we stay true to our dreams in the face of real world obligations? In the end, Baoyu does accomplish what his family expects of him, but no more. The dreams formed in the garden cannot endure, and, like the cherry blossoms, they blow away in the wind. And I have not yot even mentioned Wang Xifeng, or the haughty young nun Adamantina.
Cao Xueqin (1715-1763) is the author of most of the work, as well a possible model for Baoyu. The work at first circulated in manuscript among family. These first readers annotated and edited the work. Ruchang Zhou, a contemporary "Redologist" (student of this work) in his Between Noble and Humble: Cao Xueqin and the Dream of the Red Chamber, puts forth the hypothesis that Shi Xiangyun is in fact the editor "Red Inkstone," and possibly the wife of the author. Whoever they were, the editors helped Cao Xueqin steer clear of topics that might anger the government censors, and thus ensured the work's survival.
I love the challenge of a long work of fiction, but there must be some theme or investment in character(s) that pulls me along. Sheer weird wild beauty pulled me through 48 books of Nonnos' Dionysiaca. I made it all the way with Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities. But Proust left me flat, and I just didn't grow to care about anybody in the Mahabharata. Three Kingdoms, I may give another chance, but I am done with Journey to the West. Hongloumeng, I have read three times, and hope to read it again. It is, after all, the expression of my ideal pure world of beauty, poetry, girls, and dreams.