Why you should read China’s vast, 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber

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Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of Dream of the Red Chamber, as drawn by Gai Qi, 1879.

Josh Stenberg, University of Sydney

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.

When asked to explain the significance and pleasure of the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, I’m afraid I usually flounder. How to put it to friends, students or colleagues that the tiffs, the leisurely intrigues and frustrated aspirations of a fractious bunch of adolescents constitute one of the great efforts at plumbing human experience?

Yet Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid-18th century, is the fullest immersion one could hope for into late imperial China, the best access to the minds, hearts and habits of that period, complete in everything from cosmology to cosmetics.

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The episodic plot, sprawling over 2,500 pages in the standard Penguin translation, follows the infatuations and travails of a pubescent boy, Jia Baoyu. Baoyu is the unstudious and distracted son of a great, albeit troubled, house in Beijing. He is surrounded by a bevy of erudite and beautiful girls (relatives and maidservants), doted upon by his elderly grandmother, and terrified by his strict, pedantic father — a paragon or parody of the Confucian gentleman. In the pavilions, halls and gardens of this grand estate, allegory of and escape from the world, Baoyu struggles reluctantly towards adulthood.

A painting from a series of brush paintings by Qing Dynasty artist Sun Wen, depicting scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

The interlocking pieces of the plot are revealing vignettes and character studies, many of which have reached iconic status in Chinese culture, and proved fertile ground for theatre and the visual arts.

They function also as a mirror of a reader’s personality, status, age and values. Do you tend towards the maiden who moderates with steady counsel or to the volatile but brilliant orphan girl? Do you deplore or delight in the fiery, funny administrating aunt’s shady outlay of expenses and sometimes malicious (or even murderous) feistiness? As with Proust, the perspective changes with age: re-reading the novel this year, I noticed how my sympathies were shifting upward a generation.

What’s it all about?

The deceptively immaterial occupations of the characters’ daily rounds of visits and chats provide material as much for metaphysics as for psychology. Drama can be constructed one moment around whether Baoyu will have his tea (his nanny sometimes appropriates it), and the next moment around the boundaries of reality, or the purpose of human striving.

Somehow, almost deviously, through the spats, crushes and rivalries of a handful of teenagers, the great questions of the human condition are broached: what is a good life, faced with the inevitability and omnipresence of death? What are one’s obligations? How real is this life and what is it for?

Take the famous little scene in Chapter 22 when Baoyu is inspired to throw fallen flower petals into the stream, but is chided by his sensitive cousin, Daiyu, who remarks:

It isn’t a good idea to tip them into the water … The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows on beyond people’s houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I’ve got a grave for the flowers, and what I am doing now is sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them there, so that they can gradually turn back into earth.

Contained in this image is, depending on how you see it, a poignant image of grief, an allegory of love or its inadequacy, or a Buddhist exhortation to accept impermanence. The work’s ability to imbue petty incident and trifling games with philosophical resonance is peerless.

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The actor Mei Lanfang in a 1924 adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber.

But while you are distracted by the intricate web of their relations, and, we hope, by Baoyu’s marriage and/or enlightenment, the reader realises that this is a family, an estate, a dynasty, a universe, in decay.

Cao Xueqin, the author, was himself the scion of a family in slow collapse, and the work (left unfinished and completed after his death) is often read as an elegy to his own vanished childhood. From our historical vantage point, it is hard not also to recall that within 50 years of the novel’s publication, China was in the throes of the Opium War, its sense of self-sufficiency and centrality forever fractured (until, perhaps, now).

Scholars of the novel, whose field of study has expanded so far that it is known as “Redology”, have used the text to look into everything from the era’s medical practices, the prevalent tastes in theatre, its queer desire, ethnic power relations and reading habits.

An antidote to facile stereotyping

Dream of the Red Chamber has Balzac’s panoramic view of society, the satire of arrogance and fashion of Vanity Fair, the funny, meandering mischief of Decameron. But these comparisons are inadequate to a work so monumental and so vehemently itself, the epitome of the great tradition of Chinese family fiction.

The novel has spawned innumerable adaptations for the stage and screen, as well as dozens of sequels attempting to rescue or resolve its characters’ dilemmas and narrative arcs. It has influenced everything from the witty, cruel short stories of Eileen Chang, to the claustrophobic film, Raise the Red Lantern, and the opulent concubine-poisoners’ dramas of popular TV serials such as Empresses in the Palace.

The 1987 Chinese TV adaptation of the novel.

Above all, reading (or prescribing) the novel feels like the antidote to facile stereotyping of Chinese culture. All the core topics are present: family dynamics; Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism; face and status; strategy and emotion. But all of these are played out for a readership which still regarded the world outside China as a curiosity, and was under no pressure to defend or justify its culture. It is a work of the Qing Dynasty, by a Qing author, for Qing readers; and it is the modern reader’s good fortune just to be allowed in.

The ConversationWhether you read it straight through or dip in from time to time, this work affords entry to one of the great fictional universes.

Josh Stenberg, Lectuter in Chinese Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Mary Beard and the long tradition of women being told to shut up

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Penelope and the Suitors, by J.W. Waterhouse (1912).
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

Professor Mary Beard’s latest book Women & Power: A Manifesto is a short, sharp analysis of women in the West and their ongoing struggles for a voice in the public domain. Based on two lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017, Beard chronicles some of the major obstacles women continue to face, framing her analysis through the lens of the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.

In her first essay, Beard provides some examples from antiquity to illustrate the social and gender dynamics inherited in the West. In short, she traces the long heritage of women being told to shut up.

Beard’s first example is Penelope. A main character in Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is the faithful wife of the epic’s eponymous hero Odysseus. A hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus spends 10 years at Troy and then another 10 years trying to return to his home in Ithaca, where Penelope and their adolescent son Telemachus wait.

In a scene from Odyssey Book One, Penelope enters the communal (read male) space of her husband’s palace and complains about a song that is being performed by one of the entertainers. Telemachus immediately orders her to return to her chambers and resume women’s work. He further reminds her that stories are the preserve of men. Men engage in public discourse. Women face exclusion from it.

This is not the only example of silencing women in the Homeric epics. In Book One of the Iliad, thought to be composed at least a generation earlier than the Odyssey, Zeus is confronted by his wife Hera who challenges him on a matter concerning the course of the Trojan War. In an assertion of his divine authority, Zeus demands Hera’s silence and threatens her with violence if she persists in opposing him.

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In both instances, the message is clear. As Beard observes, “right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere”. On Telemachus telling his mum to “zip it”, Beard points out that “as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”.

It may seem incredible that some 2,500 years since the Homeric epics, women are still silenced in public. But the myths of Archaic Greece continue to maintain relevance to modern reality. Even when women occupy a public platform, they are regularly met with verbal and written ripostes.

We’re still being silenced

In 2017, Tony Abbott told Ray Hadley on 2GB that Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins should “pull her head in” after her organisation recommended that Commonwealth Government contractors aim for at least 40% of female employees as part of a strategy to address workplace gender imbalance.

Tony Abbott in 2017.
Lukas Coch/AAP

“Pull your head in” means, essentially, shut up and mind your own business. Abbott’s reprimand mirrors Telemachus’ command to Penelope to pull her head in and retreat to the private (female) sphere.

In Scotland, meanwhile, in 2016, then UK Independence Party leadership candidate, Raheem Kassam, tweeted about the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon: ‘Can someone just, like … tape Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth shut? And her legs, so she can’t reproduce’.

Nicola Sturgeon in 2018.
Will Oliver/EPA

In Canada, in the same year, MP Michelle Rempel described how a male parliamentary colleague had once asked that she refrain from speaking until she was “less emotional”.

Beard also recounts the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, including the tales of Io “turned by the god Jupiter into a cow, so she can cannot talk but only moo”, “the chatty nymph” Echo “punished so that her voice is never her own, merely an instrument for repeating the words of others” and Philomela, who is raped and silenced by her violator, who cuts out her tongue after she tries to scream out the crime.

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These may seem like frivolous tales of make-believe. But like all myths, legends and fairy tales, they contain subtle layers of meaning both for the ancients who invented them and for those today who experience their content in new forms.

Beard, no stranger to virtual threats similar to those meted out to Philomela, has opened a public space for women to name and to challenge their silencing. By detailing examples from the past to illuminate the present, she has shown us how far women in the West have come. But compellingly, she has also shown us how close we are at times to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Women & Power’s most important contribution to the current advances and failures of feminism in the West is its encouragement of contemplation and understanding. To reflect on the silencing of women addresses urgent feminist issues of the 21st century, including the low number of cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault that are reported to authorities, the opposition to the public voice of the #MeToo movement and the vileness of trolling.

The ConversationBeard reminds us that women need to claim the public space and speak. To scream, yell and rewrite the script we have been assigned to deliver since the mythical age of Penelope.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.