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Dream of the Red Chamber: A book for eternity

By Li Zhenyu (People's Daily Online)    16:14, April 13, 2020

New controversies and mysteries surrounding the Dream of the Red Chamber, a treasure of world literature, have brought the Chinese classic into fashion once again.

A screen grab from TV series the Dream of the Red Chamber

The first 80 of the book's 120 chapters are traditionally believed to have been written by Cao Xueqin, while the last 40 were believed to be written by Gao E.

However, the president of the Society of the Dream of the Red Chamber, Zhang Qingshan, said recently that Gao E did not write the novel's last 40 chapters, and it is still unclear who did, according to a Chinanews.com report on April 2.

The report added that some observers even questioned the assumption that the book's original author was Cao Xueqin, saying that its real creator is more likely to be Wu Meicun or Mao Pijiang, two eminent writers in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty.

It has been more than 200 years since the Dream of the Red Chamber was first published in 1791. The passage of time has only added to its mystery and allure.

This seminal work of Chinese fiction transcends time and space, and brings the reader into one of the finest fictional universes ever created in human history. It is a book for eternity.

On the global stage, the Dream of the Red Chamber has been hailed as the "book of the millennium". Literary critic Anthony West of The New Yorker called it "beyond question one of the great novels of all literature", a view that is echoed by many distinguished scholars in the Western literary community. The renowned American poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth described the book as among the "greatest works of prose fiction in all the history of literature".

In China, the Dream of the Red Chamber is considered one of the four most famous classical Chinese literary works, along with Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin. It is generally viewed as the best of the four and the pinnacle of the Chinese classical novel. Even most expats in China are familiar with name the Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Chinese literary classic also goes under a few different names. In Chinese, it is known as Hong Lou Meng, and there are several English translations of the title. Apart from the Dream of the Red Chamber, which is the most common translation, the novel also goes by the name A Dream of Red Mansions, The Story of the Stone and The Red Chamber Dream.

The Dream of the Red Chamber, composed by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty in the mid-18th century, tells the tale of an aristocratic Chinese family that falls from grace.

The novel has a complicated storyline and features a huge cast of more than 400 characters. Its full English translation runs to over 2,500 pages in length.

The 18th-century saga is considered to be semi-autobiographical, reflecting the rise and fall of the author's own family and, by extension, of the entire Qing dynasty.

The book contains detailed accounts of the cultural, social and spiritual life of 18th century China, and has been widely read over the past two hundred plus years.

Despite the fact that this massive, sprawling Chinese novel is not easily accessible to average foreign readers due to its cultural differences and remote references, it features emotions that all of humanity can relate to and which are not affected by the passage of time.

"The book transcends time and class, and has a universal value. That's one of the main features of this masterwork, and a trademark of practically all the greatest literary works in the world," said Chang Ruxu, a cultural scholar who has carried out extensive research into the Dream of the Red Chamber.

Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo via China Publishing House)

The Dream of the Red Chamber has a profound social significance and high aesthetic value in a variety of fields such as poetry, art, drama, architecture, landscape design, Chinese painting and music, among others. It is an encyclopedia that contains samples of virtually every aspect of China's traditional cultures.

"Like life itself, this intricate masterpiece is remarkably rich and of great artistic appeal," Chang Ruxu noted.

"The fiction is extraordinary not only for its vivid and accurate observation of life and social conflicts, but also for its epic scope, the diversity and depth of its characters and delivery, as well as its colorfulness and artistic quality."

One of the greatest artistic achievements of the Dream of the Red Chamber can be seen in its language and narrative.

"Cao Xueqin is a master of language," said Chang Ruxu, who is also a bilingual author. "His prose is so exquisite and aesthetically pleasing that it almost attains perfection in every way. Classical poetry, figurative speech and literary expression, mingled with folk tales and colloquial language, are masterfully employed in his work. Putting his work into English is bound to be a huge challenge."

The first recorded attempt at translating the fiction into English was done by the renowned Anglo-Scottish sinologist Robert Morrison in 1812. Although many other attempts followed Morrison's pioneering effort, including translation works by the noted British diplomat and sinologist John Francis Davis, the first complete English translation was done by the respected and prolific British sinologist and translator David Hawkes some 150 years after the first English translation.

"Of all the English translations, the two most recognized versions are the works by David Hawkes, and by the couple Yang Xianyi and his wife Gladys Yang," remarked Chang Ruxu.

Although the novel is a work from the Qing Dynasty, by a Qing Dynasty author and for the Qing Dynasty readership, the extent of its influence is still evident in the modern era.

"In modern times, many of the greatest Chinese novelists have been influenced by Cao Xueqin's fictional work. The traces are everywhere," Chang Ruxu said.

According to the People's Daily Overseas Edition, the Dream of the Red Chamber has been translated into 23 languages and has more than 160 different versions.

Over ten television adaptations have been made of the book, including the classic 1987 series which premiered on China Central Television (CCTV). This much-loved version is considered to be the most highly acknowledged television adaptation and has been the most influential.

Right after its release, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen and Erstes Deutsches Fernsehen, two of Germany's mainstream television broadcasters, bought the broadcasting rights to the 1987 television series, translated it into German and broadcast the Chinese classic to Western audiences, making the 1987 CCTV version of the Dream of the Red Chamber the first Chinese television series to be aired in Europe.

Even today, DVDs of the 1987 television series are available in more than 100 libraries in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, among others, according to the People's Daily Overseas Edition.

"Of all the TV adaptations of the Dream of the Red Chamber, the 1987 version is believed to be the best and the most popular. This is partly because the TV series invested a great deal into doing the novel full justice and went all out to be loyal to the author's original intent," said Lin Wei, a cultural observer and CCTV television producer who was included in the Top 10 Television Producers in China by the Chinese authorities.

"The novel made the TV series a big hit and a real classic in Chinese TV history."

The impact of this fictional work is so multilayered that it led to the creation of a specific academic field dedicated exclusively to studying the Dream of the Red Chamber, known as Redology. Those who earn a living by studying the novel are known as Redologists.

Even today, Redology is still a massive and continually expanding business in China, spawning numerous lectures, seminars and forums as well as a large volume of books, periodicals and magazines. With various versions of the novel's ancient manuscripts continuing to surface, the controversies and mysteries surrounding this classic work look they will remain unresolved for some time to come.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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