The book babes here at Daily Geekette are honoring literary classics for the month of January. With my penchant for anything written before the 1900s, I thought I’d join in but as a Chinese major, it’s been a while since I studied any Shakespeare or Austen. Western classics aren’t the only classics, however, so let me talk instead about the Chinese classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions.
Written in the 1800s in Qing Dynasty China, A Dream of Red Mansions tells the tale of the daily life and the socio-economic decline of the large aristocratic Chia family. It is loosely based on the author Cao Xueqin’s own life and the women who influenced him. Famous for its complex cast of forty major characters and hundreds of minor characters, the vast majority of whom are female, this novel is seen as so complicated and full of meaning that Chinese scholars dedicated an entire field of study to it. The study of this book is called Redology.
Despite coming from a completely male-dominated literary tradition, A Dream of Red Mansions has a full cast of strong, interesting, multidimensional female characters. First, there is the Lady Dowager, the oldest member of the family, grandmother to most of the main characters, whose age places her at the head of the family. All of the other charaters defer to her. Her position is the perfect example of one of the only ways a woman could achieve power in dynastic China–by building up a household of her children and her children’s children, all of whom are loyal to her and respect her as their progenitor.
Next, there is the fiery Hsi-feng. The Lady Dowager may be the figurehead of leadership, but Hsi-feng actually runs the household. She has the resources and wit to protect herself from a man who lusts after her and would take her by force if he could. Instead, she tricks him twice into waiting for her at a designated spot where he is first locked out to freeze and then has a chamber pot dumped on his head. She is greedy, though, and that eventually leads to her downfall. Nevertheless, she is my favorite character in the novel.
The protagonist of the novel is male, but he is unusual in preferring the company of women over men. He explains his proclivity, saying, “Girls are made of water, men of mud. I feel clean and refreshed when I’m with girls but find men dirty and stinking.” He is often reprimanded for spending more time playing with his female cousins than studying as a good boy should. He is involved in a love triangle with two of his cousins, Tai-yu and Pao-chai, and the three of them may be considered the most prominent characters of the novel. While these two girls are defined by their beauty and are often overcome by emotion, they are also acknowledged to be extremely intelligent.
After reading a semester’s worth of other works that depicted women as shallow symbols or male fantasy versions of women it was a relief to read something that showed women in a positive and more realistic light. However, the end message of the story seems to contradict this positive view of women, which confused me. The underlying plot is the boy Pao-yu’s journey towards enlightenment, which involves eschewing his adoration of women and running away to become a monk.
Women are here equated with the mundane world, which is seen as inferior to the spiritual world that Buddhists aspire to. The “red mansion” of the title refers to the women’s quarters of the large family complex, but the reference to red is also connected to the Buddhist term “red dust,” which describes material things that must be renounced on the path to a life with no desire. Thus all of the work that the author put into humanizing women seems to be thrown out the window at the end.
In any case, it’s a very interesting insight into the daily life of 18th century Chinese nobles and especially into the life of women. It’s hard to write about this book without writing a novel-length piece oneself, so forgive me for the long post today. If you have anything to add to my analysis, please feel free to leave a thought in the comments.