Chinese literature’s most notable work, A Dream of Red Mansions, the title of which in Mandarin reads “Hung Lou Meng” (紅樓夢), is a novel said to be written by multiple authors – not a collaboration, rather a legitimate sequel adding a noteworthy “finishing touch” to the original installment.   The novel with nearly 1,000 personalities (only 250 are anonymous) is so monumental that it garners its own “-ology” known as “Redology” (紅學).

A Dream of Red Mansions - Photo of books in a row

Most scholars concur that the Qing Dynasty writer Cao XueQin (1715 – 1763) penned the book’s first 80 chapters.  Writers-slash-editors Gao E (1738 – 1815) and Cheng WeiYuan must have admired Cao’s work so much that they undertook the immense project of not only editing but also supplementing an additional 40 chapters.  Cao himself might have written each and every of the 120 chapters, or he might not be a contributor at all.  He could have been born in 1724 and died in 1764 – this is how oblivious/obscure Cao’s existence on Planet Earth was.  (Redology would be of less intensity if Cao’s contemporaries documented his life experience more earnestly.)

Having read too few chapters, I hesitated providing the following summary:  A rock is reincarnated first as a guard who waters a plant every day.  They re-encounter one another as cousins in a clan to which the imperial court bestows titles and fortune.  The guard is now the sanguine male cousin PaoYu, born with a piece of jade in his mouth.  The plant is the perpetually morbid female cousin DaiYu determined to repay PaoYu’s, or the guard’s, kindness.  (Often I notice that the literature of the Orient focuses more on gratitude, while the Occident on atonement.)  The members of the extended multi-generation family reside amidst “red mansions” – the definitive symbol of both prosperity and decadence in a gilded age.

Each chapter’s title contains 16 Chinese characters (Kanji), eight-word couplet.  There are 120 chapters, thus 1,920 characters.  茶, the Chinese character for tea, appears only once, in Chapter 41:

櫳翠庵茶品梅花雪 怡紅院劫遇母蝗蟲

The Project Gutenberg E-Book translates the chapter title above as follows:

Chia Pao-yü tastes tea in the Lung Ts’ui monastery.
Old goody Liu gets drunk and falls asleep in the I Hung court.

A Dream of Red Mansions - Photo of a pile of books

During my family’s very first visit to Oahu’s Chinatown, right after immigrating to the States, we purchased the Foreign Languages Press Peking’s 1978 publication, translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Yang Gladys.  Back then all of us, though struggling with English, contemplated one day to appraise this acclaimed edition.  I fell in love with the illustrations by artist Tai Tun-Pang and would turn the pages to re-examine the artwork, without reading a single word.

The Yangs’ translation below for Chapter 41’s title is much more literary:

Pao-yu Sips Tea in Green Lattice Nunnery
Granny Liu Succumbs to Wine in Happy Red Court

A Dream of Red Mansions - Photo of an illustration and passage from the book

Select the image to view a larger version and read the verses

In amusing yet repulsive details the chapter describes an episode unimaginable even in the most stratified society of yesteryear. It warrants a separate T Ching post in which I will share my review.

To some readers, DaiYu’s burial of fallen blossom in Chapter 27 may be synonymous with the novel itself. Art often features DaiYu, holding shovel and satchel, soliloquizing poetically; PaoYu lurking and eavesdropping nearby. Do you see PaoYu in artist Tai Tun-Pang’s illustration, shown on this page?

Screen adaptations are scarce and all disappoint. China’s 1987 production had the actors wear heavy makeup and conversing in a style redolent of North Korean news anchors reporting on their semi-divine leader. One would think that advancements on all fronts would enable the 2010 production to advance as well – unfortunately no.

As for the book title, any translation other than “A Dream of Red Mansions” is utterly incongruous in my opinion. I will not waste time investigating why Wikipedia contributors, some of which may be Redologists with English proficiency, tolerate a title like “Dream of the Red Chamber.”

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