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Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetry—and looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

The Novel of Imperial China

Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng, 红楼梦), also known as The Story of the Stone based an alternate version of the novel’s title (Shitou ji, 石头记), is widely considered the greatest of all the classical Chinese novels, as well as the most complex and sophisticated piece of long-form vernacular fiction. Begun by Cao Xueqin in the 1740s and published in 1792, some thirty years after Cao’s death, this masterpiece of fiction spans 80 to 120 chapters and follows the young scion of the prominent Jia family, Jia Baoyu.

Distinct from the older Chinese classics introduced in this 101 series, whose authorship is unknown or uncertain, Cao Xueqin is indisputably recognized as the author of Dream of the Red Chamber—at least of the first 80 chapters. Cao, himself a member of the once-prominent Cao family of the Qing dynasty that faced a sharp decline in imperial favor and wealth during the author’s lifetime, wrote and continuously revised the first two-thirds of the novel, which were circulated among his family and friends and eventually passed to a wider circle. Among these early readers was the anonymous contemporary commentator and intimate of Cao’s, known as “Red Inkstone”; the Red Inkstone commentaries are hugely important in the study of Dream of the Red Chamber and offer innumerable clues about both Cao’s life and his intentions as an author.

Figure 1: Jia Baoyu, scion of the Jia family.

Between Cao Xueqin’s death in 1763 and the novel’s publication in 1792 by editors Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan, an additional 40 chapters of unknown authorship were acquired, edited, and published to create the 120-chapter novel under the title Dream of the Red Chamber. The authorship of the last third of the novel is the subject of a great deal of research, but scholars of Chinese literature and those more specifically dedicated to the study of Dream of the Red Chamber agree that it is the work of someone other than Cao Xueqin. The contents of the last third of the novel provide an ending that disagrees with both the foreshadowing in the first 80 chapters and Red Inkstone’s comments based on his foreknowledge of the novel’s true ending.

As David Hawkes writes in the introduction to his seminal English translation of Dream of the Red Chamber, titled The Story of the Stone after the title of Red Inkstone’s commentated manuscripts, the published ending was written by someone who was likely personally familiar with Cao Xueqin, and it is thus the most superior of the many continuations of the novel that have cropped up since its publication (Hawkes, 1973). Additionally, Hawkes speculates that commentators like Red Inkstone and the later commentator known as Odd Tablet may have deliberately suppressed the original ending of the story to avoid further imperial attention and retribution. As for the final 40 chapters published in Gao E’s edition, Hawkes notes that person was “taking no chances. [The new section] ends amidst almost deafening praises of the Emperor’s clemency” (Hawkes, 1973:40).

Dream of the Red Chamber begins with a frame story that calls on ancient Chinese creation myths, specifically the goddess Nüwa, who created many stones which she used to repair the heavens. One such stone, the only unnecessary leftover, eventually gained sentience and became the Stone, which was found by a Buddhist and a Taoist. The two helped the Stone reincarnate as a man so it could experience life as a mortal. Though the use of a frame story was not new in Chinese literature (Water Margin also begins with a frame story about the escaped spirits who become the novel’s heroes), Cao Xueqin uses surprisingly modern metafictional devices in the first chapter of his novel. The magical Stone is acknowledged as the origin of the story, having inscribed its life as a human on its own surface. Vanitas, a monk who discovers the Stone, argues with it about the quality of its story, and then copies the Stone's story down. After approaching the Truth through the Stone’s powerful depiction of love, Vanitas changes the novel’s title to reflect his experience reading it. Other editors subsequently give the novel other names, including a man called Cao Xueqin who works out of Nostalgia Studio. The fictionalized Cao Xueqin names the story The Twelve Beauties of Jinling, which was one of the alternate titles the author considered for his work.

Figure 2: A scene of family life from the novel.

In an extremely brief summary of a novel that, in its English translation, spans five volumes with a total of over 800,000 words, Dream of the Red Chamber is about Jia Baoyu, the male heir of the Jia family and the reincarnation of the frame story's Stone, and the seemingly idyllic life he shares with many of his beautiful female relatives, all of whom he admires greatly for their maturity and intelligence. Under the doting eye of the family’s matriarch, Grandmother Jia, Baoyu shares a profound love with his cousin, Lin Daiyu. Daiyu is the reincarnation of a celestial flower whom the Stone watered until it gained sentience; in payment, the flower owes the Stone/Baoyu a lifetime's worth of tears. This makes Baoyu and Daiyu the tragic central couple of a love triangle that includes another of Baoyu’s female cousins, Xue Baochai, whom Baoyu eventually marries. Though Baoyu engages in emotional and physical relationships with other women of the household, including maids and concubines, the central focus of the story is the love triangle between him, Daiyu, and Baochai, and their shared childhood and coming-of-age in the lavish Prospect Garden, which was built for an Imperial Concubine’s use when she visited the Jia family compound.

The scholar C.T. Hsia wrote that Dream of the Red Chamber is the greatest of all Chinese novels and called it the embodiment of “the supreme tragic experience in Chinese literature” as well as Chinese literature’s “supreme work of psychological realism” (Hsia, 1968:226). In Archetype and Allegory in Dream of the Red Chamber, Andrew Plaks wrote, “Nearly all readers of the Dream of the Red Chamber—both native and foreign—come away with the impression that what they have experienced … is a comprehensive view of the entire civilization of Imperial China” (Plaks, 1976:11). As Plaks goes on to highlight, the novel, through written in vernacular Chinese, contains examples of every major literary form, from classical Chinese essays and poetry to drama and vernacular fiction, as well as most genres in these forms. In addition, the novel engages with the works of China’s major philosophers, including Laozi (the founder of Taoism) and Confucius, as well as with major teachings of Chinese Buddhism such as the Heart Sutra, which features prominently in the earlier novel Journey to the West.

Figure 3: Lin Daiyu burying flowers in one of the novel's most celebrated scenes

At the core of this impressive cultural and literary behemoth are Cao Xueqin, the author, and Red Inkstone, his commentator; Jia Baoyu is a composite of these two people. As Hsia wrote, through creating or commenting on the novel, Cao and Red Inkstone are “engaged in an act of reliving the past” (1968:233). The ladies of the novel are representations and depictions of the girls Cao and Red Inkstone knew in their youth, and of whom Cao recalls, “those slips of girls … were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the ‘grave and mustachioed signior’ I am now supposed to have become. […] I must not … allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial” (Cao, in Hawkes, 1973:21). However, the novel created by Cao and extensively commented on by Red Inkstone transcends mere memoir and speaks about love, beauty and aesthetics, family life in the Qing dynasty, and Buddhist and Taoist enlightenment, among myriad other interpretations.

That Dream of the Red Chamber is a fictionalization of Cao and Red Inkstone’s idyllic youth fits perfectly with one of the novel’s overarching theme on the nature of fiction and reality, and how the two form a greater reality. This theme is first introduced and expounded on through the discussions between the Stone and the monk Vanitas in the novel’s first chapter. The Stone (and through the Stone, the author-version of Cao Xueqin) recognizes that for some, fiction is a welcome escape from the real world, and according to the Chinese literary tradition, fiction can also be a useful teaching method. However, Cao Xueqin goes beyond these ideas to play with the nature of reality and dreams, or truth and fiction, in the style of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi: after dreaming of being a butterfly, Zhuangzi famously questioned whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. In other words, how can one truly distinguish between a reality and a dream of reality?

Figure 4: "Dream of the Red Chamber"

In the beginning of the Stone’s story, a couplet appears as the inscription to the spiritual Land of Illusion: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real” (Cao & Hawkes, 1973:55). This couplet is later reprised in the novel as, “When Fiction departs and Truth appears, Truth prevails; Though Not-Real was once Real, the Real is never unreal” (Cao & Minford, 1986:285). These two baffling couplets can be combined with two quatrains that are part of the narrative that frames the Stone’s story. The first:

Pages full of idle words

Penned with hot and bitter tears;

All men call the author fool;

None his secret message hears. (Cao & Hawkes, 1973:35)

The second:

When grief for fiction’s idle words

More real than human life appears,

Reflect that life itself’s a dream

And do not mock the reader’s tears. (Cao & Minford, 1986:376).

From Red Inkstone's, Odd Tablet's, other contemporary commentators' notes, it is clear that both Cao and his contemporary readers found profound, emotional truths embodied in Cao's work of fiction; these truths about humanity and existence, love, and more have deeply touched the hearts and minds of generations of readers. In his act of “reliving the past,” Cao Xueqin constructed a brilliantly detailed and sublime tale set in a transcendent garden of his youth, filled with love and beauty threatened by the economic decline and penury that faced his and Red Inkstone’s family. The final tragedy of Dream of the Red Chamber is that, despite its published ending, the Stone’s story remains incomplete.

China's traditional novels have followed a developmental path distinct from the Western novel. This 101 series has sought to introduce the historical and cultural context of five of China's best-loved literary works—though many of these novels were not considered "literature" in the times in which they were written. Romance of the Three Kingdoms demonstrated the importance of history and historical chronicles in the early development the Chinese novel. In Water Margin, we have one of the best examples of how cycles of oral stories, dramas, and short fiction culminated in popular long-form novels, while Journey to the West is important for both its portrayal of Chinese Buddhism and as the work of a single author. Plum in the Golden Vase, rich with puns and eroticism, is by far the best novel in a popular, though often unacknowledged, genre of traditional literature. Finally, Dream of the Red Chamber is the most modern work among the classics as well as China's most significant novel. Chinese culture would not be the same without these great, and greatly loved, works of fiction.

Bibliographical References

Cao, X., & Hawkes, D. (1973). The story of the stone : a Chinese novel. Vol. 1, the golden days. Penguin.

Cao, X., & Hawkes, D. (1977). The story of the stone : a Chinese novel / Vol.2, The Crab-flower club / transl. by David Hawkes. Penguin.

Cao, X., & Minford, J. (1986). The story of the stone, Vol 5: The Dreamer Wakes. Penguin Books.

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The classic Chinese novel : a critical introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia Univ. Pr.

Lee, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia history of Chinese literature. Columbia University Press.

Plaks, A. H., & Dewoskin, K. J. (2014). Chinese narrative : critical and theoretical essays. Princeton University Press.

Plaks, A. H. (1976). Archetype and Allegory in the “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Princeton University Press.

Visual Sources

Gai, Q. (1773-1828). Hongloumeng tuyong, Huaipu jushi, 1879. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from

Sun, W. (19th century). Scene from the novel "Dream of the Red Chamber" [Brush painting]. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from

Fei, D. (c. 1850). Lin Daiyu burying flowers [Painting on silk]. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from

Unknown. (19th century). Dream of the Red Chamber [Silk, embroidery]. Minneapolis Museum of Art. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from


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Mary Behan

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