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I have wanted to read Cao Xueqin’sA Dream of Red Mansions‘ for a long time. I tried once but got distracted after reading 50 pages. When Di from ‘The Little White Attic’ invited a few of us for a readalong of the book, I couldn’t resist and jumped in.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is one of the four great Chinese classics. It is an epic novel. The translation I have by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang runs into three volumes and a total of 1900 pages. If I finish reading it, it will be the longest book I’ve ever read, beating Vikram Seth’sA Suitable Boy‘ comfortably.

The book follows the fortunes of one family and their relatives and their near and dear ones. But the book doesn’t start like that. It starts with a goddess trying to repair a hole in the sky and using many big stones to do that. When she finishes it, one stone is left. She abandons that stone on earth. Across time over the eons, that stone becomes sentient, starts thinking and it feels depressed that it is alone and it is not able to experience the world. A Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest pass by and when they hear the stone’s story, they take pity on it and decide to place it in the middle of a human family so that it can experience worldly joy and sorrow. This is the reason why the book is sometimes also called ‘The Story of the Stone‘. What follows is the story of one family as the stone perceives it.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is a very classically Chinese book. If you have read a Jin Yong book, you’ll know exactly what this means. That is, there are only three things in the book. The sentences in the story describe events in the story and move it forward, or they describe the physical surroundings and set the scene, or there is conversation between characters, lots of it. There are just these three things. There are no long monologues, or philosophical musings, or exploration of the inner worlds of the characters. Sometimes there are philosophical musings which are part of a conversation, in which the characters quote classical poetry and old Chinese proverbs to make a point, but that’s it. Everything contributes to moving the story forward. So once you get into the flow of the story, the pages fly. Atleast they flew for me. But there is one thing that might slow down one’s reading pace. There are lots of detailed descriptions. If there is a party, it is described in a lot of detail. If a guest visits home, we get a primer into Chinese culture on how a guest is received and treated. If there is a funeral, there is a description of every detail and ritual. The book depicts 18th century Chinese culture in rich detail and it is probably based on the author’s own experience. It is fascinating to read. It might also be overwhelming if you are not into details.

The other thing about the book is that there are lots of characters, hundreds of them. It is sometimes hard to keep up with who’s who. Sometimes the characters’ names are so close to each other that if you are not familiar with Chinese names it can get confusing. For example, there is Chia Cheng, Chia Chen, Chia Chiang, Chia Chian. At one point, I didn’t know who was who. One way of handling this is to make a family chart and include atleast the important characters in that. Another way of doing it is to go with the flow. I decided to do that. At some point, I discovered, for example, that Chia Cheng was Baoyu’s dad and the other three Chias weren’t that important. Then there are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen who were important characters and their names looked close to me and so could be potentially confusing. But after reading for a while, I could recognize them properly – Hsi-feng is an important daughter-in-law in the house, and Hsi-jen was Baoyu’s maid. They were two of my favourite characters and so it was easy for me to remember. One more thing that was confusing for me was that the translation I read used the Wade-Giles naming system, while I am more comfortable with the modern Pinyin system. In some cases, translation of names between Wade-Giles and Pinyin was pretty straightforward. For example Pao-Yu in Wade-Giles was Baoyu in Pinyin, Tai-Yu in Wade-Giles was Daiyu in Pinyin. But at other times it was not that straightforward – for example, Hsi-Feng in Wade-Giles was Xifeng in Pinyin, Chin Ko-Ching in Wade-Giles is Qin Keqing in Pinyin. Sometimes the names were so far apart that I couldn’t guess the Pinyin names. This posed problems when I was discussing the book with fellow readalong participants, because I had to be sure that we were discussing the same character. There was a further complication here, because in a newer translation, the translators had changed the names of some of the characters – Hsi-jen was called Aroma in that. No one, of course, can make this leap from Hsi-jen to Aroma 😁 One has to consult the Wade-Giles to Pinyin dictionary frequently to get a sense of things. I hate doing that and so I just muddled along.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ has also been described as the love story of Baoyu and Daiyu. That is, of course, part of the book, and it is fascinating, but because it is an epic book, there cannot be just one story in it. There is Baochai who is as important a character as Daiyu and till now, it is not clear whether Baoyu likes Daiyu more or Baochai more. Both Baochai and Daiyu write beautiful poetry, but while Daiyu is deeply emotional and gets affected by the smallest happenings and bursts into tears, Baochai is more mature and more graceful. My two favourite characters till now though are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen (or Xifeng and Xiren, if you prefer Pinyin). Hsi-feng is a strong woman who manages her relationships with her family members skillfully, takes additional responsibility when required, is tough when required. The way she handles the maids in the family is interesting to see – tough at times when they slack at work during important occasions (sometimes a bit too tough – on one occasion she gets a maid whipped for coming late, to set an example – I felt the punishment was too much and too cruel), and kind and friendly at other times during informal occasions. I am looking forward to seeing how her character arc develops. Hsi-jen is Baoyu’s maid and is almost like his best friend, governess and lover. She is the closest to the perfect character in the book – all nice and nothing bad. It is hard not to like her. I am looking forward to finding out what happens to her as the story progresses.

The book depicts Chinese culture of the 18th century in a realistic way – the good and the not-so-good together. Sometimes the not-so-good things are heartbreaking, like when someone is unhappy with a maid or a page and gets them whipped, or sometimes gets them dismissed from work. Getting dismissed was the worst thing for a maid working in a distinguished family, because it means she is disgraced and she has slid back into poverty. One of the maids in the story is so heartbroken after she gets dismissed that she commits suicide. It was heartbreaking to read.

There many beautiful scenes depicted in the story. There are frequent quarrels between Baoyu and Daiyu, and sometimes we feel that they are being silly, and at other times we feel that they are just spoilt brats from rich families who don’t realize how lucky they are. But sometimes their fights remind us of ourselves when we were young and being silly and fought with our partners or siblings or cousins and sulked for days and wasted lots of time which could have been spent in more pleasurable ways, and it makes us feel young again and we identify with our silly younger selves, and it makes us smile. Cao Xueqin captures the way young people behave towards each other quite beautifully and it is one of the wonderful parts of the book. In one of my favourite scenes, Daiyu feels heartbroken after a silly fight (or rather about something she imagined) that she composes a poem and recites it and the poem is beautiful and moving and heartbreaking and Baoyu who is hiding behind a tree, listens to it, and bursts into tears. It is such a beautiful scene. Another of my favourite scenes, or rather chapters in the story is when Baoyu’s sister tells him that they should all start a poetry or literary club, and all the young people get together and decide what they’ll do as part of the club, and they meet again and compose poetry and recite them and discuss their merits and decide whose poems are their favourites. This chapter comes out of the blue and almost feels like a digression from the main story, but it is very beautiful. Another of my favourite scenes is when Keqing is seriously ill and one day when Xifeng is deep asleep, Keqing comes in her dream and they have a beautiful conversation which is very moving. Of course, this kind of dream is almost always a dark premonition, but I won’t tell you more, you have to read the book to find out what happened next.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ was hard reading after the first few chapters. The hundreds of characters and the rapid succession of events and the infinite number of details was overwhelming and it nearly sunk me. But halfway through the first volume, at around 300 pages, the story acquired a life of its own, it started flowing smoothly like a serene river, I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next and what my favourite characters were up to, and then I knew that the book had started to grow on me and I’d fallen in love with it. It took some time but it was worth it.

I have finished reading the first part of ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ now. That is 40 chapters, 600 pages in. I’m loving it so far. Two more parts, 80 chapters, 1300 pages to go. Wish me luck 😁

Have you read ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘? What do you think about it?

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