Last reviewed: June 2018
February 12, 1763
Cao Xueqin (tsow shew-eh chihn), also spelled Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’in, was born as Cao Zhan (Ts’ao Chan) into a wealthy and influential family of Nanjing Bannermen, the descendants of the bond servants to whom the Manchus had entrusted administrative positions when they established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. For three generations the family held the post of commissioner of imperial textiles, first in Suzhou and later in Nanjing, effectively controlling a large part of the silk trade. The clan was wealthy enough to entertain the emperor four times during his tours of southern China. Statue of Cao Xueqin.
Statue of Cao Xueqin.
In January of 1728, when Cao was thirteen or fourteen, the Caos lost favor with the emperor, and their estate in Nanjing was subjected to an imperial confiscation. The impoverished family then moved north to Beijing, where they were to spend the rest of their days in poverty, probably in the role of poor relations to a wealthier and more fortunate branch of the family. Here Cao wrote poetry, painted, and earned a meager living at least in part by selling paintings.
Around 1740, Cao began to describe the lost days of his youth in what would become one of the most widely loved and admired of Chinese novels, Dream of the Red Chamber. No previous work of Chinese fiction had been so popular or had embodied so forcefully the sensibilities of Chinese society. Certainly the scope of the novel is vast: Hundreds of characters from every social station and walk of life interact with one another in almost every conceivable relationship. All these characters are portrayed with such vivid attention to realistic detail and speak in such distinctive and particular ways that generations of readers have viewed them as “real” people rather than as fictional characters.
The truth of what is normally thought of as fiction and, by extension, the unreality of what is normally thought of as real forms a major theme of the novel. This idea is reflected, for example, in the surnames of the two families in the novel, one northern and one southern, whose actions seem to mirror each other as the plot progresses: One branch is “Jia,” or “false,” the other “Zhen,” or “true.” The novel testifies to how real memories of the past can be.
The minutely observed world of the novel, moreover, takes place within a supernatural framework. Bao-yu, or Precious Jade, the protagonist, is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. He is actually the incarnation of the single stone left over when the goddess Nü-wa finished repairing a break in the firmament, and he had once before been incarnated in the realm of the Fairy Disenchantment, where he had saved the life of a being called Crimson Pearl Flower. The stone’s incarnation as Bao-yu has taken place long before the action of the novel commences and is imagined as the inscription copied from the stone by a Daoist priest and circulated for the moral education of the reader.
The “realistic” action of the novel’s narrative begins as a character named Zhen Shi-yin (his name puns with the phrase “true things hidden”) eavesdrops in a dream as the stone is brought to earth for its incarnation as Bao-yu by the scabby-headed Buddhist monk and lame Taoist priest who criss-cross the seen and unseen worlds of the novel. The goal of the stone’s life as Bao-yu is a Buddhist one: to arrive at knowledge of the Void (enlightenment) through Form (illusion), in a sense transcending the world of relationships and passions by exhausting them. The two women central to his life are the fragile, doomed Dai-yu (an incarnation of Crimson Pearl Flower) and the pragmatic, reasonable Bao-chai, whom Bao-yu is tricked into marrying by his practically minded family. The two women in many ways embody the polarities of Confucian gregariousness and Daoist individuality between which the novel runs its course. The plot unfolds against the backdrop of a great house destined, as all things are destined, to decline.
Perhaps not inappropriately, given its nature, the novel has been marked by mystery and controversy since it was first published in its complete 120-chapter form in 1792, a good thirty years after the death of its author. Previously the novel had circulated in varying manuscript forms of no more than eighty chapters, always titled Shitouji (the story of the stone) and annotated by someone familiar enough with the personages and events fictionalized in the world of the novel to comment as to whether they were portrayed fairly and accurately, and whether they needed to be more artfully concealed.
When the complete 1792 Hongloumeng appeared, it was introduced by a writer named Gao E, who claimed to have obtained the manuscript from his bookseller friend Zheng Weiyuan. Controversy still rages as to what role Cao Xueqin actually played in the composition of the last forty chapters, although they are undoubtedly written at the very least by someone with an intimate knowledge of the author and his intentions. As though in tribute to the interchangeable nature of truth and fiction which the novel professes, much Chinese scholarship since has been devoted to an attempt to trace the novel’s biographical elements, its connection with the “real” world.