Sunday, July 04, 2021

Fortnightly Book, July 4

"Much better are the girls I have known myself during my young days. I wouldn't presume to rank them as superior to all the characters of earlier works, yet their stories may serve to dispel boredom and care while the few doggerels I have inserted may raise a laugh and add zest to wine. As for the scenes of sad partings and happy meetings, prosperity and decline, these are all true to fact and not altered in the slightest to cause a sensation or depart from truth." (p. 5) 

Cao Xueqin was born near modern-day Liaoyang, China, to an important and wealthy family in service to the Manchu and Qing emperors. The family fell from grace under the Yongzheng Emperor, who, accusing them of mismanaging funds, removed them from office and confiscated all their property in 1727; Xueqin was but a boy when he went from very wealthy to dirt poor. As an adult, he tried to put food on the table by selling paintings, which were generally praised; but he also seems to have been an alcoholic. He spent much of his free time working on a book, but it's unclear how close he was to completing it when he died in the 1760s.

The book was passed around after his death, people occasionally making handwritten copies. It's a very large book, so as you might expect, in any given copy you might be missing pages or even chapters, or have serious errors not caught in revision. In addition, people often wrote commentaries to go with it. Eventually Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E, important Qing scholars, collected together a printed edition, which had eighty chapters from handwritten copies, telling a story that was not wholly complete, and forty more chapters, completing the tale, that were supposedly recovered from Cao Xueqin's papers. It's generally accepted today that the 'recovery' was a literary fiction and that the final forty chapters were written by Gao E himself, although this is still occasionally disputed, and it might well be that the author was someone prior to Gao E.

The book had no stable title. In some of the handwritten manuscripts, it is given the title, The Tale of the Stone. The name that has primarily stuck, though, is that which it was given in the Cheng-Gao version: Dream of the Red Chamber. In English, however, it is usually rendered, A Dream of Red Mansions, which is sometimes thought to be a mistranslation; 'mansions', however, is sometimes a rare word for an apartment in a larger building, due in part to the KJV translation of John 14:2, "In My Father's house are many mansions", so I suspect this is what was really intended. Whatever title one uses, it is one of the most influential Chinese literary works of the past three hundred years.

I will be reading the complete Foreign Language Press edition, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. The book is huge; my edition has four volumes. So this fortnightly book might end up taking three or four weeks, particularly as my schedule for July is rather unusual. But we will see, and in the meantime it should be interesting to read the modern Chinese classic about what love is in a world in which every good thing ends.