Mao Zedong boasted that during his lifetime he had read it through from cover to cover five times. Amid his ruthless cultural purges, the "Great Helmsman" allowed The Story of the Stone to survive. He claimed that this was because it was the best description of the demise of feudalism. But as I struggled through the seemingly endless and nuanced descriptions of a refined and exotic culture, most of it devoted to a celebration of momentary beauty, I wondered if Mao was not a closet aesthete. The novel describes the decline of a great feudal family, but the writer lingers wistfully over the beauty of its vanished splendor. "All is insubstantial doomed to pass, as moonlight mirrored in the water, or flowers reflected in a glass." These are the lyrics of a song in the novel describing star-crossed lovers, but it captures the spirit of inspired resignation that impelled the author, Cao Xueqin, who was himself born into one of the great families of the Qing dynasty that had fallen into collapse. Scholars tell us that he wrote this classic while living in poverty and trying to reconcile himself to the loss of the world he reconstructed in his novel.