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Book Forum: History and Society   |    
The Story of the Stone (The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol. 1: The Golden Days)
ALAN A. STONE, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2412-a-2413. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2412-a
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By Cao Xueqin; translated by David Hawkes. New York, Penguin Classics, 1974, 544 pp., $16.00 (paper).

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I cannot recommend this book as a "good read"; it is not a page turner. I had it on my summer list for vacation reading, but it took patience and discipline to make my way through volume one. Volume two eroded my resolve, and as of this writing I doubt I shall complete the five-volume collection. So this review can report only my first steps into a novel that is an elaborate tapestry of life during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911), when the Han people of China were conquered and ruled by the Manchu of the North. The Story of the Stone is better known in China as The Dream of the Red Chamber. It is by all accounts the most famous Chinese novel and has earned a place in the great literature of the world. One is told that if you want to understand modern-day China you must read this 18th-century novel.

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.

An example that conveys some sense of what the Occidental reader encounters is the description of the visit of Yuanchun, a daughter of the family who has risen to the exalted status of concubine to the Emperor. To welcome this august personage on her brief visit, the family builds a new garden on the scale of New York’s Central Park. Every vista of this garden and the particular beauty of its brooks, mountains, etc., are described in unsparing detail. An exact reproduction of that fictional garden has been built in Shanghai and elsewhere in China. But I confess that the beauty of the language describing the beauty of the garden did not hold my interest, despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that the translation from Chinese to English is superb.

For those like myself who are psychologically minded in their approach to literature, the problem is that one meets hundreds of characters, most of whom are two-dimensional. The two young teenage girls who play central roles, Lin Daiyu and Xue Bochai, are said to be archetypal females, antithetical to each other. Devoted readers of the novel debate which they prefer. But they seemed imaginary creatures, not real humans, to me. People whose opinions I respect and who know much more of Chinese culture than I do assure me that I have missed the greatness of the novel and that if I can get past the second volume I will be in literary Nirvana. I am sure they are correct, but I would nonetheless advise even the most ambitious readers to borrow a library copy of the first volume and read it before ordering the complete set as I did.

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