Mike's Reviews > Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
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really liked it

I just re-read this classic of Chinese literature as it's been years since I first read it. The Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone is unlike any work in the Western canon yet it fits into the Western tradition of great literature in a way few other examples of classic Chinese writing are able to, offering an engrossive narrative and a real feel for both character and place. There are aspects of this novel that may confuse the modern reader of it in English translation: the many titles and nicknames used for various characters, the cuts and transitions that are in places unlike Western narrative, and a wealth of Chinese traditions, manners, and morals that will due to their exoticism and antiquity alike will confound a reader not already aware of Qing Dynansty history and culture. That said, this book is as influential to Chinese culture as Dickens or Austen are to British culture and in movies, pop music, and certainly contemporary Chinese literature you'll still encounter references to Dream of the Red Chamber.

The plot of the novel follows the lives of the Rongguo House and the Ningguo House of the noble and wealthy Jia clan and thus the drama and intrigue visited on these powerful families. Much of the emphasis is on plans to marry a son or daughter off to someone or who has the power in a certain household. If you enjoy Jane Austen, after getting over the cultural differnces and obscure way the story is told—magic factors in a great deal and sometimes it's hard to pin down what is metaphorical and what is supposed to be actual—you'll probably enjoy this book. In saying that, I do not mean to scare away readers nor to cite the cultural and historical differences as a problem or marker of something "less-than"or abnormal, but it must be understood that due to the specifics of the Qing Dynasty plus various editions of the novel and additions by various authors and editors, the book's study has become so complex and nuanced that there is even a name for the academic field of investigation of this one novel: Redology. No joke. In example, a work mentioned in the book Fei Yi Ji Ji Gao, a work within a work, has even been studied in detail and the jury of scholars is still out on the origins and authenticity of this work!

All that said, this is a powerful, sweeping, epic and utterly engrossing book and it stands in my opinion as probably one of the top ten—possibly even top five—works of world literature ever written. Why only four stars then? This translation, and all translations I've read or examined appear to have their faults and be overall pretty cumbersome. I realize that translators and editors of a work this complex have their tasks cut out for them and I don't want to see anything done that would mitigate the true flavor of the original yet what seems to happen is that the language winds up somewhere between a faithful replication of the Chinese and something seeming like a bad script-writer trying to write dialog as people would have spoken in "Bible days". In places, the novel even seems like a parody of itself. If you thought the dialog in The Good Earth seemed fake and even comical with all the "ah, my pretty lotus flower!" platitudes, this book will make you want to tear your hair out. If you can get past that, it's a treat.
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Reading Progress

February 16, 2012 – Started Reading
February 16, 2012 – Shelved
February 26, 2012 – Finished Reading

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