Pauline Chen on The Red Chamber

The Chinese literature PhD reworks the classic tales in her new novel

In the 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin created one of China’s greatest love stories. Soul-mates Lin Daiyu and Jia Baoyu are akin to Romeo and Juliet; like Shakespeare's doomed couple, they yearn for free love but are instead destroyed by familial expectations and filial obedience. Encircling this Qing dynasty romance is an epic tale of an aristocratic family marred by social decline.

At 2,500 pages long, with over 400 characters, Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the so-called ‘four great classical novels’. Now, Chinese-American author Pauline Chen has set herself the daunting task of unravelling its complex plots to introduce a shorter version that’s more palatable for Western readers.

Central to the plot are the wealthy Jia family and its servants and slaves. Characters fall in love, have affairs, grapple with financial woes, survive political coups, fall into family disgrace and ride the trajectory of birth, marriage and death. In the process of shortening the book to under 400 pages – and the title to The Red Chamber – Chen cuts many peripheral plot lines and characters to focus on the tales of the women who form the novel’s emotional centre.

The Red Chamber kicks off when the orphaned Daiyu travels from Nanjing to live with her uncle and his family at the opulent Rongguo Mansion in Peking. Closeted in the women’s quarters (known as the ‘red chamber’) she falls in love with her brilliant and precocious cousin Baoyu. But Baoyu is betrothed to another cousin, the prim and proper Xue Baochai, who also lives in Rongguo and is one of Daiyu’s dearest friends. Tragedy ensues.

Chen, who taught Cao’s classic to undergraduates in the States, found that most of her students were daunted by the book’s sheer size and complexity. While some themes – marriage, love, death – are universal, other elements of the book, such as its Buddhist underpinnings, were culturally unfamiliar. ‘I hope that after reading my book people will be more curious about the original,’ she says.

She soon realized that a straightforward abridgment would not work. ‘The original story is so tightly interwoven that you can’t just pluck out strands. What was important to me was to develop three female characters and to create a plot to do so,’ Chen says. She forced herself not to look at the original for three years and her plot-lines about the three female leads (Lin Daiyu, Xue Baochai and Wang Xinfeng) are inspired by and intersect with Cao’s book, but they’re not bound by it.

The Red ChamberKey is the central love story. ‘In Cao’s novel love is all unspoken – nothing is ever done about it. Even the act of Daiyu choosing to love Baoyu was considered bold. It’s part of the tension,’ explains Chen. To make the characters appeal to a Western audience she made the couple far more active, even introducing clandestine bedroom scenes between the two.

Crucially, Chen wanted to banish stereotypes. Qing dynasty women, despite huge constraints, enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom. Characters such as the fearsome matriarch Granny Jia are extremely powerful. ‘I think the detail and richness with which female characters are depicted in the original is very pro-women,’ says Chen.

Yet, limitations are given full attention. In Dream of the Red Chamber, the character Wang Xifeng, who has married into the Jia household, is highly capable – she manages Rongguo’s financial affairs – but also cruel. When her husband takes a concubine, she plots to kill the new wife, eventually driving the girl to suicide. Chen wanted to provide a more subtle exploration of the frustrations, rivalry, nurtured friendships, and sexual humiliation that were part of historical concubinage.

‘I felt that Xifeng’s situation was actually very pitiable,’ she explains. ‘There was so clearly this double standard, that her husband could have as many women as he wanted and she was supposed to accept it. And I wanted her to be able to fight back without looking like a villain.’

In The Red Chamber, relationships between the women are put to the test when they are banished from Rongguo following a political coup that sees the mansion’s men imprisoned. Chen was inspired to fictionalise this episode from author Cao’s own family misfortunes. Cao’s wealthy family provided the fodder for his epic, but following the accession of Emperor Yongzheng, they fell from grace, their property was confiscated and they were left utterly impoverished.

Despite these experiences, Dream of the Red Chamber is socially apolitical, largely because it was published during a period in which writers could be murdered for seditious writing. Chen masterfully weaves Cao’s family history into her novel, while retaining the criticism of strict Confucian ethics and rejection of Chinese feudalism for which the original is famous.

Ultimately, however, it all comes down to love. Before arranged marriages were banned in 1950, Dream of the Red Chamber was condemned for introducing the idea of marrying for love rather than for duty. ‘The book was treated as if it was cocaine. It had a dangerous and subversive element,’ says Chen. Today, its tale of forbidden love may not have quite the same giddy impact; but the story, retold centuries later, is just as addictive.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore