The Dream of Red Mansions

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Cao Xueqin’s epic novel The Dream of Red Mansions is the greatest and most influential work of literature in the history of China.

Cao Xueqin’s novel The Dream of Red Mansions is one of the greatest works of literature from the whole of Chinese history. It is a novel of 120 chapters which may be read at a number of different levels. Published in 1791, the novel follows the interrelated incidents and events in the lives of the Jia family, who are very wealthy and under the good favour of the emperor. The central character is the young man Jia Baoyu, whose life is mirrored by the two female cousins who come to live with the family: Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. Their lives are generally peaceful until Jia Baoyu is tricked into marrying the second of the two cousins, which upsets the entire household. However, his life before then had witnessed a series of reprimands from his staunchly Confucian father who disapproved of his seemingly endless dalliances with lady cousins, maidservants and other passing women. There are twenty major characters and more than 400 minor ones.

This may be seen as an allegory on Buddhism, which rewards the middle path as opposed to either extreme, as well as social commentary on the Confucian means of regulating society (the household is commonly seen as representing society as a whole, in the same way that a boat or a ship is often used in English literature). The novel also works as straight narrative or as an exploration of psychological issues.

The book also had a great impact upon society’s perception of women, specifically women of the middle and upper classes. Society’s attitudes had of course fluctuated over the ages but the Dream helped cement the opinion that women should be elegant, sensitive and delicate – in other words, unable to care for themselves or to work outside of the house. It therefore became the role of men to protect these women and ensure that they could maintain a household in which they could moon about as they wished without being disturbed by the outside world. For the women concerned themselves, this had both positive and negative elements. Positively, the women did not have any real requirement to undertake domestic labour and could spend their time on artistic or craft or even social activities. Negatively, of course, it meant that their freedom to travel or fulfill themselves outside of the house was severely curtailed. Ultimately, this became manifest in the practice of foot-binding, which restricted the sphere of activity of women to an enormous extent and made them even more of economic burdens for the remainder of the household.