The Story of the Stone (also called A Dream of Red Mansions) is a novel written by Cao Xueqin in 18th Century China. It is a fascinating story about the lives (and even things beyond the earthly lives) of the wealthy Jia family and those that serve them or interact with them in some form or other. Out of the great number of characters (who are fortunately included in a character list at the back of the book), the ones we follow mainly are the boy Bao-yu, who is the incarnation of a magical stone that was in his mouth when he was born, his cousins Dai-yu and Bao-chai, his older cousin Xi-feng, and his maids such as Aroma.
First of all, the book was beautiful to read. The descriptions were lovely, and it all flowed so well that you could end up reading quite a lot in only a short amount of time. Except for a few insignificant instances, I couldn’t tell that it had been translated into English rather than written in English originally. One of the many beautiful descriptions is of the stone: “she saw a stone about the size of a sparrow’s egg, glowing with the suppressed, milky radiance of a sunlit cloud and veined with iridescent streaks of colour,” and another describing Xi-feng with a poem:
“She had, moreover,
eyes like a painted phoenix,
eyebrows like willow-leaves,
a slender form,
the ever-smiling summer face
of hidden thunders showed no trace;
the ever-bubbling laughter started
almost before the lips were parted.”
There are many verses of poetry within the text, either that the characters made up or quoted from, or just descriptions from the author about the setting or characters themselves. Although I thought it was odd at first, I soon got used to it and found it really added to the atmosphere of the story.
The book is also excellent with its portrayal of the characters’ thoughts and desires, especially exploring conflicting ideas and emotions. So although the book is very detailed in its descriptions of the events and the setting, it doesn’t fall short of exploring the characters’ mentalities, as well intricacies of the plots they might have. For example, Bao-yu’s maid Aroma tricks Bao-yu at one point: “By employing only a minimum amount of deceit, she could use it as a means of ascertaining his real feelings towards her and of humbling his spirit a little, so that he might be in a suitably chastened frame of mind for the lecture which she was preparing to admonish him. She judged from his going off silently to bed that he was shaken and a little unsure of himself. Evidently she had succeeded in the first part of her plan.” Xi-feng is also particularly skilled at manipulating people.
There were many priceless moments of humor as well. For example, when Bao-yu and Qin Zhong go to school (though Bao-yu stops going soon after he begins), there is a fight with all the boys throwing things at each other and it just gets so out of hand: you’d have to read it to see, but it’s absolutely hilarious. Also Xi-feng can be very devious: she was definitely one of my favourite characters, probably the smartest, and not shy of taking charge when the situation calls for her, even though she is extremely busy with running the household. Not to mention when she sets up a plot to get sleazy Jia Rui caught the act of coming to visit her for an amorous meeting. This ends up getting him killed because he is trapped outside in the courtyard overnight and catches a chill, though the fact that he dies is really his own fault when he fails to follow the advice of a Taoist doctor. Xi-feng isn’t sorry one bit, and I have to agree with her.
As for the main character, Bao-yu, he is the most intriguing and seems to have a connection to things beyond the mortal world around him because he is the incarnation of the stone, even though he doesn’t realize what this entails. Although he has a glimpse of a higher order in the world, he is largely secluded in the Jia household and lives a life of luxury where his every whim is supplied by his maids. It would be nice if, in the next volumes, he is forced to fend for himself, because now, he has no real responsibilities and so he’s never really tested, which is necessary for the protagonist of a novel. He does, however, suffer his own hardships (besides being bored from not having anything to do) because of his melancholy and reflections about himself and the world and wanting to know where he belongs in it. He is never able to really figure it out though, for he is effectively trapped in the Jia household with his family and almost never gets out in the world. On the rare occasion that he does (Qin-shi’s funeral), he is curious about other people and feels a connection to them, especially a girl who works at a farm: “she was standing watching for him beside the road, a baby brother in her arms and two little girls at her side. Bao-yu could not repress a strong emotion on seeing her, but sitting there in the carriage there was not much he could do but gaze back at her soulfully.” This is what usually happens: he is able to watch life from the safety of his “carriage” of existence, but not able to do much of anything.
Also, his interactions with others causes him much turmoil, especially with Dai-yu. Dai-yu was sweet at first, but once she comes to love Bao-yu, she becomes such a brat and gets annoyed at every little thing Bao-yu does. She’s very jealous of Bao-chai, and always takes it out on Bao-yu when he says or does something even slightly out of line. So although he also loves her, they stay at an impasse for the whole book. Though admittedly, Bao-yu isn’t very mature either, so it’s possible that his love for Dai-yu will pass, especially considering that he takes a fancy to many other people (mostly his cousins and maids. The fact that everyone is a cousin or related in some way does not stop any relationships from forming) at various times throughout the book. As is mentioned during a conversation with Yu-cun near the beginning of the book, Bao-yu has an unusual obsession with girls, not only that he likes girls, but that he has grown up with girls and likes to do the activities they do. We often see that he might even want to be a girl, because he sees them as nobler being compared to males. So he often experiences an unspoken frustration simply because he is a boy and so cannot really be like his cousins. And he is definitely in love with his friend Qin Zhong, though nothing comes of this because Qin Zhong eventually dies. But on the whole, Bao-yu is confused in his life, for he is largely estranged from not only the higher reality beyond the world, but even the world outside his very restricted social situation.
As for the stone Bao-yu is born with, although he is largely ignorant of its powers, he knows the inscription on it, which says:
Mislay me not, forget me not.
And hale old age shall be your lot.
On the reverse, it says,
- Dispels the harms of witchcraft.
- Cures melancholic distempers.
- Foretells good and evil fortune.
The stone indeed accomplishes all three of those powers throughout the book (the first is obvious, the second is to (sometimes) relieve Bao-yu from his melancholy, and the third is when Bao-yu is transported to the world with the fairy Disenchantment where he is able to read a part of a book that lays out the unfortunate fates of different girls in the form of poems (though it doesn’t specify which poem corresponds to which girl)).
This dream ties in to one of the major themes in the book, and indeed, the book is also called A Dream of Red Mansions. This “dream,” or transportation to another plane of existence, is when Bao-yu is instructed by Disenchantment to dispel his “lust of the mind” so he can focus on “the serious things in life” rather than illusions of daily life that will only trap him. So far, in the first volume, she hadn’t succeeded, but I believe there’s hope for Bao-yu yet.
This transport to Disenchantment’s land of fairies touches upon the supernatural order that ultimately forms the basis of the world. This is also hinted at with the characters of the Taoist and Buddhist monks who occasionally make an appearance. They are aware that Bao-yu is the stone, though as you would expect from a Buddhist and Taoist, they don’t get involved in the plot much. Other monks and religious persons only get involved in times of deaths and sicknesses, which also illustrates the fact that what really matters is not the incessant clamour of day-to-day routines and customs that occupy most of the characters’ time, but of the ultimate destiny of our soul when it leaves this illusory world. One particularly interesting part is when Qin Zhong is dying and bargains with the demons while he is unconscious so that he can speak to Bao-yu one last time.
The book’s many lavish descriptions of customs, clothing, and architecture, including an enormous garden that is built just so the family can receive their daughter (who has become a royal concubine) for a visit once a year, is very interesting in itself, but it can also be seen as a mask over the fundamental reality that is spoken of at the beginning of the book, and so the story is in one sense a parody. It is this higher world and the beings within it that ultimately determine the characters’ destinies, which they are largely unaware of, and indeed, we even see that some souls were purposely sent into the “great illusion of human life” for a particular purpose. We can’t decide either when we come into the world or when we leave it, but it is at these times that the characters are able to glimpse a higher scheme of things in which their day-to-day lives are insignificant. Bao-yu is sometimes able to sense when he meets a pure soul connected to a higher world, such as the maid Crimson and Dai-yu, who were sent here by the fairy Disenchantment. Ultimately, everything that happens is in accordance with the laws of karma, and the only ones who are really able to escape them are the Taoist and Buddhist monks, who travel between “the land of illusion” and the higher world.
On top of all this, we learn a lot about the time period (China in the 1700s), such as how people lived, what they wore, the different positions in society, medicine, literature, etc. And given that it was actually written in this time period, we can safely assume that it’s accurate.
I would certainly say that Cao Xueqin is the Alexandre Dumas of 18th century China: any fans of Dumas would do well to pick up a copy of this book and enjoy.