A retelling of the Chinese classic 红楼梦 (hong lou meng) or Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. A story I know nothing about, except its name – and fame. But Pauline A Chen’s reimagined version quickly draws me into the lives of the Jia family. More specifically, the women of the Jia family, who live in the beautiful palatial Rongguo Mansion in the Capital.
We join young Daiyu who has recently lost her mother to illness as she leaves her home in Suzhou to stay with the relatives she’s never met before. Her mother was a Jia daughter estranged from her family having married beneath her.
She enters a world so different from the simple life she led in Suzhou. One full of exquisite silks, extravagant dinners, a bevy of servants and politicking among her new relatives and close ties with the imperial court.
There is the ambitious and unappreciated daughter-in-law Xifeng, who manages the household but cannot produce an heir; ; the Lady Jia, powerful and manipulative; plain, unmarried Xue Baochai, a cousin, at first unsure of herself and her place in the family. And quite a number of other relatives and servants.
The heir to all this is Baoyu, clever but unpredictable and quite willful, and supposedly born with a jade in his mouth:
“He is so handsome that all the light in the room seems to shine on him. Low over his brow he wears a gold headband shaped like two dragons playing with a large pearl. He is dressed in a jacket of slate-blue silk with tasseled borders and medallions down the front, over a pair of ivy-colored embroidered trousers. He does not kowtow, but looks at her as if he and she are the only two people in the world.”
And so a little love triangle develops. Baoyu and Daiyu, both with the character for jade ‘yu’ in their names, fall for each other. But Baoyu is betrothed to Baochai, whose wealth and connections make her a better match in the eyes of his family.
The fortunes of the Jia family start out flying high but the death of the Emperor, a coup by a prince (and the family’s vocal support of another prince) result in the men being imprisoned and the women left to fend for themselves, which they barely manage as this is a time when people say things like: “A virtuous woman is an uneducated woman.” Ouch. While the Jia women have some sort of education due to their privileged position in society, they aren’t able to do much with it. Times are hard but they make it through. That little love triangle though, doesn’t quite.
The writing style of The Red Chamberisn’t anything to shout about but the story moves along at a well-clipped pace and its strong female characters pull the reader in.
I doubt that I’ll ever read The Dream of the Red Chamber – it apparently has 400-plus characters and drags its way out to 2,500 pages! – so I can’t tell you how this relates to that. But in my copy of the book, Chen points out that she has “shuffled, truncated, and eliminated both characters and plotlines of the original to create a cohesive and more compact work”.
The Red Chamber is a solid multi-generational drama set in 18th century China, with vibrant historical details (Chen has a PhD in East Asian studies) and a moving plot.
Pauline A. Chen earned her B.A. in classics from Harvard, her J.D. from Yale Law School, and her Ph.D. in East Asian studies from Princeton. She has taught Chinese language, literature, and film at the University of Minnesota and Oberlin College. She is also the author of a novel for young readers, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, and lives in Ohio with her two children