The Beauty That Lies in Wasted Time: On Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber

July 28, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 7 5 min read

covercoverI’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.

At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of  The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.

What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.

I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:

It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.

I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.

The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).

Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery.  Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.

However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.

Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.

Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.

lives in Brooklyn. He writes book reviews for The Front Table and occasionally posts at Like Them That Dream.


  1. I had to skip the first part of this as I didn’t want to actually hear anything about the plot!

    But I like where you go with this at the end. I’m reading The Cazalet Chronicles, which is about 2000 pages of smallish type and brilliant and exactly what I needed as an antidote to tons of great stuff, but short, that I read online. The minutia of daily life! The never ending ruminations of our minds!

    I’m going to go order this at Book Court right now….so thanks!

  2. I am a 53 year old voracious reader and I have never heard of these novels. Thanks so much for introducing them to us. I have Volume One on order. Your website is the best one out there for book lovers!

  3. As an ethnic Chinese who has read parts of the novel (ok, the book is so long I can only admit to reading parts of it) I have to tell you all translations are handicapped to an extent. Hawkes’ translation is a good one, but even he fails to reproduce the exact tone to every Cao’s sentence. What Hawkes tends to make “Dream” (or “The Story of the Stone”) into, is something akin to a Jane Austen-type of “novel of manners”. “Novel of manners” is right of course, but this is an entirely Chinese “naturalistic” kind of novel, not an Anglo-Austenized hybrid. The characters in translation sound more gossipy than they ought to, and though I feel Hawkes as an Englishman is justified in “naturalizing” some of the dialog he does go too far sometimes. You can get the letter right but the cultural context wrong entirely. The use of the vernacular language in Chinese is vivid and unreproducible in English. Cao has a vocabulary not unlike Shakespeare’s in English, his poetry writing is exceptional, and if you need to appreciate the novel you – or any native – ought to put in 10 good years polishing up Chinese. It’s something that will always be lost in translation.

  4. Now that I’ve started Volume One, I’d like to add some feedback. I must disagree with the reviewer, in that I find the language and the pacing of the novel quite refreshing. I’m not bored at all with the prose and, although I am sure it is more rich in the original Chinese, I really love reading it and plan to finish all five volumes. I am amazed at how unobtrusive the language is, and how the author lets the story unfold in a way that seems to have an appeal that lies beyond time or place.

  5. The details are not at all meaningless — what better way to get a feel for a time and place entirely foreign to comparison to anywhere on earth in the present day (including modern-day China) than to immerse oneself in the routines of everyday life? Maybe only people who truly love to learn about history and culture should be the ones to read this book, otherwise they will just torture themselves with boredom like this author is apparently doing.

    If you can just let go your contemporary biases about how fiction ought to be and allow yourself to be drawn into the book, maybe it can fill your heart up and break it like it did to mine.

  6. the most interesting part i’ve read thus far is how Lady Feng got rid of a pesky lover. She seemed to be the smartest person in the story. Lin Tai Yun cries too darn much, and Pao Yu naturally is a fop who is too fond of pleasure and frivolity. Yes -there are some interesting historical and cultural references. But there are too many characters and too little development of these characters – it’s like reading the book of Chronicles in the Bible. Pao Yu is born with jade in his mouth – i wonder if that’s an idiom like “born with a silver spoon” – and in the beginning – this jade is likened to a “stone the builders rejected” (builders repairing the wall of heaven). Besides being a novel -there’s also some spiritual exhortation about the malady of pleasure chasing.

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