Nothing like a challenge to fire you.
In the interests of doing a half-way decent job on a project in China, I said “I’m a quick reader, I’ll take the first book.” So the big question is, will I get through to the end?
A Dream of Red Mansions is considered the pinnacle of Chinese literary achievement. Written in the 1700’s, it is a story of love, loss and all things in between. It is also underpinned, so my Chinese friend tells me, by the teachings of Buddha and so is a ‘how-to-live-a-rightful-life’ sort of affair. Self-help on a grand scale. Mixed with a bit of television’s ‘Dallas’ of the 1980’s – rich family falls on hard times. 3 Volumes, 120 chapters.
I was more than dismayed to read, in Chapter 1, that one of the early characters, Chia Hua (meaning false talk), has not one but two other names – a courtesy name of Shih-fei, and a pen name of Yu-tsun. I don’t know what a courtesy name is – formal title perhaps? He seems to be referred to by his pen name, so far anyway. I have a little chart beside me to help keep track of who is who.
The book wastes no time getting into a ripping yarn – kidnappings, murder, lust – it is all there. My most favourite paragraph is the reply to “where are you from and whither are you going?” The answer, which just slips off the tongue, is
“My home is above the Sphere of Parting Sorrow in the Sea of Brimming Grief,” she answered with a smile. “I am the Goddess of Disenchantment from the grotto of Emanating Fragrance on the Mountain of Expanding Spring in the Illusory Land of Great Void.”
I am looking at this as a real challenge. Last year I battled through two volumes of the History of Europe, roughly covering the years 1200 – 1400. No mean feat. So why not dabble in Chinese history, which is what this book is revered for. Unlike the “breeze and moonlight” or “beauty-and-talented-scholar” type of love story (as described in the book), this book goes into great detail of the lives of the upper class of the time. Detailed descriptions of the rooms of the mansions conjure up images of life lived in incredible luxury, supported by many servants and helpers.
The author speaks directly to the reader in the opening pages; a surprising sort of confession:
“In this busy, dusty world, having accomplished nothing, I suddenly recalled all the girls I had known, considering each in turn, and it dawned on me that all of them surpassed me in behaviour and understanding; that I, shameful to say, for all my masculine dignity, fell short of the gentler sex.” He goes on to add, “Though I have little learning or literary talent, what does it matter if I tell a tale in rustic language to leave a record of all those lovely girls.”
Seems it mattered quite a lot in the end, although I tend to agree about his self-assessed lack of literary talent. The book was at 80 chapters when the author died prematurely. 200 years ago, the last 40 chapters, generally regarded as inferior to the first 80, were added to “tie up loose ends.”
The young man at the centre of the story is described thus:
“His face was as radiant as the mid-autumn moon, his complexion fresh as spring flowers at dawn. The hair above his temples was a sharply outlined as if cut with a knife. His eyebrows were as black as if painted with ink, his cheeks as red as peach-blossom, his eyes bright as autumn ripples.”
Analyse that if you dare, creative writing teachers. And ponder on whether anyone will have heard of you in 250 years. In case you might think this is a dusty old history book, Chapter 5, in which the aforementioned Goddess of Disenchantment ‘in her kindness secretly expounds on love’ might well be considered soft porn, 1700’s style.
Thoughts on society anyone? “The poor people are concerned with food and drink, the wealthy never have enough”. Oh so true, 300-odd years later, still so very very true.
I feel this book should be compulsory reading for anyone who interacts regularly with Chinese culture. A box that you should have to tick before you can get a VISA to go to China. The clients admitted on Skype from China yesterday that they had not read it, which just makes me want to read it even more.
I feel confident I will be a better person when I have completed the challenge.