The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen
A little over a year ago, I came across a copy of The Dream of the Red Chamber when a student returned it to the library’s course reserve collection. It looked interesting, but this was a tome. A tome in translation. An 18th century tome in translation. 18th century classic Chinese literature. I’ve read 18th century British literature and it usually involves a mess of complicated subplots, dozens upon dozens of characters, and some sort of melodramatic storyline. And swooning. I figured classic Chinese lit had to involve a good dose of all of these as well. It seemed like a daunting read, no matter how much I love learning about Asian history and culture. I set it aside and returned it to the reserve shelf.
Warning, this review may contain spoilers.
Following the fortunes of the Jia family, The Red Chamber explores the power of familial bonds, jealousy, and political conflict on the cloistered lives of upper-class women.
When Lin Daiyu is compelled to travel to visit her mother’s childhood home in Rongguo, the last thing she wants to do is leave her ailing, widowed father behind. Feeling awkward and unrefined, Daiyu does not know how to act around her rich cousins, but soon finds allies in the family’s treasured son, Jia Baoyu, and her grandmother’s servant, Snowgoose. Navigating the niceties of life within the inner chambers of the Jia mansion, where the female members of the family live in sheltered seclusion, Daiyu finds herself on the edge of the complicated web of female relationships that are so integral to life in the women’s area. Finding herself drawn to the taciturn Xia Baochai and the energetic Baoyu, Daiyu begins to feel part of the family, despite her grandmother’s consistent disregard for her.
While Daiyu is learning to fit in, Wang Xifeng is learning how to deal with a husband that is brushing her away, and a devoted friend and servant who is being pulled away from her in the process. When Jia Lian decides to take Xifeng’s servant, Ping’er as his concubine, Xifeng doesn’t know what is worse–losing her husband’s affection, or losing her closest companion. Jealousy and loss fill Xifeng and poison her relationship with Ping’er. Driven to work harder than she already does, Xifeng absorbs herself with managing the Jia household, lending illegal loans, and becoming entangled in an affair.
Simultaneously, Baochai struggles with her role as a loyal daughter and sister, becoming involved in her brother’s tumultuous actions when he accidentally murders a man. Unsure about her place in the family and what her future will involve, Baochai is at the edge of the drama unfolding in the Jia household as she tentatively befriends Daiyu and tries to be the sort of woman she is expected to be. When Daiyu’s friendship with Baoyu turns into a budding romance, Baochai’s own desire for Baoyu draws her loyalty into question.
These three lives come together when the political turmoil in the imperial city reaches a climax and the Jias are driven from their home–the men jailed for treason and the women left to fend for themselves outside of the shelter of the Women’s Quarters. Daiyu, Baochai, and Xifeng each experience this loss in vastly different ways, the consequences of their actions during their idyllic period in the Women’s Quarters affecting their new lives in the aftermath of the family’s misfortune.
Heartache, mistrust, and misunderstandings mar the relationships between Daiyu, Baochai, and Xifeng in the novel’s second half. The bitterness created by these emotions taints the experiences of each of these women during an especially tragic period. While a sense of closure is achieved by each woman, nothing is ever as it was.
And that is only a fraction of the story. This is a multidimensional novel that explores class, gender, politics, and women’s issues in a time and place when women and the poor were extremely disenfranchised. Xifeng, Baochai, and Daiyu reflect many of the worries and fears experienced by the others, but none is able to engage in the kind of deep, sustaining friendship that might help them overcome the difficulties of being a woman. Intrigue, both inside and outside the Women’s Quarters, places these women in a position that is hard to navigate and survive unscathed.
The intricate relationships between the Jias and their relatives add depth to the story, but remain easy to follow despite the many layers of social connections. I’m sure this is one of those aspects of the original novel that Chen managed to simplify for readers. The historical setting is drawn in excellent detail and serves as a great introduction to classical China. This is a carefully crafted historical novel that really makes me want to read the original.
Overall, I enjoyed Daiyu’s storyline best of all. Xifeng and Baochai are strong characters, but Daiyu becomes the strongest of all in her ability to learn and grow. This might be why I enjoyed the first half of the novel more than the second half (except for the ending, it really was a nice ending).
This is a great novel for readers who enjoy writers such as Lisa See or Arthur Golden, or are interested in Asian history.
I received my copy of The Red Chamber from a representative at Goldberg McDuffie Communications.