By Elaine Dunn
In case you haven’t heard, The Chinese Heritage Foundation has commissioned San Francisco Opera for a production of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” featuring music by world-renowned Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng and an English-language libretto by the composer and Tony Award-winning Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (China Insight, February 2014). The commissioned opera is planned for a fall 2016 premiere.
I thought it would be nice to retell this Chinese classic in the next few months. Yes, a few months! “Dream of the Red Chamber” is a very LONG novel, 120 chapters in all! One English translation ran 2,500 pages. (That will not be the version I’ll be re-reading!)
Even though it was considered one of the greatest Chinese classics, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” unlike “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Scarlet Letter,” was not required reading as I went through secondary school in Hong Kong. However, out of curiosity, I decided to read an English translation over Christmas break my freshman year in college. Since that was eons ago, I’m ‘fessing up that I don’t remember much of the details. I will check another copy out of the library and reread it. I will then do a “retell” in the next few issues.
For now, I will give a brief intro to the author, a brief outline of the novel for those who are unfamiliar with it, and a partial list of the key characters.
The author is Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹). His birth and death dates were not well documented, but are supposed to be around 1715 or 1724 – 1763 or 1764.. He was born into a wealthy clan and his grandfather was a childhood playmate to the emperor Kangxi (康熙). However, after the death of his grandfather, because of the political upheaval of the times, the family lost its wealth and stature. Cao was said to have lived the last years of his relatively short life in poverty in the western suburbs of Beijing. It was under these adverse conditions that he wrote this novel.
Intelligent and talented, he was also a drinker, a painter, a progressive thinker and a writer. He used the tragic love story as a commentary on the hypocrisy and decadence of the feudal society in which he once lived. There is an on-going debate whether his protagonist, Jia Baoyu, was a self-portrait.
As you already know, it’s a love story with an unhappy ending. It takes place within the confines of the Jia family compound. The Jias is a wealthy and powerful family.
When the novel begins, the son, Jia Baoyu (贾宝玉), was about 12 or 13. He loved to keep company with his girl cousins. He has a special affinity with one of them – the sickly Lin Daiyu (林黛玉). But he was slated to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai (薛宝钗). The two girls have completely different personalities. Jia likes them both, but loves Lin, who shares his love of poetry and music. Xue, on the other hand, is sensible and tactful - a model Chinese feudal maiden. The novel is about the romantic rivalry and friendship among the three.
In the words of Pauline Chen, an author who wrote a “retelling” of the novel, these three form “the most famous love triangle in Chinese literary history.”
Cast of characters
There are sine 400-plus characters in the novel. In addition to the three who form the love triangle the following list includes some of the other main characters:
Grandmother Jia (贾母, aka Lady Dowager): Grandmother to both Baoyu and Daiyu, she is the highest living authority in the Rongguo house and the oldest and most respected of the entire clan.
Jia Yuanchun (贾元春): Baoyu's elder sister, becomes an Imperial Consort and is a favorite of the Emperor.
Wang Xifeng (王熙凤): Baoyu's elder cousin-in-law, young wife to Baoyu's paternal first cousin Jia Lian. She’s the worldliest woman in the novel and is in charge of running the household, therefore wields remarkable power within the family.
Jia She (贾赦): The elder son of the Dowager, Baoyu’s uncle and father of Jia Lian and Jia Yingchun. He is a treacherous and greedy man, and a womanizer.
Jia Lian (贾琏): Xifeng's husband and Baoyu's paternal elder cousin, a notorious womanizer. He and his wife are in charge of most hiring and monetary allocation decisions, and often fight over this power.
Jia Yingchun (贾迎春): A kind-hearted, weak-willed person with a "wooden" personality. Her most famous trait is her unwillingness to meddle in the affairs of her family.
Jia Zheng (贾政): Baoyu's father, the younger son of the Dowager. He is a disciplinarian and Confucian scholar. Afraid his one surviving heir will turn bad, he imposes strict rules on his son, and uses occasional corporal punishment.
Lady Wang (王夫人): Buddhist, primary wife of Jia Zheng, Baoyu’s mother. Appears to be a kind mistress and a doting mother, she can in fact be cruel and ruthless when her authority is challenged. She pays a great deal of attention to Baoyu's maids to make sure that Baoyu does not develop romantic relationships with them.
Qingwen (晴雯): Baoyu's personal maid. Brash, haughty and the most beautiful maid in the household, Qingwen is said to resemble Daiyu very strongly. She’s the only one who dares to argue with Baoyu when reprimanded, but is also extremely devoted to him.
Yuanyang (鸳鸯): The Dowager's chief maid. She rejected a marriage proposal (as concubine) to the lecherous Jia She, The Dowager’s eldest son.
It’s perfectly understandable if your head is spinning already. But I hope you’ll hang in there for the intrigue and treachery to come. It’ll be worth the trouble!
BTW, follow-up to last month’s column, I received no emails from anyone telling me they’ve heard of Shangqiu (商丘).
Till next month!