I have tried to explain Confucian culture, because I believe that the richness of Confucian tradition deserves to be better known, appreciated, and enjoyed. We humans have enough problems trying to get along with people from the same cultural background. Understanding a culture which shares very little historical background with our own culture requires effort, patience, tolerance, and persistence. But I have always believed studying other cultures enrich our lives by expanding horizons in different ways, learning to appreciate unfamiliar flavors of food, different rhythms, scales, and tones of music, unexpected combination of colors and shapes in art, and how different peoples understand beauty and the sacred. It is easier to stay with what you know, for sure, but it gets boring and claustrophobic after a while. If I have managed to get you interested in watching an Asian movie or picking up a translation of the classic stories, I consider myself successful in my attempt.
Allow me to briefly introduce my very favorite Chinese classic novel; Red Chamber Dream (also called The Story of the Stone, c. 1760s). This family saga, which describes the rise and fall of the powerful Jia clan, is the last of Four Great Novels of China. It is considered the pinnacle of Chinese fiction, even though it was written in vernacular, not in classic, Chinese. The novel has such following that the study of it is an independent field called Redlogy (紅学). The official China Central TV made a TV series of this novel which run from 1984 to 1987, earlier than they made a series on Romance of Three kingdoms or Water Margin. The mansion compound with a large garden which was built as the TV set has been preserved and a popular tourist spot in Beijing (北京大观园).
When first published, it became an overnight sensation and the copies flew off the shelves. This was a completely new kind of novel. Unlike traditional story such as The Story of a Great Match where emotions seem artificial and formulaic, Red Chamber Dream describes emotions of the characters in the way both realistic and dreamlike. The novel is semi-autobiographical. The author Cao Xueqin's family served the Manchu emperors and had been assimilated to the Manchu customs, which created a very unique household. In this novel, boys and girls, even in their teens, mingle freely in their mansion compound. This was so against the Han-Chinese cultural norm. However, as a fiction, this contributed to the dreamy charm of the novel, transporting the readers to an alternative world.
The Jia clan resides in two adjacent family compounds headed by two brothers Jia She and Jia Zheng. But the real master of the clan is Grandmother and her words are never disobeyed. (She leaves a sizable inheritance after her passing.) She dotes on Jia Zheng's son, Jia Baoyu. Jia Baoyu loves poetry, and would rather hang around with girls than studying for civil service examinations. Indulgent Grandmother allows Jia Baoyu to mingle with the girls of the household freely, against his father's wishes. When Jia Bayou's cousin Lin Daiyu lost her mother, Grandmother has her move into the family compound. Lin Daiyu loves poetry and music, and is emotionally and physically fragile. Jia Bayou and Lin Daiyu become good friends because of their shared interest in poetry and later fall in love.
Though he looks carefree, Jia Baoyu is not really free. His mother Lady Wang is keeping an eye on him to make sure that he won't develop romantic relationship with the girls. Though Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu fall in love, their love is star-crossed. Jia Bayou is destined, realized through Grandmother's order, to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai who is the model Confucian wise mother type and a devout Buddhist. The star-crossed love of Jia Bayou and Lin Daiyou is the main emotional draw of this story. Modern wu xia novels, movies, and TV dramas, mix kung fu actions with such lovers; TV drams Seven Swordsmen (2005-2006) , The Spirit of the Sword (2007), and The Handsome Siblings (2004), to name a few.
There are ten other beauties in this household. Bayou's elder sister Jia Yuanchun serves at the harem and attracts the emperor because of her beauty, learning, and virtue. The clan's fortune rises when Jia Yuanchun becomes an Imperial Consort and declines after her passing. This is a very woman-centric novel.
Bayou's younger half-sister Jia Tanchun is a talented poet, very outspoken, and highly capable. Shi Xiangyun who is Bayou's second cousin and orphaned in infancy is also a talented poet. This straight talking beauty loves to cross-dress—kung fu movies are dotted with pretty girls pretending to be men by wearing men's clothes and fake mustaches—and to drink. Jia Yingchun who is Bayou's elder cousin is less well educated and apathetic. Jia Xichun is another second cousin of Baoyu and a talented painter and devout Buddhist. Li Wan is Baoyu's late elder brother's widow who devotes her life to bringing up her son, Jia Lan. She later receives ladyship as the reward for her son's success at civil service examinations. A young nun named Miaoyu lives in the family compound's Buddhist cloister. She is well learned, highly intelligent, and hates to mix with the regular people who have not taken Buddhist vow. Qin Keqing is older than Jia Bayou, but because of the complicated Chinese system of ranking relatives, calls him an uncle. She is an older sexy version of Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai in one, but dies young in mysterious circumstances.
The most formidable of the beauties is Wang Xifeng who is Jia Bayou's mother's niece and married to his cousin. She is entrusted daily running of the household by Bayou's mother, Lady Wang. She laughs aloud, and keeps Lady Wang and Grandmother entertained, because she knows keeping herself in their favor is the way to wield economic and political power in the household. She is kind toward the poor and weak, but cold enough to get those who stands in her way killed. She tries a financial investment scheme or two. She is less educated than some others, but ismart and savvy in worldly matters. Though getting people killed is not a norm, Wang Xifeng nonetheless shows how women wielded power, keeping the power of purse and favor of the elders.
The beauties of this story show real individuality, which makes Red Chamber Dream a captivating and rewarding read. I highly recommend this novel for a summer read.
ReferencesShigeo Matsueda, trans, Koromu (Red Chamber Dream), 12 vols, (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1985).
David Hawkes and John Minford, trans, Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, 5 vols. (Penguin Classics and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973–1980).
Co Kyo (Zhang Jing), Koi no Chugoku Bunmei-shi (Love in Chinese History) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shoten, 1993).