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  • Reflections on “Dream of the Red Chamber”
  • Ying Wang (bio)
Liu Zaifu. Reflections on “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Translated by Shu Yunzhong. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008. xviii, 301 pp. Hardcover $109.95, ISBN 978-1-604975-24-6.

The 2008 English translation of Liu Zaifu’s book Reflections on “Dream of the Red Chamber” offers a delightful, fascinating, and enlightening reading of Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century masterpiece Honglou meng (Dream of the red chamber). Liu’s reading, which tries to be free of the conventions of scholarship and scholarly writing, is described as an “intuitive approach of Zen” (p. xiii) by Gao Xingjian (winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature) in his foreword to the book. Consisting of casual literary notes jotted down by the author over the period of a decade and some of his topical essays written for speeches and publications, Liu’s [End Page 347] book is, indeed, unconventional in format and structure. However, the author does not take his critique of Cao Xueqin’s novel lightly, and at least two important theoretical and aesthetic questions are repeatedly raised, discussed, and expounded in this book, showing the author’s serious intention to contribute further to the scholarship of Honglou meng. Both of Liu’s questions are generated from Wang Guowei’s (1877–1927) salient study titled A Critique of “Dream of the Red Chamber.” While challenging Wang Guowei’s classification of Honglou meng as a work of mere tragedy, Liu Zaifu applauds Wang’s emphasis on the “existence of a spiritual realm” in Cao Xueqin’s novel and makes a further exploration of this “spiritual realm” the central task of his reappraisal (pp. 137–140). In his 1904 critique, Wang Guowei praises Honglou meng’s successful use of tragedy on the grounds that it is subversive to both the Chinese literary tradition and the conventional reader’s taste. Analyzing Cao Xueqin’s novel according to Schopenhauer’s three types of tragedy, Wang identifies Honglou meng as the most tragic type—in which characters “are so situated with regard to one another that their position forces them, knowingly and with their eyes open, to do one another the greatest injury without any one of them being entirely in the wrong”1—in comparison to the type of tragedy that is caused either by exceptional wickedness of a character or by a colossal accident or error. Deeply influenced by Shopenhauer’s vision of the world as a ceaseless, destructive struggle for existence, Wang Guowei’s concept of tragedy and his interpretation of the underlying philosophy of Honglou meng are permeated with a pessimistic view of life and the conviction of release (or renouncing of the world). According to Liu Zaifu, Wang’s appraisal is only partial in terms of the literary modes employed in the eighteenth-century novel. To Liu, Honglou meng is not merely a “tragedy of tragedies” as defined by Wang; it is also a work revealing absurdity in the human world—therefore, a novel of comedy with a modern flavor. As indicated by Liu, “the predominantly tragic tone in Dream of the Red Chamber is mixed with traces of the absurdity in the human world. Drama of absurdity is an extreme form of comedy. Originating from traditional comedy and yet different from traditional comedy, it displays the worthlessness and meaninglessness of life in an extreme manner. . . . [T]he absurd is not just a strategy but also an insightful and critical reference to reality” (p. 147). Cao Xueqin’s effort at revealing the absurd nature of the human world can be observed, according to Liu, from his numerous examples that mock futile pursuit of worldly gain in the novel, including allegorical verses and stories, such as “Won-Done Song,” sung by the lame Taoist priest in chapter 1; “Mandarin’s Life Preserver” in chapter 4; and “Precious Mirror of Desire” in chapter 12. There are, of course, characters of absurdity portrayed by Cao Xueqin as well. Jia Yucun, Liu claims, “constitutes the most absurd part of the novel,” as he makes absurd judgments about his life and political career as a result of being “entangled in [a] web of social relationships...


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pp. 347-352
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