- Rereading The Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber
One could write an interesting study of Chinese intellectual life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries purely in terms of the indigenous critiques of the great late-eighteenth-century novel Hongloumeng (The Dream of the Red Chamber, also translated as The Story of the Stone, from one of its earliest Chinese titles, Shitouji; hereafter simply The Stone or Stone). Over the years, almost every part of the Chinese-speaking literary, philosophical, religious, and political universe (not to mention linguistic, economic, culinary, sartorial, medical, botanical, horticultural, architectural, historical, and art-historical) has become somehow or other engaged with the novel and its interpretation (even Madame Mao considered herself "Half-a-Stonologist"). How should the book be read? Should it be read at all? If so, what should be read into it, or out of it? Is it really a novel at all?1 Is it a rambling roman-à-clef dealing with dark Imperial or Manchu secrets (the Suoyin School)? A penetrating exposure of the vanity of human passion and of mundane reality, à la Zen? A more general bildungsroman, charting the progress to adulthood and individuality of a sensitive young Chinese (or, more accurately, semi-Manchu) adolescent and his girl cousins? An encyclopedic reading of the permutations of the perennial Chinese occult philosophy? An even more generalized treasure-house of Han-Chinese culture and folkways? A perfect record of the refined upper-class Pekinese vernacular of its time? A minutely detailed individual autobiographical recollection and reconstruction of times past? A more generalized and detached portrait of a feudal family in decline? A book about political struggle?2 A mirror of decaying feudalism in the transitional period to capitalism?3
A second study, of equal fascination, and equally based on nothing more than readings of this one book, could be written of its reception in the Western world. Receptions of The Stone (which significantly appeared in print in Chinese the very year Lord Macartney set sail for China, and therefore represents the last great self-sufficiency of Chinese literary culture before the doors were forced open) are indeed a litmus test. Certain reactions are wonderfully predictable. Like that of the first published Western critic, the Pomeranian buccaneer missionary Karl Gutzlaff, writing in the 1840s (with his usual verve and mischief), famously [End Page 307] (one is almost tempted to say understandably) coming to the conclusion that Baoyu was a female:
The author, after making many protestations of his inability to do justice to the subject, which indeed is the only truth in the book, commences his story, like the History of New York, with the creation of the world. . . . As an episode, we find at last a dream in the red chamber. The individual is the lady Pauyu. She lies down to sleep, is met by a nymph, and instantly carried into the fairy land. Everything that can create delight is there presented to her wondering eye. Of jaspers, rubies, and pearls there is no end. There are sparkling fountains of clear nectar, trees that bear ambrosia, and nymphs of perfect beauty and exquisite form to wait upon the stranger. . . . In the intrigues the acting characters behave very grossly, and this part of the work fully shows the coarseness of the author's mind. The monotony of the story is much relieved by scraps of poetry, put in very opportunely. . . . At this point, the story grows more and more uninteresting, and contains scarcely anything but the tittle tattle of the female apartments. These ladies, when left to their own society become very tiresome to their friends as well as to themselves. . . . The leading character amongst the inmates of Ka's family, was a very petulant woman, who committed many freaks, which involved herself as well as the others in considerable difficulties. It was the same Pauyu who had the dream in the Red Chamber. . . . Having brought this tedious story to a...