In Search of the Red Chamber

People laugh at us history buffs (okay, history nerds). In turn, we find your divorce from continuity amusing, the way you talk and act as though you’re the first real people, as though everyone were a two-dimensional historical stereotype until you were born.

That’s why you might want to step away from the Twitter for a moment and pick up Dream of the Red Chamber. Not the Red Mansionsthe Red Chamber; the former’s a long held mistranslation. In any event, it’s packed with more characters than a Korean soap opera, yet thoroughly three-dimensional ones, alive and as believable as anyone on The Wire.

Not bad for a story written close to three hundred years ago. Predictably, since the novel is not only enormously accessible but also startlingly detailed in its portrayal of elite Qing lifestyles, a bunch of nerds have devoted themselves to determining where in reality this semi-autobiographical novel was set. Before you scoff, keep in mind that the Green Gables house on Prince Edward Island still draws over 300,000 visitors annually.

The Chinese have been debating the location of the red chamber, and the mansion and gardens surrounding it, since Emperor Qianlong’s time, when the story first hit big. Back then, great credence was inexplicably placed in the Nanjing theory, propounded by a not-overly original poet in his work, Red Mansion Dream.

In the 19th century, some scholars confidently placed the Red Chamber in Xihua Yuan, a magnificent park that once belonged to the Cao family, a Shangxi clan of considerable status. It didn’t hurt that the author, Cao Xueqing, had the same family name. However, skeptics contended that Xihua Yuan was but a recreation area for the Caos, their actual home still more vast, yet unseen by anyone lowly enough to write a sleazy novel about, even if he did have the name. The Xihua Yuan proponents received validation in the 20th century, when in the course of converting the park into an elementary school, workers unearthed an old stone reading “A corner of the Red Mansion”.

Those less given to nerdiness have rightfully point out that Dream of the Red Chamber is just a novel, and therefore the setting is most likely a mish mash of elements from the author’s experience and imagination. Others hold that the descriptions of the story’s surroundings are too rich and accurate to have been woven purely from whimsy. For instance, these scholars contend that the consistency with which the garden’s features and layout are referred to could never have been written with a random sampling in mind. Cao Xueqing was in such a garden and saw the actual house. Besides, Cao got his fame for the true-to-life quality of his work. The search continues.

In such matters as the search for an ostensibly fictional place, there will always arise an authority. That authority is one Zhou Ruchang, who has spent most of his adult life studying the novel, analyzing and extrapolating, roaming China for hearsay and folk tales referring to Cao Xueqing and the elusive Red Chamber.

After exhaustive reconstruction of architectural features, even the water sources that supplied the noble home and its surroundings, Zhou emphatically confirms that the home containing the Red Chamber is none other Gongwangfu, Qing Prince Gong’s palace on Shichihai Lake, right in grubby, modern old Beijing. Expanding on the theory, he asserts that the parts of the novel not set around the Red Chamber are drawn from Suzhou locales Gusu and Huiyang, where the author’s family is known to have lived. When Dai Yu, one of Dream of the Red Chamber‘s premier characters, moves in with the Jias, the family decamps for Beijing and Gongwangfu.

One of the many pleasing corners of Gongwangfu

Of course the only person who knows which house he was referring to, Cao Xueqing, is long gone. And it has yet to be determined whether he stayed at the residence of corrupt minister Prince Gong. Yet you could do worse than reading the novel and visiting Gongwangfu . After all, the Summer Palace only lends itself to imagining rapacious soldiers, destructive revolutionaries, and a sour old dowager. And make no mistake, although dead, they were as real as any of us, which is why interest in China’s classical literary past remains very much alive.

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2 Responses to In Search of the Red Chamber

  1. Ernie says:

    Nice to see you on the thread. I took the “chamber” stance in deference to the aforementioned scholar Zhou Ruchang.

  2. Ernie says:

    C'mon, Stonehenge? Peat highways? That's some pretty advanced woad-running.

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