Wednesday, June 26, 2013

History, Feminism, and Duality in Tsao Hsueh-Chin's Dream of the Red Chamber

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a fictional work. It is a historical piece that provides readers with an understanding of the traditional culture in 18th century China: its social structure, its art, its architecture, its religious practices, its sciences, and its cultural beliefs. While the novel gives a general insight of Chinese culture, it also looks into the sociocultural aspects and values, specifically the Chinese aristocratic life of the Chia family. The richness of the Chinese literary tradition, for instance, is portrayed in the novel through Pao Yu’s general fondness for poetry, riddles, drama, and classical books. Also, with the garden of Takuanyuan – ideally representing the space with which Chinese arts and aesthetics are materialized – the novel provides a glimpse of the characters’ activities during their leisure time such as reading novels, “playing chess or musical instruments”, “painting or composing verses”, writing scrolls, and “taking a hand at embroidery” (145). Aside from this, day to day activities in an aristocratic household are also depicted in their food preparation, tea ceremony, dining manners, medical prescription and treatment, witchcraft practices, funeral ceremonies, and amusements in the family.

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a love piece. It is a work which aspires to explore female characters and their destinies in a highly patriarchal Chinese society. As men in the novel are observably on the periphery because of their duties for the state, the lives of women are highlighted through an exploration of their psychology and personality: for instance, the frail character of Black Jade, the controlling nature of Phoenix, the power and influence of the Matriarch, the submissiveness of Madam Hsing, and the defiant character of Faith, the maid who refuses marriage. Here, we see the work as an important insight into early Chinese feminism, portrayed generally through Pao Yu’s fondness and high regard for women whom he compares to “water with clear minds”, in contrast to men who he thinks are “made of mud or unformed clay”. From the novel, we are also made aware of the social hierarchy, roles, and status of these women in the Chia household: from the primary wives to concubines; from chief maids to bondservants. While these young female figures are exalted through their character, it is implied that their inevitable destinies – to later be framed and forced into marriage – represent the tragedy of their existence as female beings.

Dream of the Red Chamber is more than a socio-realistic novel. It is a work that explores the metaphysical and dualistic aspect of existence: between the real and unreal, between illusion and reality, and between truth and appearance. The novel, as it can be recalled, starts with the story of a stone, which was abandoned by a goddess and who later sought help from a monk and a Taoist priest to bring it to the Red Dust. Here the transfiguration and reincarnation of Pao Yu from a stone and Black Jade from a flower represents the Chinese belief in “predestination” or fate. Indeed, theirs is a story of love which, from the onset, already spells catastrophe based on their dreams that blur between the fantastic and reality. On one hand, for instance, Black Jade’s dream of Pao Yu cutting out his heart and showing it to her implies tragedy and sacrifice; while on the other, Pao Yu’s disbelief that he actually married Precious Virtue appears to him as though everything is only a dream. Indeed, these star crossed lovers – mutually sick because their soul shares a common grief – are to me, reminiscent of lovers who, to borrow from John Keats, “can never, never kiss”, whether here on Red Dust or back to the mystical heaven. 

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