Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Red Chamber

"An epic reimagining of the Chinese literary classic, Dream of the Red ChamberTHE RED CHAMBER tells the story of three women in an aristocratic household in 18th-century Beijing.   Daiyu is an impoverished orphan adopted into the household who falls in love with Baoyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortunes.  Despite his love for her, the family betroths Baoyu to his cousin Baochai, who hides her own desires under a dutiful exterior.  Meanwhile, the young matron Xifeng struggles to protect the family from financial ruin, even as her husband spurns her for her inability to bear a child.  Linking the three women’s fate is the jade, a mysterious stone found in Bayou’s mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family."

The Story behind The Red Chamber By Pauline Chen
Although born of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, as a child I spoke only rudimentary Chinese; my parents were of a generation who believed that teaching children a foreign language would inhibit their ability to learn English. Instead I grew up reading Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy, and Dickens. At Harvard I studied the Classics, with a special interest in Latin poetry. I came upon Chinese literature later, and quite by accident. A Taiwanese friend showed me an eleventh-century Chinese poem. As she translated it, line by crystalline line, a door opened into an undreamed world of new literary forms, philosophy, and aesthetics.

Fascinated, I began the long journey of learning classical Chinese. It was in graduate school in East Asian Studies that I discovered the canonical Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The story of brilliant and talented women whose lives were constricted by lack of physical freedom and opportunity (aristocratic Chinese women were confined to Women’s Quarters, where men were allowed only limited access), the novel resonated with my own family’s history: my two grandmothers were both illiterate, and my mother had struggled to gain access to the education her brothers received. More than twenty-five hundred pages long, the book was structured far more loosely than a western novel, linking hundreds of characters and meandering through years of mealtimes and naps, parties and chats. And yet, tracing with exquisite care the inner worlds of characters from princesses to maids, and unearthing the depths of feeling and disparities in power beneath the most everyday interactions, Dream of the Red Chamber more closely mirrored my experience of life than any work I had previously read.

Teaching the novel to undergraduates at Oberlin College, I came to realize how the vast majority of American readers, even if they had known of the book, would be discouraged from reading it by its length and unfamiliarity. I began to write a version for western readers, translating Dream of the Red Chamber not merely into another language but into another form, that of a contemporary western novel. Moreover, Cao’s original ending had been lost, and the final third of the novel as it now exists had been written by another hand after his death. Haunted by a sense of incompletion, I needed to finish the story for myself.

My first drafts succeeded only in being abridgements. I had to allow myself greater freedom to depart from the original plot to distill what I found most compelling about the work: an elegiac awareness of the illusory and evanescent nature of human life; also the excruciating conflict between female friendship and romantic love that occurs when women intimates become rivals for the same man. To these two central themes, I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women’s opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies? 

About the Author
Pauline Chen started her career as a lawyer, but was sidetracked by her love of literature. After completing a Ph.D. at Princeton, she moved to Ohio in 1996 to teach Chinese language, film, and literature at Oberlin College. When her son was born in 2000, she quit her job to stay home, writing every morning before the rest of the family awoke. Her first book, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, was a novel for children about a Taiwanese-American family in Ohio. THE RED CHAMBER is her first novel for adults.  

For more information on "Dream of the Red Chamber" see also:
Dream of the Red Chamber
Review at A Scribble of Writers

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