The Red Chamber
by Pauline A. Chen
Genre: historical fiction, Asian literature
An epic reimagining of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, set against the breathtaking backdrop of eighteenth-century Beijing, where the lives of three unforgettable women collide in the Inner Chambers of a ducal mansion.
When the orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to seek shelter with her cousins in Beijing, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendour presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering façades, she is tangled in a web of intrigue reaching all the way to the Emperor’s Palace, and finds herself no longer able to distinguish friend from foe.
From the petty gossip of the servants’ quarters to the political turmoil that will overthrow the dynasty and plunge the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, The Red Chamber is a sweeping portrait of three women whose lives are transformed by the power of friendship and the force of history in a world where love and duty tear them apart.
If you don’t have time for the classic this novel is based on (it has over 1000 pages and 400 characters!), then this may be a good alternative in the mean time. The story is condensed and an experienced reader with soon notice where the cuts begin, but it does offer a good and engrossing story to enjoy. Despite my gripes, it is a good novel and I can easily give it 3.5 stars.
This novel offers us a glimpse into this rich world of Qing China. The author gives us just the right amount of description to have our imagination in an overdrive. Throughout my reading, I could imagine things so vividly. Having watched a few dramas set in this time period (Bu Bu Jing Xin or Scarlet Heart), the most insignificant detail could construct a rich background for the drama of our characters. I’m just sorry that the author cut out a character I was fascinated with (Daiyu) in the second part – the sudden focus on Baoyu (whom I didn’t particularly care for) didn’t make me happy. Xinfeng grew on me and I was fascinated with her struggles to keep the ungrateful family afloat. She’s one of my favourites.
And yet I want to read the original and explore the lives of a noble family with all that their status entails in this time period. I can’t imagine living with several hundred servants. Even noble families are extended, with numerous cousins, in-laws, and other branches always in contact or living together. I get a headache just imagining it since I come from a very nuclear family with few extended relations in my generation. It is fascinating to see how people relate to one another in such a setting. You get the feeling their traits, both negative and positive, continuously clash in a fight for power. Each palace and noble family is like a mini nation and you always have pretenders for the throne. So you enjoy reading how they get through fortune and misfortune, how escaping the strict rules and obligations of the social system is a dream that might never come true, and how women fight for a little bit of power in a man-governed world. Since women are mostly locked up in the inner part of the palace, their stories might elicit more sympathy from the reader. Make no mistake though – the men are just as trapped in the rigid social hierarchy. Passing the entrance exams for public service is the only way a man can gain prestige and money, so families put enormous pressure on their sons to do well.
So while there are some clear signs the author cut out a lot of material, the novel functions well and reads really fast once you get the hang of the names. The index at the beginning is very helpful (I would probably have given up otherwise). Half-brothers and sisters, cousins, in-laws… all have names with similar elements – it gets messy juggling so many similarly sounding names. But you get the hang of it once characters are familiar to you. Unfortunately, the cuts are very visible and make for an uneven tone. I liked the neat wrap-up at the end evne though the heart-break for some characters is really painful.
I’m hoping to read the original one day or at least watch a series adaptation. I heard the 1987 version Dream of the Red Chamber is regarded as the best, although I’m intrigued by the much maligned 2010 version The Dream of Red Mansions. I can’t help myself – I love costumes and detailed hairstyles, and the newest version definitely rocks some serious Beijing Opera hairstyles.