In this modern adaptation of the 18th-century Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, life for the aristocratic characters is described as akin to an “elaborate web”: exquisite but also a trap.
It is an apt illustration for the gilded cage inhabited by the wealthy, well-connected Jia family who live a life of pleasure and privilege in Rongguo Mansion located in old Peking. But just as Cao Xueqin’s original book – considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature – delivers a scathing critique of feudal China, the shimmering facades in this new take by Chinese-American author Pauline Chen also belie a crueller reality.
Jia Zheng, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Works, is the head of the Jia clan who live under the protection and favour of the emperor. The novel gets under way with the arrival of Daiyu, Jia Zheng’s niece, who travels to the capital from her home in Nanjing to live with her extended family after the death of her mother.
The spirited Daiyu is used as a prism through which we see the excesses of the Jia family. She is uncultured in the elaborate customs of her richer relatives. She makes simple, but embarrassing, errors at formal family meals. She refuses to play political games in the household and fails to curry favour with the formidable Granny Jia, who makes many of the most important decisions. Such concerns pale in significance, however, as it becomes clear that the Jias’ bloated wealth is founded on financial duress and a shaky political patronage which may soon be undone.
Amid these dramas, forbidden love blossoms: Baoyu, Jia Zheng’s dashing son, falls for his cousin soon after her arrival and they embark on a secret romance. But Baoyu is soon betrothed to the sensible, reserved Baochai, Daiyu’s closest friend and ally who also lives in Rongguo Mansion. A Confucian emphasis on societal duty over personal desire sets the stage for tragedy.
Purists might be appalled by the liberties Chen, who has a doctorate in Chinese literature from Princeton University, has taken with the original book. Plot lines are rejigged and often created from scratch. The number of characters, which in Cao’s work total more than 400, are cut down (In the original Daiyu is served by five nannies, two body servants, and five or six maids).
The most dramatic change is the absence of any form of the supernatural. Crucial to Dream of the Red Chamber is the story of a reincarnated stone which drops from the sky into the human world. Chen merely alludes to this.
But then The Red Chamber never pretends to be faithful to the original. Chen, who has taught the text to undergraduates in America (the book is her first adult novel), has said her aim is to introduce English readers to one of China’s great literary classics. Her novel is inspired by the original but it should not be assessed as a direct adaptation. (Chen has been criticised for merely copying Cao Xueqin and artfully paraphrasing previous translations but she has added enough new material to make such condemnation unfounded.)
Much of the action in Chen’s novel takes place in the closeted women’s quarters at Rongguo Mansion, the so-called “red chamber” of the title, where men outside the family are forbidden to tread. Here, among masters and servants, husbands and wives, friendships and rivalries rub side by side. Life in the vast Jia family is a political and emotional minefield.
Perhaps the most tragic character is Xifeng, who is married to Baoyu’s cousin Jia Lian. Xifeng is beautiful, capable and strong-willed. She has a head for numbers and is put in charge of the household budget. While the men fritter away money on extravagances, Xifeng alone realises how much financial trouble the family is in. But despite her intelligence and wit, Xifeng is considered a failure for her inability to bear children.
This is played out in painful moments. After a few years of marriage, Xifeng’s husband decides to wed again. Knowing she will likely lose his affections – and her standing in the family – should another woman bear his child, Xifeng pleads with him to reconsider. But in an act of double humiliation, Lian chooses her personal maid and closest confidant as his second wife.
On his new wedding night, Xifeng sits in the chamber next door listening to her husband and her maid through the thin walls in perverse self-punishment. In a fit of frustration and anger she takes to her loom, hoping the thumping of the weave will let them know that she is “still there, still alive, still awake”. They ignore her.
Chen shows that men also have few choices in this claustrophobic world order. Lian must father children to carry on his lineage. Baoyu is a sensitive soul who rejects strict hierarchies and convention – yet he, too, must abide by an arranged marriage, and his family’s fortunes rest entirely on him passing the painstaking official exams. When Xifeng has a passionate affair with a man who ultimately betrays her, she feels not hatred but pity for him. Men, she realises, are also “bound by duty and tradition”.
The Red Chamber gallops along at a gripping pace. These are complex storylines and well-loved literary characters, but Chen handles their emotions artfully and with compassion. Sadly, this is marred by an ending which seems to bow to Hollywood sensibilities. Plus a twist made up by Chen is a little too predictable.
This aside, Chen has successfully unravelled and rethreaded Cao’s masterpiece for a new audience. And in painting the elaborate web, the “many people … bound together by the invisible sticky filaments that form the social fabric of the Empire’s elite”, she has done us all a service.