The en­dur­ing cult ap­peal of an 18th- cen­tury lit­er­ary clas­sic半部《红楼梦》凝结了曹雪芹毕生心血,两百多年后仍有无数中国人为之梦萦魂牵

The World of Chinese - - NEWS - BY HATTY LIU


It's no sur­prise that one of China's most revered books, Dreamofthered Cham­ber, has at­tracted the in­ter­est of hun­dreds of thou­sands of ex­perts and an­a­lysts since its pub­li­ca­tion in the 18th cen­tury. Less well known are the many mod­ern fan clubs that have sprung up across uni­ver­sity cam­puses and cities to celebrate and study this unique, beloved, and still­con­tro­ver­sial lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece

The ap­peal, half-des­per­ate and halfde­fi­ant, ap­peared at the start of the 2008 fall se­mes­ter at Nan­chang Avi­a­tion Uni­ver­sity. “Do you think it’s pos­si­ble to start a Dream of the Red Cham­ber as­so­ci­a­tion at a school like ours?” a stu­dent posted on­line. “I think if a uni­ver­sity doesn’t even have a ‘Red Cham­ber As­so­ci­a­tion,’ then it can­not be called a uni­ver­sity.”

Pub­lished posthu­mously (and un­fin­ished) in 1791, Cao Xue­qin’s Dream of the Red Cham­ber has been de­clared a mas­ter­piece and “the book of the mil­len­nium” in trans­la­tion, yet

re­mains al­most un­known in the West. In China, though, the book—a vast, al­le­gor­i­cal por­trait of Qing house­hold life, some­times known as The Story of the Stone— is so beloved, it has spawned its own field of schol­ar­ship, known as redol­ogy. For pro­fes­sional redologists, there are mysteries to solve and manuscripts to authenticate; while for reg­u­lar fans, there’s pe­riod cos­tumes, themed par­ties, and end­less Wechat ar­ti­cles to share.

The avi­a­tion stu­dent’s plea in this case fell on largely deaf ears: The au­thor up­dated the thread just two months later to say that he’d given up due to lack of in­ter­est, though he logged on five years later to urge new students to keep try­ing. But what­ever stymied his ef­forts, it wasn’t be­cause he un­der­es­ti­mated the pop­u­lar­ity of the lit­er­ary classic in cam­puses and be­yond.

Founded in 2005, the Ren­min Uni­ver­sity Red Cham­ber As­so­ci­a­tion (“Renda Hongxie”) is the kind of club likely en­vi­sioned at Nan­chang. Fol­low­ing sim­i­lar or­ga­ni­za­tions at Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity and Ts­inghua Uni­ver­sity, a group of students set out to cre­ate a space on cam­pus where they could host lit­er­ary lec­tures, throw potlucks, and so­cial­ize with oth­ers who shared their love of a 200-yearold book. For­mer Renda Hongxie pres­i­dent Wang Jun­yan says that, while the club fol­lowed its il­lus­tri­ous fore­run­ners in invit­ing lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sors and schol­ars to give talks, over time, it has come to em­pha­size so­cial as­pects over the aca­demic.

Wang says she first read Dream of the Red Cham­ber in mid­dle school, but never full ap­pre­ci­ated it un­til she picked it up again in high school. The novel closely mir­rors the ex­pe­ri­ences of the au­thor’s grand­fa­ther, Cao Yin (曹寅), once a prom­i­nent south­ern of­fi­cial for the Kangxi Em­peror (康熙帝). When Kangxi died and Em­peror Yongzheng (雍正帝) took over, the fam­ily fell out of favour and was purged; ru­ined, the Caos ex­iled them­selves to a hu­tong in Bei­jing––far from the grandeur of their orig­i­nal man­sion. Amid the dull, util­i­tar­ian texts she was cram­ming for her gaokao, the novel stood out to Wang for how well it was writ­ten.

“There was so much beau­ti­ful po­etry…the char­ac­ters are so re­al­is­ti­cally drawn and nu­anced; it’s a very mov­ing story, handed down through his­tory,” she told TWOC. “I’d read it ev­ery night af­ter my


home­work. In my first year of uni­ver­sity… [renda Hongxie] was the only stu­dent club I joined.”

New mem­bers typ­i­cally meet at a fall in­tro­duc­tory ses­sion where, they went around the room stat­ing their name, ma­jor, and year. But their ice­break­ers had a twist; mem­bers might be asked to name their fa­vorite char­ac­ter from the novel and why they iden­tify with them, or share their fa­vorite chap­ter or poem. Ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude themed games or hand­i­crafts, an an­nual pil­grim­age to the au­thor’s old home at the Bei­jing Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, and bi­weekly meet­ings where mem­bers dis­cuss Red Cham­ber- re­lated ar­ti­cles—but also chat about mun­dane top­ics over free snacks, with the as­sur­ance of hav­ing found a niche on cam­pus.

“We don’t do those ice­break­ers much these days; peo­ple can just join the Wechat group and come to the meet­ings, and we might chat about any­thing,” Wang ad­mits. “It’s more the idea that you get to talk to other peo­ple who’ve felt an in­ter­est and a con­nec­tion… and, say, if you use an al­lu­sion [or] an old-fashioned fig­ure of speech, you know ev­ery­one in the room will get it; or, if some­thing hap­pens to make you re­flect on the novel, in­spires you to write a poem, it can get pub­lished on our Wechat ac­count.”

Plenty of other clubs take a more rig­or­ous ap­proach, though. The Red Cham­ber Cul­tural So­ci­ety at Xi’an’s Chang’an Uni­ver­sity hosts reg­u­lar talks on the novel, pre­pared by the stu­dent them­selves. In March, Zhong­shan Uni­ver­sity’s Red Cham­ber Study So­ci­ety in Guangzhou held a work­shop on the orchid-shaped hair­pins worn in the novel’s hugely pop­u­lar 1987 TV adap­ta­tion (just one of the rea­sons for the book’s en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity). On a na­tional level, the Red Cham­ber Fan Club has chap­ters in all ma­jor Chi­nese cities to help high school and uni­ver­sity students start their own clubs. They also hold weekly pub­lic read­ings at their Bei­jing head­quar­ters, and celebrate most lu­nar cal­en­dar hol­i­days with tra­di­tional ac­tiv­i­ties like kite-making or flower-watch­ing, both de­scribed in lav­ish de­tail in the novel.

Though osten­si­bly a fam­ily drama about 18th-cen­tury aris­toc­racy, Dream of the Red Cham­ber has long en­joyed an eclec­tic fan base. In the mid-1700s, when hand-copied manuscripts of Cao’s orig­i­nal chap­ters be­gan to cir­cu­late, the text’s rich ex­am­ples of fore­shad­ow­ing, po­etic verse, and lit­er­ary al­lu­sion in­spired schol­ars to add their own an­no­ta­tions as they tran­scribed the work. This in­ter­est only grew af­ter Cao died some­time in the 1760s, leav­ing


be­hind only 80 fin­ished chap­ters of the 120 found in most mod­ern edi­tions of the work.

In the cen­turies that fol­lowed, schol­arly commentary, spec­u­la­tion, and at­tempts to defini­tively con­clude the saga grew into the dis­ci­pline of redol­ogy, with a di­verse body of ad­her­ents. Gray-bearded gover­nors wrote po­ems and treatises on the tragedy of the novel’s cen­tral love tri­an­gle; prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Hu Shi (胡适) and Cai Yuan­pei (蔡元培) fought over the best way to in­fer the au­thor’s in­tended end­ing. Writer Eileen Chang reused sen­tence struc­tures and themes from the novel in her short sto­ries, while Mao Ze­dong claimed to have read the novel five times, prais­ing its cri­tique of class re­la­tions: “To not read [the novel] is to not un­der­stand China’s feu­dal so­ci­ety…any­one who has not read it three times had no power to dis­course.”

Mao’s en­dorse­ment en­sured the novel was one of the few an­cient works not banned dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, though China’s lead­ing redol­o­gist, Zhou Ruchang (周汝昌), was im­pris­oned in a cow­shed then dis­patched to Hubei. To Liu Xiaolei, pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture at the Bei­jing In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, this sur­vival gave the novel a par­tic­u­larly strong cul­tural im­print. “It con­tains all el­e­ments of Chi­nese cul­ture, tra­di­tional prac­tices that are de­scribed in de­tail,” she says. “Also, the au­thor wrote about very ‘soft’ sub­jects, such as love, the life of the aris­toc­racy, young women—it’s very beau­ti­ful and po­etic…these things made it easy to ac­cess.”

It’s also a work that’s adept at mov­ing with the times, with mul­ti­ple adap­ta­tions to TV, film, the­atre and opera. The book’s wide em­brace of cul­ture en­sures its ap­peal across many in­ter­ests. At Renda Hongxie, Wang says, “We’ll per­form at the an­nual stu­dent show­case with the hanfu (tra­di­tional cos­tume) so­ci­ety or the guqin (seven-string zither) so­ci­ety, and in­tro­duce the show with a line from the novel, or act out a scene…we’re just one of many clubs on cam­pus cater­ing to those with an in­ter­est in tra­di­tional cul­ture.”

As in­ter­est in the novel moves away from what Liu calls the “niche study” of redologists and their habit of “delv­ing into hid­den po­lit­i­cal mean­ings,” Weibo and pub­lic Wechat ac­counts have sprung up for and by the “grass­roots,” rather than aca­demic ex­perts. These an­a­lyze and adapt the novel’s per­ti­nence to is­sues as di­verse as par­ent­ing or mod­ern re­la­tion­ships. The Red Cham­ber Fan Club now streams its weekly pub­lic read­ings on Wechat, and a few ac­counts, like Shang­hai-based “A Dream in the Red Cham­ber,” host events where fans around the coun­try will read a chap­ter or re­lated es­say, then dis­cuss af­ter­wards in a Wechat group.

“Mod­ern fans are def­i­nitely not like main­stream redologists, as their in­ter­ests are much more var­ied,” says Liu, who runs her own Red Cham­ber Wechat ac­count. “Some are fa­nat­ics, who never re­ally ‘left’ the novel and ac­tu­ally imag­ine them­selves to be the char­ac­ters, but I think most peo­ple who fol­low me just love the novel and are look­ing for some­thing deeper.”

Zhengding county, He­bei, is home to the Rong­guo Man­sion, which was built to show­case scenes from the novel and was used in a TV adap­tion in 1987. This scene shows royal con­sort Jia Yuanchun dur­ing an im­pe­rial visit home

Cao Xue­qin’s statue in the court yard of Cao’s Memo­rial Hall in Rong­guo Man­sion

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