Friday, March 16, 2012
Book Review of #3 The Warning Voice by Xueqin Cao
Author: Xueqin Cao
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Part of a Series: The story of the Stone Vols I-V
Type of book: China, Manchurian dynasty, 1700s, debt deaths
Year it was published: 1760s, (version I have 1980)
Divided into five volumes, of which The Warning Voice is the third, it charts the glory and decline of the illustrious Jia family (a story which closely accords with the fortunes of the author's own family.) The two main characters, Bao-yu and Dai-yu, are set against a rich tapestry of humor, realistic detail and delicate poetry, which accurately reflects the ritualized hurly-burly of Chinese family life. But over and above the novel hangs the constant reminder that there is another plane of existence- a theme which affirms the Buddhist belief in a supernatural scheme of things.
I'm not sure whether or not the characters changed, but we get to meet new characters and there is more depth to the motives and whatnot to practically all the characters; Wang Xi-Feng is featured, as well as other ladies and women. They tend to be portrayed as difficult characters instead of like soft flowers like earlier volumes portrayed them. These women also have goals and, or so it seems, nothing at all will stop them from achieving them. The women are complex creatures. There is barely any focus on men, and he portrays the world being better off without men, or at least let the world be filled with men like Bao-yu who does appreciate feminine features and whatnot. I think also he says that in order for a woman to survive she must be practical like Wang Xi-Feng instead of like her brief rival, Er-Jie.
Nothing good lasts forever, and tragedy seems to strike all at once, or rather, the cracks are starting to appear within the dam that will loose the flood.
This is in third person narrative from multiple character point of view. The darkness begins to seep in and before one knows it, the fantasy that we took for granted is wiped away with constant arguments, fights, debts, deaths, cheating, etc. I haven't read the Debt of Tears and The Dreamer Wakes, but so far this seems to be an appropriate title for the book, kind of a warning voice that things will get much more darker and, in a way, if you don't want to read darker things, then please leave.
Almost no records of Cao's early childhood and adulthood survive. Redology scholars are still debating Cao's exact date of birth, though he is known to be around forty to fifty at his death. Cao was the son of either Cao Fu or Cao Yong. It is known for certain that Cao Yong's only son was born posthumously in 1715; some Redologists believe this son might be Cao Xueqin.
Most of what we know about Cao was passed down from his contemporaries and friends. Cao eventually settled in the western suburbs of Beijing where he lived the larger part of his later years in poverty selling off his paintings. Cao was recorded as an inveterate drinker. Friends and acquaintances recalled an intelligent, highly talented man who spent a decade working diligently on a work that must have been Dream of the Red Chamber. They praised both his stylish paintings, particularly of cliffs and rocks, and originality in poetry, which they likened to Li He's. Cao died some time in 1763 or 1764, leaving his novel in a very advanced stage of completion. (The first draft had been completed, some pages of the manuscript were lost after being borrowed by friends or relatives, but Cao apparently had not finished a final version.) He was survived by a wife after the death of a son.
Cao achieved posthumous fame through his life's work. The novel, written in "blood and tears", as a commentator friend said, is a vivid recreation of an illustrious family at its height and its subsequent downfall. A small group of close family and friends appears to have been transcribing his manuscript when Cao died quite suddenly in 1763-4, apparently out of grief owing to the death of a son. Extant handwritten copies of this work – some 80 chapters – had been in circulation in Beijing shortly after Cao's death and scribal copies soon became prized collectors' items.
In 1791, Cheng Weiyuan (程偉元) and Gao E (高鶚), who claimed to have access to Cao's working papers, published a "complete", edited a 120-chapter version. This is its first moveable type print edition. Reprinted a year later with more revisions, this 120-chapter edition is the novel's most printed version. Modern scholars generally think the authorship of the 1791 ending – the last 40 chapters – to be in doubt. (From Wikipedia)
Well, the fantasy life that we got used to in The Golden Days and The Crab Flower Club is dying. This is the last volume that the author composed. The rest of the chapters from 81-120 were in fragments being passed around China. This book covers chapters 54-80. There is still beauty and enchantment and also we get to know more characters. However, unlike the previous two, the debts and deaths hit full force and are constant. There is no lost beauty however and the writing remains classical as well as beautiful. There is also poetry, and the author does try to add happy moments as well sad ones. All in all I found it to be a wonderful tome full of information and details. Personally for me it was not a boring read.
4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)