Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Book Review of #1 the Golden Days by Xueqin Cao
Author Name: Xueqin Cao
Type of book: Adult, China in 18th century, Manchu rule, one of Chinese classics
Year it was published: 1760? (The Version I have, 1973)
Part of a Series: Story of the Stone Vols I-V
THe story of the stone (c.1760), also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is one of the greatest novels of Chinese literature. THe first part of the story, The Golden Days, begins the tale of Bao-yu, a gentle young boy who prefers girls to Confucian studies, and his two cousins: Bao-Chai, his parents' choice of a wife for him, and the ethereal beauty Dai-yu. Through the changing fortunes of the Jia family, this rich, magical work sets worldly events-love affairs, sibling rivalries, political intrigues, even murder-within the context of the Buddhist understanding that earthly existence is an illusion and karma determines the shape of our lives.
I had hopes that there will be focus on male characters, but alas that was not to be. There is a great deal focus on women characters, on Wang Xi-Feng in particular and a slew of others. In some ways the female characters are depicted stereotypically but at the same seemed to break stereotypes; in some chapters the characters of Dai-yu and Bao-Chai are portrayed as much more intelligent than Bao-yu. Men, for the most part, are not playing a very visible role as the women are.
It's really hard to recall the definite problems in the novel, thus its hard to say what I have learned from reading the first volume.
This is a very slow read and there are great concerns with seemingly minor things instead of anything major.
The volumes 1 through 5 are supposed to be one book, but due to length or some other reason they are broken up into five parts, thus I don't know yet how these minor things will play later in the book.
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)
This is not an action filled book and whenever something does happen, it happens at the very end of a chapter. This book requires a great task in reading it, and it tends to be beyond slow. (In truth, if the book and the snail were racing, the snail would win.) So this is not for a casual every-day of the mill reader but requires somebody special. I haven't read the Chinese (I don't even know how to read in Chinese!) but I enjoy the translation, how the whole world seems to be something from a fairytale, but at the same time, despite the supernatural elements that are ever present, this also has real life creeping up in it as well. (It's not all riches and fun, but also contains elements of hatred, of using powers for evil, death, etc.)
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.)