Saturday, October 29, 2011
Book Review of #2 The Crab Flower Club by Xueqin Cao
Author: Xueqin Cao
Publisher: Penguin classics
Part of a Series: Story of the Stone Vols I-V
Type of book: Adult, China in 18th century, Manchu rule, one of Chinese classics
Year it was published: 1760? (The Version I have, 1977)
The Story of the Stone (c 1760 A.D>) is the great novel of manners in Chinese literature. Divided into five volumes, of which The Crab-Flower Club is the second, 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.
At first Dai-yu and Bao-Chai seem to hate one another, but later on they seem to either become good friends or to tolerate one another. Bao-yu and Dai-yu also argue and fight all the time it seems. Although on goodreads.com people discuss that they were in love, for some odd reason I didn't pick that up in all honesty. (Well, until the author mentioned it anyways.) but even then, the story had much more going on than just a simple love story; there are visits, there is poetry club and the poems, there are festivals and parties throughout the book, there is also day to day affairs and the management of the large household.
I would guess that the theme would be women's struggles in China, how some of them are voiceless and do not have a choice in marriage partner. (One of the maids, Faithful, is constantly being pushed to marry someone much older than she, but in the end, thanks to Grandmother Jia's interference, she doesn't marry.)
This is written in third person omniscient point of view and it isn't set on any particular characters. The points of view that the readers gets are ones from maids, the main characters, etc. Although the book can stand on its own, it might be best to read The Golden Days before jumping into this one because this book has multiple characters and also a resolution to the previous book. I'm only on Volume III, but I think this might be important; the author begins to give hints that all is not right with money in the family.
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)
While the previous 26 chapters in The Golden Days focused more on plot and on sort of introducing the Jia family, chapters 27-53, the second book, delve more into the details and day to day life and affairs of the family. This also gives more character description and personalities such as Dai-yu being at odds with everyone, of Bao-chai being the cheerful one, the whole family showing off their giving spirit to various people, of the elegance and intelligence of the women when they create Poetry Club, and the domineering Grandmother Jia as she stands up for a maid of hers and to her son for his treatment of Bao-yu and also adopts a cousin of Bao-chai.
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.)