The Red Chamber

Written by Pauline A. Chen
Review by Viviane Crystal

Pauline Chen brings new life to the Chinese classic work of literature, Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, the story of two noble families associated with the imperial government in 18th-century China. Although it tells a shorter version of the original tale, The Red Chamber also focuses on two central families.

The novel begins with Daiyu, who visits her extended family in the capital after losing her mother. Her reception is mixed, as the matriarch resented Daiyu’s mother for marrying for love and moving to the south. Daiyu, however, finds love in the most unexpected place but is soon betrayed by a jealous cousin. Then there is Xifeng, who knows the family is declining financially and takes a risky action that will have dire consequences at a time when the family is desperate. We also meet Baochai, who seems to be close to Daiyu until jealousy raises its ugly head. The men in this novel are depicted in extremes, with the father solely fixed on his government service to the emperor and his sons partying or getting into trouble by fighting or dallying with whatever women they desire. When the emperor dies, what will happen to these noble and not so wise characters?

No matter how much one expects, the ultimate outcome for each character is poignantly described and fascinating to follow. History is no respecter of persons, as we see these universal characters forced to grow up in the real world beyond their cloistered, pampered lives. Passing the imperial exams is no guarantee of future preference and security. While the story is a wonderful panoramic view of the cultural and social life of this time in Chinese history, it could also be a story about contemporary life with its varied vicissitudes. Very nicely done!