“Do you have a Chinese name?” my student Ola asked in a card welcoming me to the campus in Hunan where I taught English two years ago. I didn’t. She suggested Daiyu, for the heroine of a novel called “A Dream of Red Mansions,”  because it sounded close to Diane. Ola fretted a little because the tale does not end happily for Daiyu and Baoyu, those star-crossed cousins and would-be lovers, but she thought I might consider it anyway.

That was my introduction to one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels.

Americans are generally not exposed to much world literature. In my Pennsylvania high school circa 1970, we were issued anthologies of American and British writing – a greatest-hits tour through the centuries – and that was considered an adequate literary education. A voracious reader, I branched out on my own, occasionally reading foreign works in translation (Proust ‘s “Remembrance of Things Past” one and four-seventh times!) but little from beyond Europe. Though I’m fond of the contemporary Japanese novelist  Haruki Murakami, I had read only one classic of Asian literature, again Japanese – “The Tale of Genji” — and that was at least 30 years ago.

Ola piqued my curiosity. “A Dream of Red Mansions” (also known as “Dream of the Red Chamber”) was available for download on my e-reader but, unfortunately, not from China.  So I filed it away in the back of my mind.

Months later, in December 2010, I was browsing in a used-book store in Sarasota, Florida. A three-volume slipcased set jumped out at me. “What’s that?” I said, and nearly screamed. It was “A Dream of Red Mansions,” a 1980 edition in excellent condition, for US$60. I had it shipped, my Christmas present to myself.

On Christmas Day I like to start reading a new book, preferably something special. Cao Xueqin’s masterwork qualified on multiple counts.

First, the books themselves are the kind that we old-fashioned bibliophiles love to hold in our  hands.  The spines of the navy-blue hardbacks — a first edition published by Foreign Languages Press, “Peking” — are embossed in gold with garden motifs. On the front covers, three Chinese characters state the title. Each volume has color illustrations of key scenes and a slender red-ribbon bookmark. Mercifully for a Westerner, the set comes with a pull-out genealogical chart outlining the characters and their connections – chiefly the various branches of the Jia family at its center. The transliterations are Wade-Giles rather than pinyin, lending a note of relative antiquity.

The story, too, is just the kind I like, a long, leisurely family saga with lots of attention to period detail. It takes place mostly within the complex occupied by two branches of the privileged Jia (Chia) family in Beijing. Though the running story of Daiyu and Baoyu is at its heart, it presents countless other characters – servants, distant relatives, visitors, courtiers, comic-relief figures, even swindlers and murderers – whose stories weave a rich tapestry of life in an 18th-century household. Its flights into the literary genre now called magical realism, starting at Baoyu’s birth with “a piece of variegated and crystal-like brilliant jade in his mouth, on which were yet visible the outlines of several characters,” were an irresistible bonus.  

Then there was the emotional connection.  I had begun 2010 in anticipation of a China adventure that would run from late winter into full summer.  “A Dream of Red Mansions” would bring my year full circle as I reflected back, now with experiences and memories that would help me “see” the book in a way mere illustrations couldn’t.

And see it I did. When I read descriptions of the Ning and Jung mansions, I envisioned places I had visited in China – say, the 450-year-old Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, or Suzhou’s Lion Grove Garden, with their courtyards and pavilions. Characters, too, came to life as I pictured their modern-day “descendants,” i.e., my students, and none more than Baoyu’s devoted friend Qin Zhong (Ch’in Chung). When I read the description of this delicate, fine-featured young man, “with his handsome countenance, and his refined manners,” I could think of no one but Nick, the graduate student who, recruited to act as my assistant, thus conquered his shyness in speaking English to foreigners. Alas, Qin Zhong dies, suddenly and quietly, before the end of the first volume. That wouldn’t happen in a Western novel; the hero’s best friend might have been killed off, but much later, with great drama, after he had served the plot well and long.

Even with such points of reference, I couldn’t help feeling confused from time to time. For Westerners, these nearly 2,000 pages are not an easy read. Being unfamiliar with Chinese names and  their meanings, we get lost in the maze of characters and their relationships – in my Wade-Giles version,  Concubine Chao and Concubine Chou; Hsi-feng and Hsi-chun and Hsi-jen and Hsi-fun; Pao-chai and Pao-yu. (And then there’s Chen Pao-yu, Chia Pao-yu’s doppelganger late in the story.)

I began to think about the bigger picture: the form. A novel so long and so relatively even in tone strikes a Western reader as episodic (as did “Genji”); it doesn’t build to the peak we expect. There are indeed moments of high drama, but then life settles down again and goes on until the next. Perhaps the major climax – Daiyu’s death as Baoyu is being married off to his predestined Baochai – occurs, in my edition, fully 350 pages before the novel ends. The denouement is long, and their story is only one part of it.  

As I read, three comparisons came to mind. The first, and perhaps most obvious, was Chinese:  traditional hand-scroll paintings like the Song Dynasty masterpiece “Along the River During the Qingming Festival.” These tell their stories visually, scene by scene, paying meticulous attention to the details of daily life, as the “reader” scrolls from one end to the other.

The second was European: Proust, again in his scrutiny of everyday life, but also to the psychology of his characters and his portraits of women. In the opening chapter of “Red Mansions,” Cao writes: “I suddenly bethought  myself of the womankind of past ages. Passing one by one under a minute scrutiny, I felt that in action and in lore, one and all were far above me . . . I could not, in point of fact, compare with these characters of the gentler sex.” Like Proust, Cao paid tribute to the women of his world be creating a work of both epic scale and minute detail.

The third was American: the TV soap opera. Before anyone puts out the Chinese equivalent of a contract on me for daring to compare a high-culture classic to a low-culture genre, remember that I am talking not about content, only about form. Unlike most Western novels (or, for that matter, dramas), a soap opera does not build to a single climax, but moves from one to another over time. Viewers watch the characters grow and develop, sometimes over decades, and become involved in their “lives,” much as readers do in “Red Mansions.” Even the “Tune in tomorrow” that concluded old-time soaps sounds like the chapter endings in the novel; “To know whether she lived or died, read the next chapter” is a cliffhanger if ever I heard one. But the reader has only to turn the page, not wait for another day.

“One of the great charms of books is that they have to end. Soaps are without that charm,” writes Louise Spence in “Watching Daytime Soap Operas: The Power of Pleasure” (Wesleyan University Press, 2005), a scholarly treatise on the genre. Well, not anymore, as American networks cancel one long-running soap after another in favor of cheaper-to-produce cooking, game and talk shows. “A Dream of Red Mansions” does end, but by that time its readers have been transported to another world, in place, time and spirit.

For me the story ended after almost exactly a year after it began. Having started the first volume on Christmas 2010, I returned for the second sometime in the spring and saved the third for the end of 2011. In the meantime, I finally borrowed Daiyu’s name in a Chinese-language marathon weekend, even though I came to like the more spirited, if flawed, Xifeng better.

Recently I went on another teaching adventure in yet another new world: Vancouver, British Columbia. Though the three-volume “Red Mansions” had to stay at home in New York, the e-book traveled with me on a “shelf” on my new iPad. The hard plastic touch-screen may not be nearly so much fun to hold or read, but wherever I go, I can dip in at will to revisit those mansions in China, and dream.

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