Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), ca. 1717-1763

Portrait

Biographical note

Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is the author of a famous Chinese work, The Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Chinese novel Honglou meng (红楼梦, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber and as The Story of the Stone, 石頭記) is one of the great masterpieces of Chinese fiction.

As riveting as any soap opera, it can also be read as a study of 18th century Chinese manners, or as a Buddhist allegory. It is a large work. The first 80 chapters were written by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and the remaining 40 chapters attributed to a Gao E who published the combined version in 1792.

The story orbits around a wealthy but declining family, the Jia clan, who occupy two large family compounds in the capital. The main characters are the powerful family matriarch Grandmother Jia, the peculiar grandson Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 and his two girl cousins, the socially-graceful but inwardly cold Xue Baochai 薛寶釵 and the temperamental but trustworthy Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. In fact, it would be more accurate to say the main character is the family itself: its many members, their servants, their mutual obligations and expectations, and the unfolding fate of each person.

The novel is graced with both heavy and subtle styles of foreshadowing which make it both foreboding and deep. Through all, the author reveals the reality of life amidst the "red dust" — the grasping, yearning, opulent, and ultimately futile life of both peasant and elite in 18th century China. Taoist and Buddhist themes are woven deeply into the structure of the novel and Cao Xueqin is not afraid to reveal the emptiness and beauty of the aristocratic society he unveils for us.

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