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LEAVING THE GARDEN
Reflections on China's Literary Masterwork
Ask any member of the community of Chinese readers to name the premier literary monument of their tradition, and the most likely answer will be the eighteenth-century fictional masterpiece Honglou meng, best known in Western-language translation by variants of its two different Chinese titles: Dream of the Red Chamber and Story of the Stone.  To be sure, there is no lack of alternative choices for this honour; one can easily find partisans of the beloved heroic narratives Sanguozhi yanyi (A Popular Elaboration of the History of theThree Kingdoms, or simply Three Kingdoms) and Shuihuzhuan (Tales of the Marshland, or Water Margin), or those who would cite the exquisite lyric verse of the great Tang poets Li Bo and Du Fu, or the virtuoso dramatic works Xixiangji (Romance of the Western Wing) and Mudanting (The Peony Pavilion) as the crowning achievement of Chinese literary art. But this is the single text that is almost universally held to embody the deepest spirit of the grand civilization of old China—in the way that Dante’s Commedia, Goethe’s Faust, The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote and the works of Shakespeare are often felt to incarnate the cultural genius of Italy, Germany, Japan and the rest.
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