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New Left Review 47, September-October 2007

Cao Xueqin’s monumental 18th-century novel Honglou Meng—Dream of the Red Chamber—is an undisputed masterwork of world literature. Andrew Plaks on the resonant imagery and dense interweaving of literary and philosophical motifs in a paradoxical Bildungsroman of decline.



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. [1] Honglou meng is the usual Chinese title of the 120-chapter text; ShitoujiStory of the Stone—of the 80-chapter version. The most widely read Western translations include: The Story of the Stone (David Hawkes and John Minford, 1973–86), Dream of the Red Chamber (Chi-chen Wang, 1929), Dream of the Red Chamber (Florence McHugh, 1958), A Dream of Red Mansions (Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, 1978), Le rêve dans le pavillon rouge (Li Tchehoua and Jacqueline Alezaïs, 1981), Il sogno della camera rossa (Clara Bovero and Carla Riccio, 1958), Der Traum der roten Kammer (Franz Kuhn, 1950–59), Son v krasnom tereme (V. Panasiuk, 1958). This article originally appeared as ‘Nel Giardino della Fiorita Vista’, in Franco Moretti, ed., Il romanzo, vol. V: Lezioni, Turin 2003, pp. 125–37. 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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Andrew Plaks, ‘Leaving the Garden’, NLR 47: £3

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