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.footnote1 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.

More than just a good read to indulge one’s senses and sentiments and then set aside in the storehouse of memory, Honglou meng is a book that Chinese readers cherish as a supreme national treasure—one they internalize and incorporate into their own self-conception, reading and re-reading it at intervals as they grow older and wiser through the years, and weaving its petty details and its profound truths into the fabric of their lives. And for all the foreign students who have ever found themselves irresistibly drawn to the unique charms and mysteries of the Chinese written word, this is the Everest one must eventually endeavour to climb if one wishes to stake out even a small claim to participation in the world of Chinese letters.

Yet to first-time readers—especially those not already bound in advance by unquestioned cultural loyalties—the towering reputation of this masterwork may remain a bit mystifying. For one who comes to it with aesthetic expectations drawn from Flaubert and Dostoevsky, Melville and Mann, Tolstoy and Proust, this ‘novel’ may seem curiously lacking in substance. The bulk of its pages are filled with the doings of a cast of patently unheroic and ineffectual characters: the spoiled and effeminate heir of a fabulously wealthy family, surrounded by a bevy of witty and charming but overwrought female cousins, living a life of pampered luxury in an enclosed garden. For the most part, the children spend their days eating dainties, writing precious verses, chasing butterflies and occasionally indulging in premature sexual play, while in the stately halls and inner chambers of the great compound their elders engage in a variety of unsavoury behaviour ranging from the feckless to the morally offensive.

With the passage of time we become painfully aware that the extended Jia clan is experiencing a gradual haemorrhaging of its fortunes that can only end, both by the logic of human experience and by the laws of literary structure, in its ultimate downfall. But these vague presentiments scarcely impinge upon the day-to-day round of existence within the eternal springtime of this blithe little locus amoenus—until, that is, the slowly ripening nubility of the ‘frieze’ of young maidens can no longer be contained in virginal abeyance, and the young master who embodies the fate of his ancestral line is pushed to make a radical choice regarding his own path of self-realization.

That is all there is to it. There is no plot to speak of, no mighty swells and undercurrents of destiny, historical or otherwise, driving the story towards ineluctable conclusions. The only ‘conflict’ of sorts centres upon a rather predictable love triangle between the reluctant hero, Jia Baoyu, whose nature—introduced in the rich symbolism of the prologue—destines him to live out a self-fulfilling prophecy of worldly inadequacy, and the two cousins closest to his heart. On one side, the high-strung, razor-witted Lin Daiyu, a girl whose weak and consumptive constitution unmistakably marks her for a tragic end; on the other, the equally talented but chronically amiable Xue Baochai, whose pre-ordained union with her odd mate lasts only long enough to gestate the seed of the family’s posterity. The essential crux of the narrative can be summed up in the single question: with whom will Baoyu finally be paired?—and even this fateful choice remains largely out of his own hands.

The closest we come to a violent confrontation is a severe parental whipping administered to Baoyu by his hapless father (for misbehaviour bringing particularly acute danger upon the politically insecure clan), and then, toward the end of the tale, the meek and anticlimactic submission of the family elders to arrest and the confiscation of their ancestral property by imperial officers on charges of usury and dealing in contraband. As the seasons pass in a seemingly endless round (actually only three or four years) of trivial pastimes, we witness little drama greater than spilled curds and pilfered porridge, punctuated only by incessant petty quarrels, nasty intramural intrigues, and the endemic abuse of hereditary privilege carrying but a vague threat of final reckoning. If this is a Chinese Young Werther, it is one with precious little Sturm und Drang. It is a War and Peace that has all the frills and quadrilles but none of the thrill of battle, a Madame Bovary with a strong head of stifled desire but no breathless slide into self-abandonment.

And yet one comes away from the experience of reading this long and uneventful tale with the sense of having imbibed a deep draught of the grandeur of the human condition. The sheer size of the work—upwards of 1,500 pages in most editions—and the long weeks and months it takes to make one’s way through it, may have something to do with this perception of magnitude. But this is not just another five-pound bestseller. There are a number of far more meaningful ways to account for its aura of monumentality, some related to the internal aesthetics of the text itself, and some reflecting the broader historical and cultural context beyond its covers.