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Albums in the land of illusion: visualizing Baoyu's visualization.

In his Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China, Robert Hegel argues that the rise of premodern Chinese fiction "to the cultural level of a literati art form" makes it imperative to read it with "the kind of close and interactive reading traditionally reserved for poetry." One method that this kind of heightened reading may involve is, according to Hegel, "visualization" (1998, 329). One novel that deserves "close and interactive reading" perhaps more than any other work in the xiaoshuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fiction) tradition is Cao Xueqin's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1724-63) Honglou meng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Dream of the Red Chamber). And one of the most significant visual moments in the novel falls in chapter 5, when Jia Baoyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], during his dream trip to the Land of Illusion (Taixu Huanjing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), inspects a number of painting albums titled The Twelve Beauties of Jinling (Jinling shier chai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The paintings, each associated with a piece of verse, foretell the destinies of the young women in Baoyu's life. Baoyu, according to the narrator, does not fully understand the contents of the cryptic paintings. Why do these pictures appear in Baoyu's dream? And what can the reader see of what Baoyu sees in the pictures? Given its elaborate narrative frame about a mythic stone that becomes incarnate in the figure of Baoyu, journeys to the mundane world, and in the end resumes its supernatural form with a narrative about its human experience engraved on its surface, Honglou meng can be read as a fiction about the art of fiction writing itself. In Anthony Yu's words, the novel "makes its own fictionality a subject of sustained exploration and dramatization ... structuring literally the origin, genesis, production, and reception of the tale into the plot of the tale itself" (2001, xi). Taking the reflexive nature of the novel as point of departure, this study argues that the dream trip of Baoyu to the Land of Illusion represents an embryonic visual conception of the "Shitou ji" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or the "Stone Narrative," eventually to be inscribed on the mythic stone. (1) Baoyu, the destined maker of the "Stone Narrative," is not merely slumbering, then, but deeply engaged in fictional imagination or "spirit wandering" (shenyou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The album paintings are the mental images culled from this state of imagination. The primary concern of this article is not with the meanings of the individual pictures in the albums, on which much scholarly ink has already been spilt, but with the role of these dream images in the process of fiction making.

In modern editions of Honglou meng, the opening chapter starts with a paragraph that was originally part of a prefatory piece titled "Fanli" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("General Principles"), possibly written by one of the earliest commentators on a manuscript copy of the novel. (2) It plays such a crucial role in the work that one would think, as Wai-yee Li puts it, that the author Cao himself "should have penned just one such preface" (1993, 164). The "Fanli" posits a novelist whom it denominates zuozhe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "author" (I call him the "posited novelist" because he cannot be reflexively equated with Cao Xueqin; for the purpose in the essay I consider him a textual construction, just like the Stone and Baoyu). Contributing to the reflexive nature of the novel are certain affinities between this posited novelist and the Stone in both its mythic and human incarnations. While the posited novelist laments that he has "not achieved anything" and "fritted away half a lifetime," the mythic stone is dismissed from the project of heavenly reconstruction, "found unfit to repair the azure sky" (Cao and Gao 1973, 2; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 49). The novel gives a similar verdict about Baoyu in chapter 3: "Regrettably so many precious hours he wastes, / To the family and the empire he will be of no use" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cao and Gao 1973, 36). However, the posited novelist's apparent failure turns out to be a prelude to a success in fiction making. He vows to turn his youthful experience into a story so that "those wonderful girls" in his life will not "pass into oblivion without a memorial" (Cao and Gao 1973, 1; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 20). Likewise, Baoyu's recollections of his human experience in the "Stone Narrative" feature "a number of unusual females" as its main characters (Cao and Gao 1973, 2; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 49, translation slightly modified), as the itinerant Daoist priest Vanitas, the first reader of the "Stone Narrative," reports. There is therefore a remarkable parallel between the posited novelist of the "Fanli" and the Stone in its "life in both worlds" (Cao and Gao 1973, 2; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 49), who are, respectively, fiction makers on the extradiegetic and diegetic narrative levels. Thus, one has good reason to consider Baoyu a fictional reconstruction of the novelist in the "Fanli," who describes his own metamorphosis into a fiction writer. To quote words from the original "Fanli" that are not included in the opening chapter of the modern editions, the posited novelist "uses what the Stone records as an analogy for himself" (Cao 1756, 1).

In what way does the posited novelist become a fiction writer? The "Fanli" states that he starts writing "after experiencing a series of dreams and illusions" (Cao and Gao 1973, 1). The writer drops another hint toward the end of the paragraph: "Words such as meng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [dream] and huan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [illusion] are the very essence of this book" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cao and Gao 1973, 1). Indeed, the frequent use of these two terms, along with the Nuwa myth and the metamorphosis of the magic stone itself, constitutes a chimerical textual ambience that contrasts strikingly with the realistic fabric of daily-life in the main body of the novel. This juxtaposition of what is real and what is illusory is of course a strategy to elucidate the nature of fiction, which circumscribes its territory between reality and truth on one side and illusion and falsehood on the other. Yet the meanings of meng and huan here seem to go even beyond that. As the "Fanli" paragraph emphasizes, the posited novelist's fictional writing is both subsequent to and contingent upon "a series of dreams and illusions." (3) What are the dreams and illusions so crucial to his fictional invention and his transformation from a despondent "good-for-nothing" into a fiction writer?

The reader may seem to lack access to the dreams and illusions that the posited novelist claims to have experienced prior to his fictional creation. If, however, we consider the main body of the novel as not only the textual outcome of his transformation into a fiction writer but also a dramatization of that transformation, we realize that those dreams and illusions are represented in Baoyu's dream trip to the Land of Illusion, during which he experiences a series of fantasies. To borrow the line from the "Fanli" one more time, the posited novelist uses the Stone's dream experience as an analogy for his own. Scholars have often considered the first five chapters of the novel an elaborate prologue that sets the stage for the drama of the Stone's human life, or more accurately for the advancement of the "Stone Narrative." Indeed, right after the elaborate account of Baoyu's dream in chapter 5, one encounters this peculiar paragraph near the beginning of chapter 6:

The inhabitants of the Rong mansion, if we total all of them, from the highest to the humblest, numbered more than three hundred souls, who produced between them a dozen or more incidents in a single day. Faced with so exuberant an abundance of material, what principle should your chronicler adopt to guide him in his selection of incidents to record? As we pondered the problem where to begin, it was suddenly solved for us by the appearance as it were out of nowhere of someone from a very humble, very insignificant household who, on the strength of a very tenuous, very remote family connection with the Jias, turned up at the Rong mansion on the very day of which we are about to write. (Cao and Gao 1973, 68; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 150, translator's italics)

This Shandean-style apology suggests the diffidence and coyness of a novice narrator and marks the inauguration of the Stone-turned-fiction maker. As one scholar puts it, the novel at this point "hands over the 'authorship' to the Stone" (Pan 1990, 92). Like the posited novelist, Baoyu, as the reincarnated mythic stone, embarks on his fiction making only after his extended dream. As his dream trip to the Land of Illusion provides the impetus for his fictional invention, we can consider the dream a presentation of his imaginary course, during which he conceives a sketchy plan for his "Stone Narrative."

The idea that the power of imagination sends the writer's mind roaming is deeply entrenched in Chinese critical tradition. Lu Ji's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (261-303) Wenfu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Rhapsody on Writing) construes literary imagination as a process in which the writer's "spirit flies to the world's eight boundaries, and [his] mind journeys across thousands of fathoms" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1984, 25). In Wenxin Diaolong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons), Liu Xie [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 465-ca. 532) addresses this nomadic attribute of imagination, which he terms shensi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "spiritual thought":
   The ancients said, "One may physically be on the rivers and seas
   but his mind can be under the palace gate." That is what I mean by
   spiritual thought. Therefore, while thinking about writing, one's
   spirit travels afar! As one is silently absorbed in contemplation,
   his thought may go back one thousand years. And with a slightest
   movement of his facial expression, his vision may traverse a myriad
   of leagues. (1960, 2:493)


Both Lu and Liu Xie believe imagination to be an irrepressible spiritual force, transcending the writer's temporal as well as spatial confines. We may also note that, for both Lu and Liu, the power of imagination is generated in a moment of peace and stillness, which facilitates the interaction between the writer's spirit and the external source of inspiration. According to Lu Ji, for imagination to operate, one needs to "repress visual and audio perceptions and engross oneself in contemplation" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1984, 25). Likewise, Liu Xie emphasizes what he calls xujing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "mental vacancy and tranquility," which he considers an indispensable initial phase in literary invention: "Mental vacancy and tranquility are crucial for developing literary thinking. They cleanse the five viscera and purify the spirit" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1960, 2:493). According to Liu Xie, this mental state allows the writer to invoke what he calls yixiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "idea-images," which serve as a blueprint for poetry: "Only then can the mind that understands the subtleties find the musical patterns for the array of words; only then does the writer, like an ingenious craftsman, start using his ax in accord with his idea-images" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1960, 2:493). Obviously, Liu Xie's ax metaphor is borrowed from Zhuangzi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], wherein a wheelwright proposes that the knack for making wheels is "something you sense in your hand and feel in your heart" but "can't be put into words" (Mair 1994, 129). In Liu Xie's interpretation, the wheelwright has an image of the wheel in his mind before he proceeds to make the wheel with his ax in accord with the mental model. As Liu Xie sees it, literary invention, just like the making of a wheel, starts with the invocation of mental imagery.

Explaining Liu Xie's theory of literary imagination, Zong-qi Cai observes: "Liu believes that a supersensory union with all things cannot be achieved until after sensory experiences have been suspended" (2002, 159). This implies that sensory experiences can potentially interfere with the writer's mental invocation of "idea-images," following what Liu Xie calls "spiritual dalliance with things in the external world" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1960, 2:493). The necessity to repress sensory experiences underscores the important role of concentration in literary imagination, but it also leads to the inference, although Liu Xie does not state it explicitly, that the dream is the typical experience in which sensory experience is suspended and supersensory experience is activated. (4) Indeed, in both Chinese and Western literary traditions dreams are associated with mental pictures. According to Freud, dreams compensate for their illogicality with their remarkable presentational resource of visual images, especially those that "are found in relatively primitive forms of expression like proverbs, jokes, and songs" (Freud 1999, xiv). Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose "Kubla Kahn" was allegedly conceived and composed during an opium trance, would have agreed. Referring to himself in the third person in the preface to his poem, Coleridge says that he "continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses," during which time "all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort" (Hanson 1938, 259). The British poet seems to corroborate Liu Xie's view of the relationship between sensory and supersensory experiences.

Chinese culture provides numerous accounts and explanations of dreams, (5) many of them concerning writers who supposedly received literary inspiration in oneiric experiences. In his encyclopedia of dreams titled Mengzhan yizhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation), the sixteenth-century scholar Chen Shiyuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (b. 1516) provides a long list of writers whose successful literary creations are said to have been preceded by dreams. In several accounts, the writer was allegedly inspired by the visual image of a writing brush sent by a god. (6) In several other cases, the writer dreamed of meeting a goddess or a divine woman in a celestial or mythic realm. Xiao Guan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (dates unknown), for instance, dreamed that "a palace lady dressed in green invited him to the residence of the emperor where he wrote a lyric on the wintry morning in the palace." In another dream, Xiao Guan "went to a palace where the women were like goddesses and transcendents." They gave him paper and a writing brush and invited him to compose a poem. The poet Xu Hun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 791-ca. 858) dreamed that "he climbed up a mountain to a palace among the clouds." He entered the palace and joined a group of bibulous immortals, among whom was Xu Feiqiong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the enchanting maid to the Queen Mother of the West [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Waking up, the inspired poet composed a poem celebrating his encounter with the fairy. A few days later, Xu Feiqiong appeared in another dream. She chided the poet and asked him to revise the poem in order to conceal her name. Li He [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (790-816), the famous Tang poet, dreamed of ascending to heaven to meet the Moon Goddess, which inspired him to compose his poem "Rising to Heaven" ("Shengtian Shi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ). According to Yao He [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 855), a certain Scholar Wang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the early ninth century made a dream trip to the state of Wu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], where Fuchai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the King of Wu (r. 497-477 BCE), was conducting the burial of his favorite consort Xi Shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. At the king's command, Wang composed a song of lamentation for the beautiful woman. The writer Shen Yazhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (781-832) dreamed that he had married the beloved daughter of the Duke Mu of Qin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 621 BCE). In the dream, the princess died, prompting Shen to write a commemorative poem, which he was able to remember after he woke up (Chen 1985, 37-39; Strassburg 2008, 162-67). In all of these cases, the writer's dream fired his imagination and catalyzed an act of literary composition. To be sure, one should not take the authenticity of each of these dream accounts for granted. Indeed, some, if not all, may be inventions or exaggerations. Whether or not these dream accounts are authentic, they testify to the abiding association between dream and literary invention.

One discerns similarities between Baoyu's dream trip and several cases of oneiric imagination in Chen Shiyuan's dream encyclopedia (cited above). As in these accounts, Baoyu's wandering spirit meets a goddess, Fairy Disenchantment (Jinghuan Xiangu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), who inspires Baoyu by welcoming the future fiction maker into her palace. Like the poets who marry mythic lovers in Chen Shiyuan's dream accounts, Baoyu marries Disenchantment's younger sister. These affinities with Chen Shiyuan's dream cases suggest that Cao Xueqin followed an established tradition of linking the dream state and the literary imagination. Cao's dream account, however, is a significantly more elaborate and complex narrative of oneiric imagination, which largely conforms to Liu Xie's theory of shensi (spiritual thought) and xujing (mental vacancy and tranquility). In Cao's narrative, the Jia family gathers for tea and wine in the Ningguo mansion. Bored and weary, Baoyu wishes to nap. He is thus led from the hubbub into the quiet and tranquil setting of the inner quarters. Qin-shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the wife of Baoyu's nephew Jia Rong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], conducts Baoyu into a room where hangs a painting of the Han scholar-official Liu Xiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] assiduously reading a book illuminated by an immortal holding a torch. Flanking the painting are two lines of poetry: "True learning implies a clear insight into human activities, / Genuine culture involves the skillful manipulation of human relationships" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cao and Gao 1973, 52; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 126). Baoyu bluntly expresses his dislike for the place. Qin-shi then takes him to her own chamber, where he is greeted by a delicious fragrance and elegant decor:

On a table stood an antique mirror that had once graced the tiring-room of Empress Wu Zetian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Beside it stood the golden platter on which Flying Swallow [Zhao Feiyan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] once danced for her emperor's delight. And on the platter was that very quince which An Lushan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] once threw at Lady Yang [Consort Yang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], bruising her breast. At the far end of the room stood the priceless bed on which Princess Shouchang was sleeping under the eaves of the Hanzhang Palace. Over it hung a canopy commissioned by Princess Tongchang entirely fashioned out of ropes of pearls. (Cao and Gao 1973, 52-53; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 127, translation modified.)

Baoyu is delighted with everything he sees and decides to take his nap there. Qin-shi, the proud owner of the room, readies the bed for Baoyu: "She unfolded a quilted coverlet, whose silk has been laundered by the fabulous Xi Shi, and arranged the double head-rest that Hongniang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] once carried for her amorous mistress" (Cao and Gao 1973, 53; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 127).

Baoyu's disdain for the first room is unsurprising, as the painting and poetry have a pedantic air not likely to appeal to the renegade of the examinations. On a different level, such glorification of earthly fame and success, like the tumult of the party from which Baoyu has just extricated himself, is a "noise" that hinders Baoyu's attempt to achieve a mental state of vacancy and tranquility. Baoyu's delight with Qin-shi's chamber is less immediately clear. One might surmise that the pubescent boy is attracted to the room because it suggests romance and sexuality. Significantly, each of the the room's objects--mirror, platter, quince, bed, canopy--is associated with a different woman celebrated as an embodiment of qing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (feeling/emotion/love) in fictional literature. As these women play different roles in their respective love stories, the items in the room's decor form a colorful iconography of qing. Within an aura of absolute tranquility--with the nurses having "tiptoed out" and Qin-shi having ordered the maids to "stop the cats from fighting under the eaves"--the configuration of these objects associated with fictionalized qing channels the napping boy's oneiric imagination (Cao and Gao 1973, 53; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 127, translation modified).

The decor of Qin-shi's chamber has an evident impact on Baoyu's dream. Having entered Disenchantment's realm, Baoyu sees an array of buildings each with a board above it indicating the name of the department that it houses. Those names form a nomenclatural kaleidoscope of qing: Department of Fond Infatuation (Chiqing Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Department of Gruel Rejection (Jieyuan Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ), Department of Early Morning Weeping (Zhaoti Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Department of Late Night Sobbing (Muku Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Department of Spring Fever (Chungan Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Department of Autumn Grief (Qiubei Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), among many others (Cao and Gao 1973, 55; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 131). If the curios in Qin-shi's room remind Baoyu of a variety of love stories, these buildings reveal the possible scenarios in the drama of love and desire. Evidently, what he sees in the dream transmutes what he saw before falling asleep. Freud observes: "That all the material composing the content of the dream derives in some way from our experience, and so is reproduced, remembered, in the dream--this at least we may count as undisputed knowledge" (1999, 12). The popular Chinese saying affirms Freud's point: "You dream at night what you think in the day" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Baoyu's case, the "departments" overseeing different modes of passion are a result of the dreamer's supersensory reprocessing of the decor in Qin-shi's room. The visual images in his waking experience and their reproductions in his dream visualization almost form an uninterrupted continuum. By this arrangement, the novel underscores the suggestion that the dream images of the buildings are not external and ontological entities but projections of the dreamer's psyche.

In the Department of the Ill Fated (Boming Si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Baoyu sees the albums of pictures, the main registry, and two supplementary registries of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling. In these details it is possible to trace the influence of the visual images in Qin-shi's room. If these "departments" are a taxonomy of female passion, the albums reify the "ill fated" as concrete and distinct images. From his waking perusal of the room's decor, the dreamer abstracts the theme of qing and the women who embody it.

As discussed above, Cao Xueqin did not invent the use of the dream to dramatize literary imagination. His use of the albums in Baoyu's dream might be more original. As the pictures in the albums, each paired up with a piece of verse, are about the main female characters in the novel, they might be akin to xiangzan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (i.e., portraits inscribed with laudatory poetry) that may have become an established literary-artistic genre as early as the Han period. (7) During the Ming and Qing times xiangzan became all the more prevalent in the literati culture. Yet a most influential xiangzan precursor to the albums in Honglou meng could have been the thirteenth-century scholar-artist Gong Shengyu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1222-1304) "Song Jiang sanshiliu zan" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Encomia to Song Jiang and His Thirty-six Comrades"), in which Gong celebrates each of the Liangshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] bandit-heroes in a short piece of verse. Each of the encomia had originally been attached to a portrait of a bandit-hero either drawn by Gong himself or by another artist named Li Song [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. 1240). While the verses are extant, all the portraits have been lost (Zhou 1985, 276-87). We are not in any position to speculate about Cao Xueqin's familiarity with "Song Jiang sanshiliu zan," but the parallel between Gong Shengyu's encomia and the albums in Baoyu's dream is clear. For one thing, editions of Honglou meng are remarkably consistent in mentioning only three registries: the Main Registry and the Supplementary Registries I (Fuce [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and II (Youfuce [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (8) Each registry features twelve beauties, bringing the total number of women to thirty-six, which coincides with the number of bandit-heroes in "Song Jiang sanshiliu zan." Given the other significant affinities between Honglou meng and Shuihu zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Outlaws of the Marsh), which have long been a topic of scholarly discussion, (9) the parallel between these novels' encomia becomes all the more remarkable. Along with the sketchy narrative about the Liangshan bandits in Xuanhe yishi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Legends during the Xuanhe Reign), a thirteenth-century popular history, "Song Jiang sanshiliu zan" served as an embryo for the textual conglomeration of the Liangshan sagas that eventually became the novel Shuihu zhuan. If the albums of the thirty-six beauties are indeed modeled on Gong Shengyu's encomia, they may have been intended to signify a similar fictional aspiration.

The pictures in the albums differ from typical xiangzan, being less concerned with the characters' physical appearances than with their actions or situations. Judging by the novel's descriptions, the pictures do not focus on specific characters in the novel, and may even omit the characters altogether. In this respect, the albums are akin to the popular art form of tuchen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (pictured prophecy), the most famous example of which is perhaps Tuibeitu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Pictures of Back Massage), attributed to the seventh-century astrologer Li Chunfeng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (602-70). Tuibeitu is a pamphlet containing pictures with accompanying verses that allegedly predict major sociopolitical events. Indeed, in chapter 5 of the Jiaxu manuscript copy [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Honglou meng there is a marginal comment that suggests the possible influence of Tuibeitu on the representation of the albums:

There are busybodies in the world who clamor about Tuibeitu. The ancients would certainly never entice obsession and incite imbecility. If the work is indeed from the ancients, it could never become a topic of chitchat among ordinary people. This chapter borrows the techniques from it and uses them in the accounts of the women's destinies. There is no topic for chat over tea or wine, and there is nothing to do with state affairs. It is indeed marvelous writing! (Cao 1756, 136-37)

In recent years some scholars in China have reaffirmed the possible connection between Tuibeitu and the albums in Baoyu's dream (Cui 1982, 2:26; He 2007, 5:104-25; Li Ling 1983, 4: 200-201). Like the pictures in Tuibeitu, the albums in Baoyu's dream are prophetic. Yet, unlike the former, which predict events authored by the mysterious force of history, the pictures in the dream of the reincarnated stone foretell the plot of the "Stone Narrative" to be authored by the dreamer himself. Indeed, the opening chapter of the novel cites Jinling shier chai (Twelve Beauties of Jinling) as one of the alternative titles of the Honglou meng, which suggests that the novel, to a significant extent, is about the women featured in the albums. According to a marginal comment by Old Tablet (Jihu Sou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in chapter 17 of the Gengchen manuscript copy [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the novel, the albums of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling were a "conjecture" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] about the "Love Registries" (Qingbang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with which Cao Xueqin ended--or intended to end--his novel (Cao 1760, 373). Whether they are modeled on Gong Shengyu's "Song Jiang Sanshiliu Zan" or Li Chunfeng's Tuibeitu, the albums in Baoyu's dream constitute a sketch of the "Stone Narrative" that fulfills the pledge of the posited novelist in the "Fanli" not to "allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial" (Cao 1756, 4). By envisioning these pictures in his mental eye, the dreamer is conceiving certain strands in the fiction that he is destined to make.

If Baoyu's imagination indeed projects the album pictures, why does he seem mystified by them in the dream? This question brings us to the issue of the relationship between yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (intent or meaning), xiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (image), and yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (verbal expression), a triangular framework that fascinated and intrigued traditional Chinese scholars and writers. For the third-century scholar Wang Bi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (226-49), visual images serve as a mediator between what is intended and what is expressed verbally:

Images are what brings forth meaning, and words are what elucidate images. Nothing expresses meaning as fully as images, and nothing accounts for the images as fully as words. Words were generated out of images, and that is why we can contemplate the images by scrutinizing the words. Images sprout out of meaning, and that is why we can contemplate the meaning by scrutinizing the images. With images the meaning can be complete, and with words images can be manifest. Therefore, words, as what elucidate images, can be forsaken once images are fulfilled. Images, as what embody meaning, can be forsaken once meaning is obtained. (Wang SBCK, 10.8a)

Evidently Wang Bi is under the influence of the famous analogy in Zhuangzi, according to which words are to meaning what a basket trap is to a fish or what a snare is to a rabbit: "The purpose of having a basket trap is the fish; once the fish is caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of having a snare is the rabbit; once the rabbit is captured the snare is forgotten" (Zhuang and Wang 1954, 181). By adding the image as a term, however, Wang Bi transforms the meaning-word dyad into a tripartite hierarchy, which is particularly pertinent to the question of literary imagination. For Lu Ji and Liu Xie, as discussed above, invocation of imagery is a crucial stage in the process of poetic imagination. However, while Wang Bi's xiang (images) may correspond to tangible and corporeal "things" in the external world, Liu Xie's yixiang (idea-images) are mental pictures that transcend the physicality of the material world and are therefore ineffable, not unlike the hexagrams in the Yijing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Liu Xie is thus fully aware of the difficulty involved in the final stage of literary creation: translating mental images into words. He writes, "It is easy for one to have extraordinary ideas when he is free to work in the realm of fancy, but it is much harder to devise ingenious words when tied to rigid details" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1960, 2:494). Words, which to Wang Bi "elucidate images," inevitably fall short of the expressive ideal.

Liu Xie's exposition of the relationship between imagination and art was echoed by writers and artists of later ages, including Zheng Banqiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1693-1765), a famous artist contemporaneous with Cao Xueqin. Known particularly for his painting of bamboo, Zheng explicates the process of his artistic creation in an inscription affixed to one of his paintings. Upon seeing the twigs and leaves of the bamboo in the morning mist, he felt that his "bosom was throbbing and subsequently an idea for the painting was rising," but "the bamboos in the bosom were not the same as the bamboos in the eye" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. After the painting was completed, he found that "the bamboos held in hand were not the same as the bamboos in the bosom, either" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1997, 283-84). If it is impossible to duplicate a mental image in art, it is difficult even to approximate a dream image in the medium of words. One reason is the partial incompatibility of the two media: the visual effect of a picture is holistic and instantaneous, rendering all logic sequences in terms of simultaneity; language, on the other hand, is inevitably linear. So too is a dream-picture a work of radical compression. Freud draws a useful distinction between "dream-content," the seemingly paltry and laconic dream images, and "dream-thought," what these dream-images represent. He offers an interesting comparison between their possible verbal renditions: "Written down, the dream will fill half a page; the analysis containing the dream-thoughts will require six, eight, twelve times as much space" (1999, 212). This disproportion, according to Freud, is largely the corollary of displacement: constituents of dream thought are not directly represented in dream content; instead, they find substitutes along a chain of associations. Facilitated by displacement, abstract, unusable thought is transformed into a "pictorial language," the language that is presentable in the dream (1999, 212).

The issues of compression and displacement are particularly relevant to the discussion of the albums in Baoyu's dream. Like several other pictures, the picture of Qingwen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Baoyu's chamber maid, plays on her name. Her name literarily means "pattern in the sunny sky," but the evocation is displaced by the corresponding image in the album, which is described as "dark ink washes representing storm-clouds or fog" (Cao and Gao 1973, 56; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 132). The verse that accompanies the picture provides a summary of Qingwen's character, but the displacement effected by the picture, suggesting the girl's sufferings from the slanders and calumnies, is so much more profound in meaning that it trumps the abstract account. Likewise, the name of Hua Xiren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Baoyu's chief maid and the only woman Baoyu has sex with before his marriage, is embedded in the picture for her, as the "bouquet of flowers" represents her surname Hua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and the "worn-out mat" (poxi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) puns on her nickname Xiren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], both words containing the phoneme xi. Yet this displacement by means of homophonic relation leads to a proliferation of meanings. Do the fresh flowers and the tattered mat suggest a contrast between Hua Xiren's flowery beauty and her unhappy fate, or between her privileged status in the Rongguo compound and her humble family origin? Could they imply two conflicting elements within her psyche, as both a quasi-lady and a slave girl? Or could they refer to her cherished dream of becoming Baoyu's concubine? To her eventual marriage to an actor? To her sexual deflowering, as the broken mat may suggest? Again, the meanings of the visual images are almost inexhaustible in the medium of language, and the quatrain accompanying the picture only scratches their surface.

The most representative of the pictures in the albums feature Lin Daiyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Baoyu's love, and Xue Baochai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Baoyu's destined wife, the novel's two female protagonists. In the picture Lin Daiyu is represented by "two dead trees with a jade belt hanging in their branches." The image of the two trees involves the so-called "glyphomantic dream" (chaizi meng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which plays with the pictographic origins of Chinese script. The configuration of the two trees stands for Daiyu's surname Lin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which in its pictographic embryo was formed by the stylized diagram of two trees standing side by side. Daiyu, meanwhile, becomes the word "jade belt" (yudai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ) with its syllables reversed, thereby inscribing an important pub. For her part, Xue Baochai is represented in the picture by "a golden hairpin" that lies "half-buried in a pile of snow." The snow (xue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) stands for Baochai's surname Xue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], again by homophonic relation, and the golden hairpin obviously refers to her given name, Baochai, which literally means "precious hairpin." The verse, which praises Baochai's virtue (dingji de [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Daiyu's talent (yongxu cai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), on the other hand, falls well short of elucidating the meanings of the visual images. And the interlinear comment in the Jiaxu manuscript copy, which considers the last two lines in the verse a lamentation that the jade belt and golden hairpin are "both misplaced" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cao 1756, 136), does not do the picture full justice either. The juxtaposition of these two images in the same picture foreshadows the rivalry between the so-called "wood-stone affinity" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and "gold-jade affinity" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which is a major thread of the novel. Furthermore, by representing the two trees as dead (ku [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the picture portends Daiyu's tragic end. Perhaps more importantly, the picture sets the tone for the novel's presentation of the two girls' personalities. Never trying to hide her emotions, Lin Daiyu reveals her true self as readily as the jade belt that hangs high in the branches of the trees. By contrast, Xue Baochai is reserved and repressed, and in this sense she is indeed like a golden hairpin half-hidden. Apparently, the snow in the picture is more than a pun on the girl's surname, as it suggests her "cold" and dispassionate character.

To reiterate, this article does not attempt to explore the meanings of the individual pictures in the albums. The brief discussion above is merely intended to demonstrate the gap between the images and their possible verbal interpretations and amplifications. While visualizing Baoyu's moment of fictional imagination, we should not be surprised by the boy's apparent bafflement with the pictures that are invoked by his own imagining mind. In his spiritual wandering, Baoyu's intent (yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is to attain a supersensory union with various notions of qing, which in turn generates an array of idea-images (yixiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), yet how to render these images in words (yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and organize them in a "memorial" for the girls remains a daunting challenge for him. Liu Xie states, "Ideas are derived from spiritual thinking, and words derived from ideas. They can be seamlessly matching for each other, and they can also be so discrepant as if they are thousands of leagues apart from each other" (Liu 1960, 2:494). This passage from the opening chapter of Honglou meng suggsts the labor involved in turning imagination into fiction:

Cao Xueqin in his Nostalgia Studio worked on it for ten years, in the course of which he rewrote it no less than five times, dividing it into chapters, composing chapter headings, renaming it The Twelve Beauties of Jinling, and adding an introductory quatrain. (Cao and Gao 1973, 4; Cao and Gao 1973-86, 51)

This Cao Xueqin does not have to be identified as the historical novelist himself. It may be more appropriate to consider him a novelistic construction, a fictionalized fiction writer. Like Baoyu, he is device to dramatize the process of fiction making. To that extent, one can perhaps say that it required ten years' toil to complete a full-fledged verbal rendition of the pictures Baoyu dreamed on a particular afternoon.


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University of Notre Dame


(1) This study distinguishes between "Shitou ji" ("Stone Narrative"), the text about Baoyu's life in the Jia household that is eventually engraved on the mythic stone after its return to the supernatural world, and Shitou ji, one of the titles of Cao Xueqin's novel, which David Hawkes felicitously renders Story of the Stone. Thus they function as titles on two different levels of the novel's metafictional structure: while Shitou ji refers to the fiction otherwise known as Honglou meng, "Shitou ji" represents a fiction within the fiction.

(2) In the Jiaxu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1754) manuscript copy, the earliest known version of Honglou meng, the quote attributed to the novelist is included in the preface "Fanli," which precedes the first chapter and is separated from the chapter title by the blank space of half page. There is a marginal note by Red Inkstone (Zhiyanzhai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) that reads: "Xueqin used to have a book Fengyue baojian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Mirror of Romance) with a preface [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by his younger brother Tangcun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Now Tangcun has passed away. When I saw the new [text] it was reminiscent of the old [text], and that was why I still followed it" (Cao 1756, 15). The meaning of the last part of the note is rather vague. According to Wu Shichang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the "Fanli" was formerly Tangcun's preface to Cao Xueqin's Fengxue baojian, possibly an early version of his Honglou meng. Wu speculates that Red Inkstone followed the format in Fengyue baojian by retaining Tangcun's preface in the new text of Honglou meng in commemoration of Cao Xueqin's dead brother (2000, 107- 8). In the slightly later Gengchen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1760) manuscript copy of Honglou meng, however, the "Fanli" is deleted, but the paragraph that contains the long quote allegedly from the novelist appears as the opening paragraph of chapter 1. That practice is then followed by all later recensions, including the earliest typographic editions (1791 and 1792) sponsored by Cheng Weiyuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Gao E [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

(3) This is suggested by the word gu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which is roughly equivalent to "therefore" in English: "He therefore concealed the real events and, by means of the Precious Jade of Luminous Intelligence, related this story of the Stone." Wai-yee Li has noticed this with insight: "The leap of logic in the word 'therefore' conceals a break between experience and the representation of experience. The causal connection asserted is fraught with ambiguity" (1973, 157).

(4) In the epilogue of Wenxin diaolong, however, Liu Xie does associate his writing of the work with his two dreams. When he was seven, he had a dream in which he ascended to the sky to pick the colorful clouds. After he reached the age of thirty, he had another dream in which he met Confucius and followed the sage with sacrificial utensils in hand. As Liu Xie suggests, these dreams could reflect his youthful ambition to be an exegete of the classics [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1960, 2:726).

(5) Shuen-fu Lin has offered a detailed survey of traditional Chinese dream literature in his study of Baoyu's dream trip to the Land of Illusion (1992, 14:77-106). His article carefully examines the relationship between Baoyu's dream trip and the rest of the novel, even though it does not, as the present study does, consider the dream in terms of Baoyu's imagination as a destined fiction-maker. More recently, Richard Strassberg has offered a meticulous discussion of traditional Chinese dream literature in the introduction to his translation of Chen Shiyuan's Mengzhan yizhi (2008, 1-47).

(6) To bolster the visual effect of the oneiric images, the dreamt writing brushes are often multicolored, as in the cases of Fan Zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (911-64), He Ning [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (898-955), and Jiang Yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (444-505). In contrast, Ji Shaoyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 535) had a dream in which he received "a carved green jade brush." Other dreamt writing brushes were different but by no means less striking visually. Li Bai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (701-62) dreamed of a brush that had flowers sprouting from the tip. Wang Xun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (349-400) dreamed of receiving a writing brush that was "as large as a roof rafter" (Chen 1985, 37; Strassburg 2008, 160-61).

(7) Emperor Xuandi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 74-49 BCE), valuing the merits of his most trusted ministers, had their portraits drawn on the walls of the Unicorn Tower (Qilin Ge [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the palace, with the personal name, official titles, and a brief eulogy inscribed for each (Ban SKQS, 54.28a). That practice may have continued with later emperors of the Han. Emperor Lingdi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 168-89), for instance, had thirty-two of his ministers "honored in portrayed encomiums to encourage others to imitate them" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Fan SKQS, 107.12a).

(8) Cai Yijiang writes: "Are there indeed Supplementary Registry III and Supplementary Registry IV, in any extant and lost editions of Honglou meng? Based on the results of our research, there is absolutely none.... Goddess of Disenchantment clearly states in the novel that, apart from the three volumes of the upper, middle, and lower registries, there is 'no additional records for other girls.' How can there be any third and fourth supplementary registries?" (1979, 364).

(9) For instance, the Qing fiction commentator Zhang Xinzhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. 1828-50) states that Honglou meng "takes its spirit [sheshen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] from the Shuihu zhuan" (Plaks 1990, 327). Zhou Ruchang, a contemporary leading Redologist in China, suggests a symmetry between the thematic structures of the two novels: while Shuihu zhuan concerns 108 heroes of the greenwood (lulin haohan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Honglou meng may have been analogously conceived as a story of 108 rouged beauties (hongfen jiaren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (1994, 3:105-6).
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Author:Ge, Liangyan
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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