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Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber.

By ANTHONY C. Yu. Princeton: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1997. Pp. xv + 321. $55.

Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng) is by far the finest novel in traditional Chinese literature. As such it continues to stimulate the finest minds in criticism. Anthony C. Yu, who earlier provided us with a complete rendition of the Journey to the West and published a number of articles devoted to Dream of the Red Chamber, now puts before us the summation of his reading of Cao Xueqin's masterwork. To his reading of the novel he brings his erudite knowledge of Chinese religion and philosophy. The result is an extremely informative and stimulating study. Rereading the Stone may not be the ideal choice as a first introduction to Dream of the Red Chamber, but it certainly is essential reading for any serious student of the novel. As the novel is in many ways an encapsulation of traditional Chinese culture, it is essential reading for any sinologist. It is to be hoped that this monograph also will be widely read outside the field as it has much to teach students of comparative literature.

The book consists of five lengthy chapters. The first, "Reading" (pp. 3-52), discusses earlier approaches to Dream of the Red Chamber. Our author makes the point that any reading can only be partial and historical, but then argues against the pervasive tendency both past and present to read the novel as a historical document, whether it be seen as a topical allegory on Manchu court intrigues, an autobiography of the author, or an encyclopedia of eighteenth-century social history. "For the point at issue is not whether Hongloumeng the novel is reflective of Chinese society - how could it not be, as a work of fiction wrought in a specific moment of history? - but whether the compulsive attempt of the modern reader to go beyond the text and arrive at its real referent, posited as either the larger world of the eighteenth century or the immediate realm of its celebrated author's household, represents in the end a futile undertaking" (p. 19). Yu prefers to read Dream of the Red Chamber as fiction: ". . . the narrative's merit as verbal art lies in its reflexive and innovative insistence, made through myriad occasions and devices, that it is a work of fiction. The novel, in other words, is as much a story about fictive representation as it is about human life" (p. xi).

As "the desire for fiction and the fiction of desire are both dangerous things" (p. 52), Yu devotes his second chapter to "Desire" (pp. 53-109). Here, he traces the meanings and connotations of qing (emotion, passion, love) throughout traditional Chinese philosophy. While qing is usually seen as a natural part of the human endowment, all thinkers also agree on the need of its regulation by ritual. As art is seen as the expression of qing, it is taxed with the contradictory demands of spontaneity and containment - if an author fails in this duty, the obligation falls on the reader. "Because Confucian poetics has little basis to sanction the representation of what it considers illicit desire, an inevitable paradox ensues: tragedy in real life and history may abound, but tragedy in art brooks meager toleration. Even the merest hint of possible excess must be checked by interpretation" (p. 95). However, in later times the opposition between passion and convention itself is thematized in literature, especially in drama (e.g., Xixiang ji and Mudanting).

It is only in the third chapter, "Stone" (pp. 110-71), that Yu starts to discuss the novel as such. He now attempts to answer the question posed earlier - "the principal question posed for the reader in nuanced variations throughout the length of the book": "If we are to regard life as illusory like fiction, how should we respond to fiction as engaging illusion?" (pp. 49-50). On the one hand, Yu subscribes to the view that our novel is a "grand parable of Buddhist quest and enlightenment" (p. 136) that teaches "the paradox that only time can proffer to us a sense of the brevity and insubstantiality of our world" (p. 138). However, "the affirmation of the Buddhist view of reality is but one side of Hongloumeng. To perceive only that affirmation is to miss a more profound aspect of Cao Xueqin's art, namely, how the author has succeeded in turning the concept of world and life as a dream into a subtle but powerful theory of fiction that he uses constantly to confound the reader's sense of reality" (p. 141). Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber creates the illusion of reality: "Whereas Buddhism draws from its 'reading' the conclusion that detachment is the ultimate wisdom, the experience of reading fiction, at least according to our author, is nothing if not the deepest engagement. In Hongloumeng, therefore, the medium subverts the message, the discourse its language" (p. 149). "The cosmos may be regarded as illusory and dreamlike, but the world of fiction . . . remain(s) paradoxically a more potent and permanent illusion" (p. 170).

The highly abstract nature of the argument in the second and third chapters at times makes it hard to follow. The remaining two chapters, however, are more concrete and make for more pleasurable reading. Chapter four, "Literature" (pp. 172-218), starts with a discussion of Jia Baoyu's aversion to examination studies and proceeds to a discussion of the capacity of poetry, drama, and fiction to lead their readers astray. Yu argues that "Cao Xueqin seems to favor a view that stresses the effect of reading: that is, on the emotive arousal concomitant with the reader's imaginative participation" (p. 190). He proceeds to discuss in detail how Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu are affected by their reading of Xixiang ji and Mudanting, and concludes: "Their encounter with literary fiction not only awakens their passion but drives them into a continuous act of self-dramatization, of the displacement of self-identity onto the text as a means of communicating that awakened passion" (p. 210). The fifth and final chapter, "Tragedy" (pp. 219-55), is almost completely given over to an analysis of the character of Lin Daiyu, discussed as a tragic heroine who is both the victim and agent of the evil that befalls her. Yu points out that the "division in her consciousness between her indisputable stature as a close kin of the family and the persistent suspicion that she does not belong ironically renders her situation almost wholly analogous to that of a new bride in a premodern Chinese household" (p. 228) - "ironically," because Lin Daiyu never will be the bride (she dies spitting blood on the night of the wedding of Jia Baoyu and Xue Baochai) and never will consummate her passion for Jia Baoyu. And while Jia Baoyu eventually awakes from his attachments, Lin Daiyu remains unenlightened. "But if delusion could create so captivating a life as Lin Daiyu's, and madness so memorable a love, who would want for her enlightenment?" (p. 255).

In its last three chapters, Rereading the Stone is first of all a scrupulously close reading of Dream of the Red Chamber. In some cases, however, Yu's argument might have been better served by a comparison of Dream of the Red Chamber with some works of fiction contemporary with it. Dream of the Red Chamber's emphasis on its own fictionality, for example, might have been compared to the way in which Nuxian waishi and Yesou puyan stress their own fictionality, not by denying history, but by creating an alternative history, complete with all the trappings of dates, reign-periods, and the like.

Throughout the book, Yu illustrates his arguments with extensive quotations from Dream of the Red Chamber, occasionally rendered by himself, but usually in the translation of David Hawkes. In one minor case, this leads to the reproduction of a problematical translation: the Bejeweled Mirror of Romance does not show Jia Rui a grinning skull, as is stated twice (p. 146), but rather a standing skeleton (an echo of the paintings of skeletons that were used in popular preaching by Taoist priests of the Quanzhen sect, not of the grinning skull that illustrates at least one Jesuit tract).

Redologists no doubt will question some points of interpretation in the analyses of the characters of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu and also may question some points about the overall meaning of the novel. For those outside that charmed circle, Professor Yu's study is a most impressive work. As he stresses at the outset, any reading can only be partial. But in his own reading he has managed to cover many if not all of the central issues raised by this novel. It is a testimony to Cao Xueqin's genius that after more than two centuries his work can still inspire such devotion and scholarship.


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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Idema, Wilt L
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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