1001 Book Review: The Story of the Stone Cao Xueqin
Over the course of 2016 Book Worm and made our way through the 5 volumes of The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin. Considered to be one of China’s four great classical novels, it was written in the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. I finally completed the last volume in December. Here are our reviews of this important Chinese Classic…
Dream of the Red Chamber or Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin
Published in: 1760
Reviewed by: Jen & Book Worm
Find it/buy it here: The Story of the Stone
Overview: Dream of the Red Chamber was written sometime in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature and has a field of study devoted exclusively to it: Redology. The novel is broken into 5 volumes. The first 80 chapters were written by Cao Xueqin and the final 40 chapters were written/compiled by Gao E with his partner Cheng Weiyuan.
Red Chamber is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the rise and decline of author Cao Xueqin’s own family and, by extension, of the Qing Dynasty. The five volumes of the novel span years and include detailed observations of family life, social structures, poetry and literature, social customs, and traditional customs from 18-century China.
Book Worm’s Thoughts: The Story of the Stone is broken down into 5 separately translated and published volumes they break down as follows: The Golden Days, The Crab Flower Club, The Warning Voice, The Debt of Tears, and The Dreamer Wakes. While each volume continues on from the previous volume there are differences in terms of style and pacing. There are also a huge number of characters to try and keep track of so a book which includes a character guide makes reading much easier.
I would class this as a largely slowed paced, character driven story and huge swathes of time are spent in poetry/ drinking competitions which can get a bit tedious to read. As a health warning, do not try to keep pace with how much the characters drink in this story it will not end well for you.
While the story concentrates on the fate of 2 families, it is an interesting insight into domestic arrangements in China in the 1700s, particularly that of well connected families and their relationships with their domestic staff (perhaps slaves is a better word).
For me the best volumes were volumes 1 and 4. In volume 1, The Golden Days, the reader first meets the central characters and learns that there is something mystical about his particular generation. In volume 4, The Debt of Tears, things start coming to a head and the world starts falling apart around the central families. These 2 volumes are also the ones with the most magical realism and spiritual feel to them.
Overall I would rate the complete story as 3 stars.
Jen’s Thoughts: This book grew on me over the course of the novel. It started off as a 3 star read but ultimately ended on a solid 4 star rating. Book Worm is correct when commenting on the sheer level of detail about poetry. Poetry and literature are central to this family. Volume two seems to consist of a mix of poetry and prose and was probably my least favorite volume. It’s not that I don’t enjoy poetry but I find poetry in translation is difficult to truly soak in.
This novel was so rich and detailed. As such, it is a novel I would highly recommend to those readers who want to learn more and develop a greater understanding of rich Chinese cultural traditions. Personally, I found it fascinating to learn about family and cultural traditions. It is true that you have to tolerate a fair amount of detail about things like drinking games, poetry, and domestic arrangements. However, I found that this level of detail helped me feel truly immersed in life in 18th century China.
I would recommend reading this book with a notebook and print out of the family tree. I found the names of characters to be quite confusing since they were so foreign to the names I’m used to as a western woman from this century. The relationship between family members was also very complex (probably because I’m used to relationships from a different perspective) and understanding the social hierarchy took me several volumes.
Other aspects I found interesting included gender norms (e.g., men outwardly weeping, women running the household finances), use of traditional medicines and the family’s believes about the cause of illnesses, spirituality threads, and the mystical elements.
Some readers may find the details tedious but I highly recommend the book as a way to immerse yourself in 18th century China. You will come out of this reading with an incredible amount of knowledge about all social aspects of life in China. All in all, it is a lovely read.
Want to try the book for yourself? You can find a copy of the first volume here: Story of the Stone.
I have created a soy candle to match this novel with a warm blend of jasmine and honeysuckle. The fragrance was inspired by the important role of flowers and poetry in the novel. You can purchase a candle here (and help us raise money for blog prizes!).
We want to hear from you. Have you read the books? What did you think? Does it sound like a book you would enjoy? Why or why not?
this was recommended to me by some friends in china but i never pursued it further than a few chapters of volume 1. Those cover designs are wonderful aren’t they?
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they are beautiful! It is definitely a slow book but I do think it is worth taking the time to read and savor.
I think I would enjoy these books, unfortunately I can’t find all the volumes at any library in the state. I will definitely look into it more when my book buying ban ends.
i loved this book so much, especially all the detail about attention to detail in aesthetics in garden design, poetry, clothing etc – anyone unsure they’d want to read that can try almost any period Chinese or Japanese book and find out immediately! – and the whole story. The confusion dies down after a few chapters, well before the plot sets in. I paid for the good translation on kindle and it was the best money ever spent, it’s huge, more value for money than you can imagine, of the six books only the last two are at all short, and the ending is so sad! I just didn’t understand why he suddenly forgot about her though, that made no sense. I have a long commute by bus and i recommend this to anyone who needs length as well as quality in their reading! Or anyone interested in Tang China.
nb it reads like a novel, like a modern novel, even though it’s from so long ago – don’t worry about the age, it’s not like shakespeare or a mediaeval ballad or morality play:) plenty of character, plot and action