Ideal and Actual in the Story of the Stone

Ideal and Actual in the Story of the Stone

Ideal and Actual in the Story of the Stone

Ideal and Actual in the Story of the Stone


The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber), completed in the mid-eighteenth century by Cao Xuegin, is considered China's greatest novel -- but its length and narrative complexity have proven daunting to many modern readers. Now, esteemed scholar of Asian literature Dore J. Levy introduces this timeless work to first-time readers, while also presenting a new method of comparative interpretation for advanced students and scholars. Drawing from literary theory, sociology, religion, and medicine, Levy explores how the classic novel confronts the chasm between social, emotional, and spiritual ideals and their translation into day-to-day reality.

This illuminating work unpacks The Story of the Stone based on the interpretation of four major themes: the inversion of traditional family dynamics, which constitutes the novel's social framework; the function of illness and medicine in a society where Buddhist notions of karma and retribution exist alongside pragmatic notions of the human body that make up traditional Chinese medicine; the role of poetry in the social structure of dynastic Chinese society; and the use of poetry as a vehicle for spiritual liberation


The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin (1715–1763), is the most highly esteemed work of prose fiction in the Chinese tradition. A mammoth narrative of 120 chapters, it is admired both for its realistic depiction of the life of the Chinese nobility during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and for its thoroughly romantic vision of personal relations. Furthermore, The Story of the Stone is widely regarded as a roman á clef, weaving elements and individuals of the author's personal history into his larger vision of the world.

There are as many readings of The Story of the Stone as there are readers. The novel, which is regarded as an embodiment not only of the Qing dynasty at its zenith but of Chinese culture as a whole, is now finding its place in cultures distant from China. With one book, the genius of Cao Xueqin proves to have the universality of Shakespeare. Its combination of intellectual scope and immediate human drama has no counterpart in Western fiction. To appreciate its position in Chinese culture, we must imagine a work with the critical cachet of James Joyce's Ulysses and the popular appeal of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind—and twice as long as the two combined.

Part of the appeal of The Story of the Stone is its magical beginning and the variety and opulence of the world the reader enters through the gateway of the Land of Illusion in the first chapter. Another part of its appeal is a cast of characters so varied, vital, and engaging that the reader is moved by the least of them. Yet another part of its appeal is that the tale itself holds out a brilliant hope of spiritual transcendence, while vibrating with pity for those caught in the coil of mortal existence.

On one level, the author's genius is so encompassing that the readers' full participation seems inevitable: No analytical explanation is needed, and none will serve. On another level, the analysis of style and technique can bring us closer to an understanding of how he achieved his goals. The Story of the Stone combines two modes of expression in Chinese poetics—the vicarious mode of narrative experience and the integrative mode of lyrical experience—with unique success. Since the Chinese literary tradition is primarily lyric, narrative in poetry and . . .

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