Everything All at Once: The "Honglou meng"
The Honglou meng is easily the most complex novel produced in premodern China. It is understandable, then, that it should also present the most complex solution to the challenge of extratextual commentary. To a greater or lesser extent, all the solutions examined in the three previous chapters were employed in the composition of this one novel. The Honglou meng is perhaps the novel in premodern China with the most fluid boundaries between text and commentary. This is partly a matter of historical accident. For almost half a century, the Honglou meng circulated in manuscript form in copies of varying length and completeness. Comments on the manuscripts reveal that the work was in a constant state of authorial revision up until Cao Xueqin's death, and there is evidence of tinkering with the text even before Cheng Weiyuan (ca. 1745-ca. 1819) and Gao E ( 1763- 1816) edited and published it. The Honglou meng was, in many respects, a collaborative project.
The manuscripts in circulation were, at least originally, prepared for a select audience of the author's family and friends, with all the editorial abandon that tends to go with such a mode of production. The commentary seems to have been an ad hoc affair done as a labor of love, but with little attention to systematization or developed argument. Only toward the end of the manuscript period were the original text and commentary subjected to anything that could be called editing.1 Before the printing of the novel in 1791-92,2 sections of the text might appear as extratextual commentary in one manuscript and as part of the main text in another.
The relationship between the Honglou meng and previous fiction and fiction commentary is quite complex, but it can perhaps best be described____________________