What Hong Lou Meng Tells us About 18th Century China

In other circumstances it would be considered more practical to incorporate a study of a text such as Hong Lou Meng (‘A Dream of Red Mansions’) into a larger base of source materials, considering parallel works and other non-fictitious data. However, the insufficiency of information around vital areas that Hong Lou Meng covers, and the cultural significance that the text has held and still holds in China today, means that this is a pragmatic text to analyse individually.

There are many Qing cultural practices that could be covered in this article, but many of these do not require assessment or critique as they are simple descriptions of process. For this article I have identified four significant elements of Qing society and culture that I believe Hong Lou Meng sheds a particularly revealing light on, factors that do require some exploration to fully understand. These are:

1. Class conflict and changing social hierarchies

2. The positions of women and men in society

3. The effects of the expansion of China’s economy and population

4. The legacy and future of fiction writing in China

Through looking at how Hong Lou Meng addresses these facets of Qing culture and society we can learn unique things about them that may not be evident from analysing only non-fictitious sources.

Although the central thread of the novel is centred around the love story between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, and it’s tragic ending, many scholars have concluded that this affair only serves as an ancillary tale to highlight a wider issue that Cao Xueqin is addressing in his text, class conflict. Specifically, the decline of the four ‘wealthy’ families described in the novel serves metaphorically to describe the decline of the whole Qing dynasty. Speaking from personal experience, Cao Xueqin reveals a social struggle which pits the defenders of a declining feudal order against the proponents of social change. This reflects the social upheaval that China faced during the Qing reign, the most obvious and visceral examples of such rupturing events being the Opium, Taiping, and Dungan wars of 1839-42, 1850-64, and 1862-77. The Taiping war in particular involved opponents of the Qing state who were seeking to totally redefine the moral and social order of China, but with any conflict issues of social status come to the fore as the populace turns to questioning why it’s leaders allowed the conflict to take place. However, there are many other, less physical, examples of social disparity that Hong Lou Meng covers more closely, such as issues of corruption, greed, and hypocrisy from the “landlord class”. These were issues that contemporary Chinese commentators were especially vocal on. Hong Lou Meng reveals to its readers the true extent of the disconnect between the worlds of rich and poor; portraying the vast and intricate compounds of the elite families as dream-like experiences when compared to the “real world”. This theme of the dream runs through the novel and reinforces the text’s criticisms about the falsity and illusion of the elite lifestyle, maintaining a veneer of grandeur which hides a hidden moral and economic deprivation. The family name ‘佳’ (‘Jia’) is a homophone for the word ‘假’, meaning false. This concept is allegorized by Leng Tzu-hsing in chapter 2 when he states: ‘a centipede dies but never falls down’. Additionally, the ‘never falls down’ section of this metaphor touches on another criticism the book levies at elites, that they are “too big to fail”. This is inextricably linked with the civil examinations system which, despite its promise of equal opportunity, often produced a self-perpetuating system of ‘elite reproduction’. In this system, those who already had ties to elite groups were more likely to attain the same honours.

Figure 1. Predicted probabilities of attaining a title by age 50 sui according to the characteristics of kin, Liaoning, 1789 – 1909.

Source: Campbell and Lee, “Social Mobility from a Kinship Perspective: Rural Liaoning, 1789-1909” (2003).

Hong Lou Meng’s vast cast of characters, which, despite the novel focussing on the upper classes, are predominantly poorly treated slaves, reinforces these criticisms of existing social hierarchies. Only 50 of the 400 named characters could be described as ‘elites’. This may also be a commentary on China’s population growth during the Qing reign, the crowded and confusing cast of characters reflecting commentary on the real-world population boon. This expansion of population came together with expansion of the economy, which also benefitted from increased internal and external trade, including a crucial injection of silver from western nations. What many complained about at the time, and what Hong Lou Meng also laments, is the fear of global capitalism corrupting traditional Chinese morality and way of life. It implores its readers to take a disdainful view of material value in favour of more ethereal goals. In many ways this takes against the Confucian world-view in favour of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. This immateriality once again ties in with the running themes of falsity and illusion.

Figure 2. Population of China from 0-2000AD.

Source: Vaclab Smil, “China’s Environmental Crisis,” (1993).

The central relationship of Hong Lou Meng exists between Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu, and Xue Baochai. Through their interactions, Cao Xueqin explores notions of gender and sexuality. In this region particularly, Cao Xueqin’s text is transgressive. By having Jia Baoyu fall in love with Lin Daiyu instead of the “model woman” of Xue Baochai, Cao Xueqin is criticising his society’s views on women and what their purpose in society should be. However, the competition between Daiyu and Baochai is not one of intelligence against beauty or independence against subservience as you may expect. Both women are strong and attractive female characters. So why is it transgressive for Baoyu to fall in love with one instead of the other? It is because this goes against the Confucian social expectations; Baoyu is expected to marry Baochai but he does not love her. The Confucian principles of Qing society are not interested in such a disorganised principle of “love”, it is a rebellion of disorder and illogicality. Louise Edwards has argued that this form of ‘proto-feminism’ is not as transgressive as I have indicated, she states that it is only young women who are portrayed sympathetically and that their acts of strength are always in some way to benefit the existing patriarchal system. However, although I do not disagree with Edwards’ arguments, I do find it unlikely that an average reader of Hong Lou Meng, both under the Qing and today, would read this into the novel. Therefore, I still think it holds a transgressive message for many people and does question the positions of women and men in Qing society.

On a meta-narrative level, Hong Lou Meng cannot be taken purely as a novel that remains independent of its context. It is clear that Cao Xueqin was aware of the legacy of novels within which he was writing and how his text differed from, and lay in continuity with, its background. In many ways, Hong Lou Meng is playing with and parodying Ming texts such as Suihu zhuan, Shi diantou, and Wuse shi, particularly in relation to its stone imagery. This association with the Ming fits with Cao Xueqin’s desire to go back to that time which he sees as simpler and less corrupted. His using of Ming fiction tropes suggests an identification with these older literary traditions and his parodying of them suggests that somehow these traditions have been corrupted. Interestingly, the tale of Hong Lou Meng itself lies at this intersection between dynasties, as it is unclear when the story is exactly set. This ‘timeless nature’ of the novel allows Cao Xueqin to escape being directly critical of the Qing regime, which had a history of harsh censorship and literary inquisition. This timelessness serves the double purpose of also playing on traditional Ming fairy-tale-style storytelling techniques. The prolific use of poetry in the text also reveals the significance of this artform to Chinese culture. By the context and the way in which Hong Lou Meng is written, the literary culture of the Qing is revealed to us.

There is much more that Hong Lou Meng can reveal to its readers, both outside and inside of the areas I have discussed herein. Indeed, the often-overlooked field of arts-based historical research, still today holds many secrets that could grant invaluable insights into the past.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 04th of December 2017

Last Modified: 04th of December 2017

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