The Red Chamber – Pauline A. Chen

In the spring of 1721 Lin Daiyu and her father are nearing the end of the Forty-Nine Days Mourning, keeping vigil beside her mother’s coffin.  A strange man appears, like them, wearing mourning robes of un-dyed hemp.  At first her father doesn’t recognize him, then cries out in surprise.  The man is her mother’s older brother, with whom there has been no contact for many years.  During dinner that evening Uncle Zheng explains that Daiyu’s mother, estranged from her family since her marriage to Lin Ruhai, had written to her brother, requesting that after her death Daiyu be taken north to visit her family.  So over her objections, she was hurried away and transported by barge from Suzhuo to the Jia mansion in Beijing.  There she finds a life of luxury and leisure, living with the extended family in the unmarried women’s compound.   She also finds a life of loneliness and boredom.  And she finds herself in a society where women are regarded as property to be used for the benefit of the family. Her grandmother, Lady Jia, is a domineering, angry old woman and the other young women are quiet and reserved. Her only true friend is Snowgoose, her grandmother’s personal maid.

This new world of wealth and privilege vanish in an instant when the Emperor dies and his successor seeks to destroy those who might be unfaithful to him.  The males in the family are imprisoned.  The women are thrown out of the house with all of their possessions confiscated, and are reduced to living in a tiny apartment, subsisting on the sale of the jewelry they were wearing.

The Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, set in the early eighteenth century, is a massive work with many characters and complicated plot.  In her foreword, Pauline Chen says that she has not attempted to remain faithful to the original plot, but has reimagined the inner lives and motivations of the three major female characters, paying homage to this masterpiece in order to share it with a wider audience.

With an abundance of details, the look into everyday lives of the very wealthy upper class in another time and another culture was fascinating.  The interaction between the characters was complex and thoroughly engaging.  I just loved this book.

Galley review   Publication date 7.10.12

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