The Red Chamber

  • Pauline A. Chen
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 400 pp.

In a retelling of a classic Chinese novel about women in the Qing Dynasty, the author offers a more modern twist to the ending.

Reviewed by Alice Stephens

Using the proverb “Women hold up half the sky” as his slogan, Mao Zedong launched a movement to raise the status of women in China shortly after the Communists took power in 1949. A series of reform acts allowed women to choose their own husbands, divorce, own property, vote, receive an education and work outside the home.

To understand why these reforms were so necessary, one only has to read The Red Chamber, Pauline Chen’s vivid reimagining of the classic Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, written (for the most part) by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century. Cloistered away from the world in the Inner Chambers of Rongguo, the family mansion, the women of The Red Chamber lead severely constrained lives. They are not free to leave the confines of the Inner Chamber or to receive visitors of the opposite sex without permission from male family members. Their husbands are chosen for them, and if a husband decides to take a concubine there is nothing the wife can do to stop him. What little education the girls receive is at the beneficence of their fathers. The sum total of a woman’s value is her ability to produce a male heir.

From mistress of the house to lowliest servant, each woman holds a place in the hierarchy, and with that position comes rigid expectations and inescapable duties. Granny Jia, the matriarch, is waited on hand and foot by her daughters-in-law and servants, and her word is law. Xifeng is primary daughter-in-law, a beauty with eyes “rounded at the inner corner, but long and tapered near her temples, like a teardrop, or a tadpole.” Hard-nosed and calculating, she has the job of running the household, keeping the ranks of servants in line, ensuring that the family follows the elaborate protocol of the Qing Dynasty aristocracy and taking care of the accounts. Yet despite all she does for the family, because she has yet to provide a male heir she is quickly replaced in her husband’s bed by Ping’er, who had been Xifeng’s maid and companion since childhood.

In the original story, we follow a crowded cast of characters through stories that illustrate the Qing Dynasty in decline, with a corrupt, dissipated and arrogant upper class running roughshod over the peasants as they go from adventure to adventure. The hero is Baoyu, spoiled, handsome and the presumed successor of his father as head of household. The stories are littered with women who, helpless to fight the injustices that befall them, commit suicide at an alarming rate. In Baoyu’s case especially, women are but fodder for his advancement toward fulfilling his destiny, foretold by the Jade of Spiritual Understanding that was found lodged in his mouth at birth.

In Pauline Chen’s rewriting of the novel, Baoyu’s voice is but one in a chorus of mostly female voices, in particular, those of Xifeng, Baochai and Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are first cousins to Baoyu, and rivals for his heart. Despite being too old at 18 to live among the women, Baoyu still resides in the Inner Chambers because his grandmother cannot bear to deny him whatever his heart desires. He is supposed to be studying for the civil-service examinations but prefers whiling the time away with his sisters and cousins or carousing with the young members of the aristocracy. When Daiyu comes to stay after the death of her mother, she brings a breath of fresh air into the stultified atmosphere of Rongguo and sets off a chain of events that threatens Granny Jia’s vision of the family’s future.

While using the characters, setting, era and main plot points of Cao Xueqin’s masterpiece, Chen weaves a much different story. She allows the women to have interior lives and to exercise some free will of their own, no matter how futile, from Xifeng’s illicit affair to Baochai’s maneuverings to rescue her brother from his various scrapes. The author meticulously recreates the world of the Qing Dynasty aristocracy with delightful details, such as the various arcane diagnoses that the doctors make (“excessive heat in the lungs accompanied by a serious deficiency in yin”) and their prescriptions for treatment (“banlangen, coix, licorice, mulberry leaf, forsythia, wild chrysanthemum, orange peel and ginseng”). In understated, concise and clean prose that sometimes leans to cliché (variants of the phrase “for the first time [s]he understood that ...” recur with some frequency), Chen successfully portrays her characters’ slow awakenings to the precarious foundation on which their privilege is built.

But it is only at the very end, with a scene that Cao Xueqin most certainly never imagined, that we come to understand why Chen took it upon herself to rewrite this famous tale. In a complete rejection of the fatalist message of the original story, she changes a tragedy into a feminist fairy tale. Only with the last few pages does the reader understand who really is the heroic protagonist of The Red Chamber.

Despite Mao’s proclamation, equal rights were never gained by women in Communist China, just as they have eluded the vast majority of women around the world, including in the United States. This version of the classic, with its depiction of women who dared to seize control of their lives as best they could, comes as sweet revenge.

From editorial assistant to copy editor to freelance travel writer, Alice Stephens has had a long and varied career working with the written word. She recently completed a historical novel set in Nagasaki, Japan.

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