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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Story of the Stone

(The Dream of the Red Chamber)

Cao Xueqin

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To purchase The Story of the Stone - I

Title: The Story of the Stone
Author: Cao Xueqin
Genre: Novel
Written: (1763)
Original in: Chinese
  • There are a number of translations of this work available, generally pared down versions that omit much of the text. The Penguin edition (trans. David Hawkes/John Minford) under review here is the standard English edition.
  • Chinese title: 石頭記 (but also widely known as 紅樓夢 ('Dream of the Red Chamber'))

Volume: I - The Golden Days
Chapters: 1-26
Length: 527 pages
English: David Hawkes (1973)
Availability: The Golden Days - US
The Golden Days - UK
The Golden Days - Canada
. .
Volume: II - The Crab-Flower Club
Chapters: 27-53
Length: 582 pages
English: David Hawkes (1977)
Availability: The Crab-Flower Club - US
The Crab-Flower Club - UK
The Crab-Flower Club - Canada
. .
Volume: III - The Warning Voice
Chapters: 54-80
Length: 628 pages
English: David Hawkes (1980)
Availability: The Warning Voice - US
The Warning Voice - UK
The Warning Voice - Canada
. .
Volume: IV - The Debt of Tears
Chapters: 81-98
Length: 392 pages
English: John Minford (1982)
Availability: The Debt of Tears - US
The Debt of Tears - UK
The Debt of Tears - Canada
. .
Volume: V - The Dreamer Wakes
Chapters: 99-120
Length: 376 pages
English: John Minford (1986)
Availability: The Dreamer Wakes - US
The Dreamer Wakes - UK
The Dreamer Wakes - Canada
. .
French: Le Rêve dans le pavillon rouge - France
German: Der Traum der roten Kammer - Deutschland
Italian: Il sogno della camera rossa - Italia

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Our Assessment:

A+ : a brilliant achievement

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books¹ . 12/6/1980 Frederic Wakeman Jr.
TLS¹ . 18/1/1974 Anne Lonsdale

¹: Review of volume 1 - The Golden Days

  From the Reviews:
  • "The reputation of The Story of the Stone has been daunting but tantalizing, because its previous translation into Western languages have been so inadequate. (...) (J)ust as it is possible to admire Proust's art while feeling no attraction to the world he creates, so there will be some who are not attracted to the dream-world of Cao Xueqin. It has a fin-de-siècle preciosity about it which is perhaps too seldom relieved by its interludes of down-to earth humour (.....) It would be presumptuous to talk of the quality of the translation. The language of the original is notoriously difficult and there are many obscurities, but none of this is apparent in the flexible but highly finished language ofthe translation. Dr. Hawkes's scholarship is prodigious but always human." - Anne Lonsdale, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Few books can even be considered for the title of 'Book of the Millennium', but The Story of the Stone surely is a strong contender. This classic novel from the Qing dynasty, considered the greatest work of Chinese fiction, is a brilliant achievement and a marvelous read.
       Metaphysical, allegorical, and vividly realistic, the immense scope of The Story of the Stone provides something for everyone. A rich family saga, a tragic love story, and a philosophical meditation it is one of those rare huge books in which one can lose oneself completely.
       It begins as the story of the Stone, a supernatural entity endowed with consciousness that winds up in the mortal world and must find the path to enlightenment. His fate is inextricably bound with another creature from the Land of Illusion, the Crimson Pearl Flower. The Stone is responsible for its transformation into a fairy girl -- and she vows to repay him with "a debt of tears", willing to suffer for a lifetime in the world of mere mortals. The Stone describes how his story -- The Story of the Stone -- is the record of his journey to enlightenment, and offers the tale as a tool for others to follow his path, as, for example Vanitas does in the first chapter.
       Too spiritual ? Too bizarre ? Patience -- it is only the framing device for the tale, and the more mundane world is soon entered. It is, however, a significant beginning, holding many clues to the rest of the text.
       Passing through the gateway between the Land of Illusion and reality one can read the guiding principle behind the book:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.
       Confusing ? Perhaps initially, but in Cao Xueqin's masterful presentation the interplay of reality and fiction are made abundantly clear.
       Once the Land of Illusion has been left most of the book does take place in the human world -- the contemporary China of Cao Xueqin's times. The story centers around the extended Jia family, made up of two clans (the Ning-guo and Rong-guo houses) that live side by side on huge estates. Their ancestors had won the favour of the Emperor and risen in rank and stature because of this. The current generations have, however, not lived up to these high standards, and there is an air of decay about the family.
       Into this family Jia Bao-yu is born -- the incarnation of the Stone. He is recognized as special from the beginning, born with a piece of jade in his mouth. An unusual child, precocious, coddled (especially by his grandmother and his maids), and not with the sort of ambition that the expectations of the family demand, he is the great hope of the family. When he is still a boy a relative comes to live with his family -- the beautiful Lin Dai-yu, the incarnation of the Crimson Pearl Flower. In the other world the two were meant for each other, and their relationship in the real world drives much of the dramatic, romantic, and tragic tension of the book.
       Another figure enters, Dai-yu's rival Xue Bao-chai, nearly as appealing as Dai-yu, but with other qualities. The rivalry and friendship among the three -- and the many other characters living in these huge compounds -- shifts throughout the book.
       Bao-yu lives a carefree youth, though there are a number of significant occurrences from early on, including Bao-yu's famous "dream of the red chamber" in which the future is also revealed (or rather foreshadowed). Preferring the company of girls and women, Bao-yu seeks out the company of Dai-yu, Bao-chai, or others when possible. He is not an eager student, preferring to join in with girls at their games.
       Cao Xueqin provides a great deal of insight into the Chinese culture of the time in his descriptions of protocol, manners, expectations, and consequences. Meticulously described, with great psychological insight, Cao Xueqin conveys the slow decline of the Jia's very convincingly.
       Poetry plays a large role in the novel, always aware of its literary status. The girls form a Crab-Flower Club where they write poems according to set rules. The poems (convincingly rendered in translation) offer yet another perspective on the larger situation being described.
       The setbacks in the family continue, and there are a number of dramatic scenes. Cao Xueqin weaves a marvelous tapestry of many intertwined lives, a true family saga.
       Bao-yu must fulfill his obligations in the mortal world to attain enlightenment, and the novel runs its inevitable course. He does sit for the national examinations, he does marry the one he is ordained to marry (with predictable results), and he does find enlightenment, becoming the Stone again.
       The huge book is so rich and varied that it is difficult to convey how much there is to it. Cleverly constructed, there are hints and cross-references to hidden (and obvious) meanings throughout. Truth and falsity, reality and illusion are constant throughout, side by side, often difficult to differentiate. There are mirrors and twins -- there is even a "real" Bao-yu, a twin of the "false" one around whom the story centers (false since he is actually the Stone). There are romantic tragedies and slapstick scenes, criminality and spirituality, recognition and deception.
       Most remarkable is that for all it artful construction The Story of the Stone is also a great, straightforward read. The many smaller stories in it -- and the tragic love story of Dai-yu and Bao-yu -- alone are more gripping and entertaining than almost any other book one might pick up.
       With a useful introduction and well annotated the Penguin edition makes this great work readily accessible. The translation reads very well and where there are significant ambiguities these are generally pointed out in the notes (for example regarding the meaning (or double-meaning) of the names of some of the characters).
       Only its length might scare off readers -- otherwise there is nary a fault to find with this incredible work. We can not recommend this book highly enough.

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The Story of the Stone: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) was born around 1715 and died 12 February 1763. He came from a well-to-do family on the decline (like the Jia's), and a number of autobiographical elements are woven into his great work, The Story of the Stone.

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