Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Story of the Stone

2. The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin

Also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, this five volume work combines a Buddhist and Taoist cosmology and an 18th century aristocratic family saga in China. At the center of the story is Bao-yu, a precocious, spoiled, and undisciplined boy and his romantic affinity to his poetry-loving, orphaned cousin, Dai-yu.

I said the The Man Without Qualities expanded my understanding of what a novel can do. The Story of the Stone did not so much expand my understanding of what a novel can do as it expanded the very world of the novel itself.

This world originates in the heavens and in myth; an intricate cosmology sets the narrative wheels in motion, and stands above the story as the explanation for it on a cosmic level.

We read at the start of the novel:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.
As an overarching theme, The Story of the Stone examines how illusion is perpetuated on earth and how it leads to suffering. The treatment of this theme begins with the myth of a magical, sentient stone that was left over from when a goddess was mending the heavens.

According to Buddhist philosophy, illusion is caused by attachment--the mental and emotional clinging to things, people, places, ideas, etc. The novel uses romantic attachment as an analogy for all attachment; and throughout the course of the 3,000 pages, gives a fictional account of the working of karma.

The mythic portion of the book, the opening frame, takes place in the Land of Illusion. Here the magical Stone grows infatuated with a Crimson Petal Flower. The Stone waters the flower every day until she suddenly transforms into a fairy girl. But this transformation contains the seeds of suffering because now the fairy girl feels a debt to the Stone for transforming her. She vows to live in the mortal realm in order to pay off her "debt of tears", one drop at at time.

From the supernatural world, the narrative shifts to the mortal realm. Now we find a recognizable novel and a story-world that reminds one of a Jane Austen or George Elliot novel. Literary critics often refer to The Story of the Stone as "novel of manners".

The domestic drama takes place in the Jia family mansion. The Jias are portrayed as wealthy and prosperous with ties to the royal court. Soon it becomes clear, however, that the power and wealth of the Jia family is more a thing of the past. Plagued with marital problems and financial loses, the men of the family are no longer able to govern the household. The position of authority is taken up by Grandmother Jia, an energetic, eccentric, and discerning woman, who places her affection on the younger generation. Grandmother Jia's authority in the Jia house demonstrates a reversal of the Confucian value-system, and provides the first evidence of the family's social and financial decline.

In 1958, Kenneth Rexroth wrote about the novel,
It is the Chinese plot of plots: “When women rule, the house decays.” Again, it is exactly the opposite: a glorification of the hidden matriarchy at the heart of Chinese society.
My experience of reading Stone was like watching a play. But you have to re-imagine the size of the theatre if you are going to compare the novel to a play. The cast is huge, and even the bit players, servants, maids, and extended relatives, are given lengthy sections and whole chapters. The day-to-day life of the wealthy, but now strained Jia house, has an incredible verisimilitude. We are watching the theatre of the "real" in contrast to the myth of "illusion" which opens the novel. How these two facets interpenetrate each other through narrative art is testament to the author's genius.

Recall the couplet under the gateway between the mundane world and the Land of Illusion:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.

Not only does Cao Xueqin choose the largest canvas (metaphysics, myth), but he also imbues his canvas with the greatest detail. There is an abundance of physical detail, descriptions of clothing, architecture, ritual objects; historical accuracy; and genealogical detail. But there is also a high degree of psychological detail and development. It appears as if literary modernism occurred two hundred years earlier, and in China. A stream of consciousness pervades The Story of the Stone, moving between five to ten characters within a matter of chapters, floating in and out of their mental worlds, as Joyce does in Ulysess.

The Jia household can be divided into two separate spheres--adults and children. You can further divide the spheres between male and female. Many scenes in the novel involve the management of the household by the female, adult sphere. The male sphere exists on the periphery, aloof. Abusive fathers, wastrels, and licentious husbands are generally shown as disrupting the harmony of the inner court.

The inner court is where the children play and have their garden. Most of the second volume of the novel is about the children, who are really precocious young adults. The central story revolves around a love triangle between the youngest male member of the Jia family, Bay-yu, his orphan cousin, Dai-yu, and the girl he is expected to marry, Bao-chai. Their biggest diversion is composing poetry--they even start a poetry club--and the second volume of the novel contains all of the poems they draft together in the garden.

In her critical work, Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone, Dore Jesse Levy writes:
The Story of the Stone presents a poetic view of life, written so that the reader experiences the narrative in the way that one experiences lyric poetry. The plot is organized not as a unified, dynamic temporal sequence but as a sequence of lyric vignettes, each potentially a complete moment of insight beyond self-awareness, when the self is laid aside and integrated with the moment of lyric transcendence.
The narrative is continuously interwoven with poetry and poetic fragments. I didn't know the importance of the literary tradition in China until I read this novel. Literary education was highly valued among the aristocracy and it occupied their leisure time as a form of entertainment; riddles, literary trivia, and the sheer activity of composing poems on a regular basis. One of the features of the garden compound is that a couplet adorns each building, stream, and bower.

I'll leave you with one of the poems from the first volume, entitled 'Garden Nights'.

Behind silk hangings, in warm quilts cocooned,
His ears half doubt the frogs' first muted sound.
Rain at his window strikes, the pillow's cold;
Yet to the sleeper's eyes spring dreams unfold.
Why does the candle shed its waxen tear?
Why on each flower do angry drops appear?
By uncouth din of giggling maids distressed
He burrows deeper in his silken nest.


A tired maid sleeps at her embroidery.
A parrot in its gilt cage calls for tea.
Pale moonbeams on an opened mirror fall,
And burning sandal makes a fragrant pall.
From amber cups thirst-quenching nectar flows.
A willow-breeze through crystal curtains blows.
In pool-side kiosks light-clad maidens flit,
Or, dressed for bed, by open casements sit.


In Red Rue Study, far from worldly din,
Through rosy gauze moonlight comes flooding in.
Outside, a stork sleeps on moss-wrinkled rocks,
And dew from well-side trees the crow's wing soaks.
A maid the great quilt's golden bird has sread;
Her languid master droops his raven head.
Wine-parched and sleepless, in the still night he cries
For tea, and soon thick smoke and steam arise.


Midnight and winter: plum with bamboo sleeps,
While one midst Indian rugs his vigil keeps.
Only a crane outside is to be found -
No orioles now, though white flowers mask the ground.
Chill strikes the maid's bones through her garments fine;
Her fur-clad master's somewhat worse for wine;
But, in tea-making mysteries deep-skilled,
She has with new-swept snow the kettle filled.

This post is part of a series of posts on
25 Profound Works of Literary Genius.

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talulah gosh said...

finally, someone who understands the genius of story of the stone! i can't stop reading this novel--once it's over, i begin reading it all over again!!

Lethe said...


Yes, it's marvelous . . . I can relate to the feeling you're expressing . . .

Thank you,

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