The Red Chamber is Pauline A. Chen’s retelling of Dream of the Red Chamber, a Chinese classic of massive length and encompassing some 400 characters. Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber is more mainstream, if that terminology is applicable in connection to a novel set in 18th century, Qing dynasty.
The Red Chamber is a historical novel about a family’s fall in society, including the unhappy love story between the wealthy, connected Boachi and the poor orphan relative, Daiyo. Their story reminds me of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in its miserable prospects, devastation, and intricacy. Like Anna Karenina, The Red Chamber is much more than just a compelling story that sweeps the reader off his or her feet, it is a detailed portrait of a distinct cultural society in a specific point in time.
The Jia Mansion, which is the central place in the novel, is a world unto itself with strict cultural bounds, representative of the Qing dynasty. This – to me exotic – place is vividly depicted. The elderly grandmother is the grand dame of the household and held in reverence by the men and women alike. The daughter in law is the manager of the household with huge financial responsibilities as well as responsibilities as the obedient servant for the grandmother. The women’s part of the mansion is strict cultural structure with power struggles and fierce rules related to the individual women’s positions in the household. Wealth and marital status (first wife versus concubines) plays a major part.
The men of the household live in between the women’s part of the mansion and the outside world of the imperial civil service where they hold high positions. Again, it is evident how the sons’ birthrights play a major role together with the passing of the civil service exam, an impressive feat by all accounts.
The Red Chamber is also about the fall of the dynasty and the moral constructs that have helped keep that dynasty afloat. Wealth, connection, and obligations are of the essence throughout the story, where individual desires and love are frowned upon as folly.
Pauline A. Chen has succeeded in the daunting task of distilling an epic classic into a modern novel and The Red Chamber has sharpened my attention towards The Dream of the Red Chamber. I recommend The Red Chamber to readers who read historical fiction and who look for more than a pretty story.