The Dream of the Red Chamber, aka Red Chamber Dream aka Tale of the Stone, amongst other names (originally entitled HongLouMeng, literally "Red Mansion Dream") is the Chinese novel. It was written by Cao Xueqin, a scion of a rich Beijing family who had been reduced to living in gentile poverty. He wrote the book in the mid-1700s. The book exists in many versions, notable a 80 chapter version and a 120 chapter version. There is no conclusive evidence whether the longer version was authored by Cao, or was reconstructed from notes he wrote by an editor named Gao E, or whether it was an outright forgery by Gao E. Whatever the case, the longer, possibly forged version still manages to appear coherent.

When the book appeared, it was both celebrated and scorned. Nothing before had ever been seen in Chinese Literature like this book, as the book itself proclaims in the first chapter: it "contains no examples of moral granduer", neither does it have any "ideally beautiful young women, no ideally eligible young bachelors". It was, instead, a very sophisticated and realistic tale of the way that families actually worked. Chapters of the book were transmitted from hand to hand by eager readers, despite offical outcry. Although China had had great novels before (the Water Margin, The Scholars, and The Golden Lotus, for example), some of which had been rather realistic (Golden Lotus was pornographic, even), none of them managed to show as much insightful psychological portraiture as this book.

The story of the book is about a gifted, yet idle boy named Jia Bao-yu who rebels against the strict rule of his father, Jia Zheng, to play games with his maids and most of all his two female cousins: the energetic and worldly Xue Bao-chai and the melancholy, poetic Lin Dai-yu. Over the course of the book, his friendship with these girls blossoms into a very gentle love triangle. While this love triangle is the main plot of the book, it is often ignored for chapters at a time while plots and schemes involving the rest of the rich Jia clan, who live in a series of mansions, are told. The family members, and their Machivellian schemes, are both intriguing from the viewpoint of human nature, as well as for the student of Chinese cultures and manners. The Jia clan, like many rich families, are decadent, and slowly dissolve in a morass of debt, gambling, sexual misadventure and violence. Beyond these two layers, of psychology and society, lies the book's overarching framing story: a cosmological tale involving both Taoist and Buddhist concepts and reminding both the characters and readers that even the most ornate and passionate life could be nothing more than a dream.

I can't think of any book in English, European or World literature that quite approaches this book. The length itself (over 2000 pages) set it apart. In being an encyclopaedic novel, it resembles War and Peace, in being a romance it resembles Les Miserables and I am sure someone could make a case that it somehow resembles Infinite Jest. However, it really doesn't resemble any of these books, or any others, which is somehow unusual, since the Dream of the Red Chamber's basic plots are simply family life and all that it entails. Less charitably, it could be described as a gigantic soap opera. Perhaps it is that it is the only definitive soap opera ever written.

The book has been translated into many languages, including, of course, English, in either abridged or unabridged versions. The translation I read was by David Hawkes and John Minford, and was extremely good. Although reading a 2500 page novel is going to be dull in places, I did so in about three months, and felt strangely empty when I was done. I can not describe this book better, it should be read.

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