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Cao Xueqin's The Red Chamber Dream is the definitive Chinese novel, containing in its thousands of pages an encyclopaedic description of Chinese live in the early Qing Dynasty. It has a wealth of allusions and interpretations, but most students of the novel feel that the main one of these is as a Buddhist cosmological tract.

The main thrust of this interpreation is contained within the first chapter, where it is stated, in a reference to the Heart Sutra: "From Void, which is truth, comes Form, which is illusion, and from Form comes Passion". Although this is meant in a sense of cosmology and metaphysics that is addressing certain technical Buddhist issues, it is also reflected in the personal, social and political lives of the characters.

The book takes place in a compound occupied by an extended clan, the Jia Family, and their hundreds of maids, servants and hangers-on. With little to do but spend their money and time, the wealthy members of the family are mostly left to pursue their hobbies and lusts. One high ranking member of the family, for instance, collects ornamental fans, a hobby that leads him to murder and theft. The variety of passions and mechanations to obtain them over the course of the books hundreds of pages is enormous.

In the midst of the hundreds of characters, the main character Jia Bao-yu enjoys an even more sheltered and luxurious life. In the cosmology of the story, he is a mystical piece of Jade sent down to learn about the world of Samsara, but in his mortal life, he is a moody yet poetic young man who is under intense pressure from members of his family to conform to social norms, and to learn to adhere to the pattern of a Confucian scholar and government official.

The two people who push him the hardest to become a proper member of society are his father, the government bureaucrat Jia Zheng and his cousin and fiance Xue Bao-chai. The only person who understands his personal idiosyncracies is his other cousin, Lin Dai-yu who is also given to poetry and mood swings.

From a Buddhist point of view, most of the members of the Jia family are locked up in the world of Passion, running around and trying to fulfill whatever impulse is ruling them at the moment. A few members of the family, such as Jia Zheng, Xue Bao-chai and some of the older generation of female relatives, is living in the world of Form, able to constrain and control their behavior, but still limited by their attachment to material ends, and unable to transcend the stage of "keeping up appearences". Of the novels main characters, only Bao-yu and Dai-yu seem to be attracted to "the Void", that is, the ability to see things as they really are. By the end of the novel, both will fulfill their spiritual destiny, although in a way that seems tragic to mortal eyes.

The books irony is that the characters who are engaged in the world of Form tend to view the two spiritual characters as not being attracted to higher things, but rather to the lower. Jia Zheng in one scene beats his son almost to death, enraged at the prospect of his son growing up to be a lazy libertine, as most of the other male members of the family have turned out to be. Xue Bao-chai's insistence that Bao-yu spend more time studying for the exams is probably inspired by fear that he will turn out like her own brother, Xue Pan, a drunken bisexual playboy who kills a waiter for not bringing his wine fast enough. The characters stuck in the world of Form can't imagine that failure to participate in their world is caused not by corruption or weakness, but rather by transcendence.

To be fair, neither Bao-yu or Dai-yu is exactly a meditative saint. Still bound by their earthly forms, they both come across as spoiled, moody, impulsive teenagers. However, in the end they are able to escape a situation that the other members of the family are not.

In the final analysis, then, it seems as if Cao Xueqin is stating that Passion is the ruling factor in human life, and that attempts to "control" it through personal self-discipline, social pressure to conform, or a political system of laws, rewards and punishments are all vain, and that only a direct insistence on transcendental truth can lead humanity beyond their passions.

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