Dream of the Red Chamber is a one-volume adaptation of a much longer, three-volume work, sometimes translated into English as A Dream of Red Mansions. It is China's best-known novel. We have based this set of Notes on the three-volume original novel, feeling that the richness of the original work is too important to ignore. However, anyone reading these Notes alongside the more popular (and easier to acquire) one-volume paperback Dream of the Red Chamber should have no difficulty and will appreciate reading about the episodes that Chi-Chen Wang omitted from his adaptation. In addition, because the novel touches on the lives of over 400 characters, we use both the adaptor's English names for key characters and their Chinese names through the first several chapters so that the reader will feel at ease with the Chinese equivalent. For example, we use both "Black Jade" and "Lin Tai-yu" for the same character until the reader feels comfortable referring to the character by her Chinese name.
This massive, sprawling novel of China was written in the mid-eighteenth century, during the Ching Dynasty, and has been widely read during the past two hundred years. Recently, it was made into a miniseries in China.
Tsao Hsueh-chin, the author of A Dream of Red Mansions, was born and raised in an aristocratic family, but he died in misery and isolation. From his own bitter, personal experiences, Tsao created a tragic love story between a young man, Chia Pao-yu, and a young woman, Lin Tai-yu, and, along with their love story, he described in careful detail the ups and downs of four leading aristocratic families: Chia, Shih, Wang, and Hsueh. It is through his precise description of the decline of these four families that we are given a deep and careful analysis and criticism of the Ching Dynasty's economics, politics, culture, education, law, ethics, religion, and marriage, focusing in particular on the social superstructure of the Ching Dynasty, China's last feudal dynasty.
Clearly, this novel is, like life itself, extraordinarily rich. It depicts with artistic appeal and succinctness the hidden crises and various kinds of intricate social conflicts of the declining feudal society, while offering us many different characteristics of many different kinds of people. The novel has profound social significance and a high historical value. It is generally regarded as China's greatest novel.
A Dream of Red Mansions was written in the eighteenth century during the reigns of Emperors Kang Hsi, Yung Cheng, and Chien Lung, during the so-called Kangschien Golden Age. During this period, China was governed by Manchu aristocrats, using the social turbulence for their own selfish ends and for consolidating their political positions.
It was during this period that a vast amount of land was annexed and concentrated in the hands of the royal families, the aristocrats, the bureaucratic landlords, and big businessmen, while the peasants who lost their lands were destined to become the landlords' tenants. This social division became a terrible abyss. Even small landlords were often on the brink of bankruptcy. This critical social and economic situation can be seen in the very first chapter of A Dream of Red Mansions: after a devastating fire, a small landlord, Chen Shih-yin, is bankrupt and must seek refuge with his father-in-law.
Many monopoly groups emerged during this period, exploiting the peasants politically and economically. The authors description of the four major families of Chia, Shih, Wang, and Hsueh in the novel (the Chia family being representative of the group as a whole) is deeply rooted in the social reality of the time; this is not a fictional background for the love story which is threaded throughout the novel. Racketeering and extortion flourished in this era. There were corrupt officials at every level, and the usury and heavy levies from the landlords were so unfair and unbearable that the peasants could do nothing but take a fearful gamble: They were forced to revolt. They had no choice. They had to rise up in rebellion against their oppressors — especially in the Hunan and Guichow provinces. Not surprisingly, these torrential peasant uprisings, springing up here and there behind the superficial prosperity of the Kangchien heyday, dealt a heavy blow to the Ching Dynasty.
The people's dissatisfaction with the political corruption of their country can also be found in the historical records, particularly those describing the textile workers' strikes in Soochow and Nanking, where Tsao Hsueh-chin spent his childhood after rising capitalism gained its prominent position in the country's economy.
At the same time, within the elite ruling class of the Ching Dynasty, contradictions and conflicts between different political forces and exploitation cliques became increasingly sharp and tense. In the late years of the Kang Hsi reign, an intense struggle for the seizure of the throne was fought among China's top ruling leaders. Kang Hsi's fourth son, Yin Chen, a very clever, sophisticated person, fiercely wanted to gain his father's throne and went out of his way to make friends with people of all ranks and classes. He was finally successful, and, once in power, he adopted every possible measure to rid the court of all his political enemies — including his father's followers and his own brothers.
The emperor Chien Lung followed Yin Chen's example. Once he came to the throne, he did the same thing. Under his rule, his followers began sealing people's doors, searching people's houses, confiscating their properties, putting dissenters in prison, sending people into exile, and killing them with firing squads. These frightening conditions created a terrifying atmosphere in the court and throughout the country, as well. At this time, Tsao Hsueh-chin's family was not popular with the royal families; therefore, it was clearly on the road to social and financial decline.
This corrupt feudal society and the growth of capitalism form the historical background of Tsao Hsueh-chin's era, and it is also the background against which all the characters in Grand View Garden will play their roles. The main characters of the novel, Chia Pao-yu and Lin Tai-yu, are typical of young people everywhere; they desperately want to be free to marry whomever they wish.