Critical Essays Artistic Achievement


Tsao Hsueh-chin expounds his principles of literary creation in the very first chapter of the novel. He is opposed to novels that use "the-beauty-and-the-talented-single-scholar" pattern; instead he upholds a literary convention which is based on facts and social reality. By "reality," however, Tsao Hsueh-chin did not mean that one should mechanically copy events and characters from real life; instead, he treats them artistically, raising them to a "literary reality." As a matter of fact, it took Tsao Hsueh-chin ten years to select painstakingly his materials and then turn them into a literary creation.

Owing to his rich experiences, keen observations, inherent genius, and the originality of artistic creation, A Dream of Red Mansions is deeply rooted in real life. Tsao Hsueh-chin depicts typical events and typical characters under typical circumstances, and, therefore, the decadence of the aristocrats in feudal society and the oppression of innocent and powerless young girls, boys, and slaves are vividly and typically presented.

With such a broad social scene as the novel's background, Tsao Hsueh-chin describes with great care and precision a great number of vivid and typical characters, both positive and negative, some primary and others secondary. Some characters, such as Pao-yu, Tai-yu, Hsi-feng , and Granny Liu have become popular characters for readers all over the world.

Tsao Hsueh-chin is very skillful in depicting characters who possess diverse individualities. For instance, Hsueh Pan and Hsueh Pao-chai are brother and sister, yet the former is a typical "stupid tyrant," while the latter is a standard feudal fair maiden. The author is also very successful in adopting various approaches to depict different characters according to their different social positions. The author makes a point of reinforcing the main facets of the characters through multiple plots and from different angles, such as Pao-yu's love for and sympathy for girls; Tai-yu's pride and aloofness, as well as her sentimental character; Pao-chai's hypocrisy, smoothness, and evasiveness; Wang Hsi-feng 's shrewdness, cunningness, and viciousness. All the features in their characters are described in impressive, conspicuous situations so as to leave unforgettable impressions on readers.

The author is also successful in his characterization because he places his characters in specific artistic atmospheres with suitable scenes for their settings. In this way, the characters' inner feelings can stand out, in contrast, and thereby affect the reader's feelings and sensibilities more profoundly. Few writers before Tsao Hsueh-chin gave much thought to describing their characters' inner emotions and psychological motivations. During his era, only Tsao Hsueh-chin achieved great success as a writer who recorded detailed descriptions of his characters' mental activities and secrets.

A Dream of Red Mansions has gained much praise because of its artistic structure. It is much more grand, more rigorous, and more complete than The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel of the middle of the fifteenth century, which is considered a very complete novel — as far as its artistic structure is concerned.

But in order to fully present the rich and complicated social life, meet the demands of the development of characterization, and serve the purpose of exposing the conflicts and struggles within the Chia family, Tsao Hsueh-chin's novel gives special attention to the plot of the love story between Pao-yu and Tai-yu and to the waning prosperity, as well as the moral decline, of the Chia family. All the other characters and all of the many intricate events hinge on, or are related to, these two main plot-lines.

In addition, all these characters and events are interwoven, influencing or controlling each other to form a grandiose artistic structure. And yet, within this huge literary structure, there is always a criss-cross network of independent but related passages; all of the details are arranged with such clarity, however, that readers can easily tell the primary characters and events from the secondary ones and react strongly to the characters and events described in the novel.

The language of the novel is mature and refined. Full of imagery, figurative speech, and folk tales, A Dream of Red Mansions is characterized by its accuracy and its vividness, as well as by its simplicity and colorfulness — thus attaining perfection in its artistic proficiency.