Critical Essays Progressive Versus Feudal Forces


A Dream of Red Mansions offers us many varieties of conflicts and struggles but of all of them, the primary one is the conflict between the progressive forces (represented by the rebels) and the feudal forces (represented by Lady Dowager, Chia Chen, and Lady Wang). The conflict between these two forces is mainly reflected in the love affairs and marriage controversies among Chia Pao-yu, Lin Tai-yu, and Hsueh Pao-chai. Because of the vast differences in power between the two opposing forces, the feudal forces gain the upper hand, while the progressive forces end in failure. Thus, the love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu is destined to end in tragedy.

Chin Pao-yu, the hero of the novel, represents the progressive forces. He is a rebel living in a typically feudal, aristocratic family. Immediately after he was born, the path to fortune and fame was seemingly paved for him. But Pao-yu was spoiled by his Chia grandmother (Lady Dowager) and he spent most of time with the maids and his girl cousins. His life has never really been touched by the dissolute lives of Chia Cheng and Chia Lien. Also, Pao-yu didn't receive the usual feudal education. Accordingly, Pao-yu, because of his innocence and his strict sense of justice, is tired of all the endless disputes and the tit-for-tat struggles among the family members; he wants no part of them; he is fed up with the decadence and rottenness of the authoritative family members. In contrast to the people (the men, in particular) whom he sees around him, Pao-yu extends great sympathy for the tragic destinies of the young girls (and their maids) who live in Grand View Garden. Imperceptibly influenced by what he constantly sees and hears from these oppressed girls in Grand View Garden, Pao-yu's rebellious character develops and grows stronger. His love for Lin Tai-yu quickens his step on the road of rebellion against his patriarchal clan oppressors.

Accordingly, one day, Chin Chen, afraid that Pao-yu's defiance of family rules will ruin the family's reputation, almost kills Pao-yu. However, even after being savagely beaten, Pao-yu does not give in to his feudal family's strict code of behavior. From then on, his love for Tai-yu becomes even stronger and more unshakable. However, because Pao-yu and Tai-yu live in a feudal, aristocratic family, are more or less influenced by the feudalistic way of thinking, and, to some extent, have to show some respect for their aristocratic elders, their rebellion never achieves enormous power.

However, the two young people continue to love one another very much, even though they are isolated individuals. They can expect no help from any of the authoritative aristocrats; Lady Dowager and Lady Wang have their own criteria concerning whom Pao-yu shall marry. They want to choose a girl who can help Pao-yu deal with the many-sided, crumbling Chia family household affairs. Pao-chai seems the perfect candidate for these requirements. To them, Pao-chai will be an ideal mate for Pao-yu; she is from a royal family and has been tremendously indoctrinated by her feudal education. She is both intelligent and competent, capable of getting along well with everybody and coping with all affairs and situations.

The Chia authorities hope that by marrying Pao-chai, Pao-yu can be reformed sufficiently so that he will begin paying attention to his own personal fame and official rank, and that, in time, Pao-yu will become a qualified successor to the old and distinguished Chia family.

There is another aspect of this arranged marriage. If Pao-chai marries Pao-yu, the Chia, Wang, and Hsueh families can support each other for every one's mutual benefit. In that era, marriage was not a matter of personal happiness; it was directly related to the fate of a clan or an aristocratic class. Pao-chai is backed by a powerful feudal force, so the love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu is inevitably bound to end in tragedy.

The Chin family disapproves of Lin Tai-yu as Pao-yu's wife for many reasons. In their opinion, Tai-yu is, first of all, in delicate health, although beautiful; second, Tai-yu's aristocratic parents died early so she is now living under the auspices of the Chin family; third, Tai-yu is a willful and arrogant person, too sharp-tongued and narrow-minded to suit the old Lady Dowager. As a matter of fact, Tai-yu often criticizes the Chias in sham language, so it is no wonder that her unbridled behavior and speech offend and irritate these authoritative, evil people.

Lin Tai-yu despises these people's vulgarity and the hypocrisy of feudal officialdom, as well. Her contempt for feudal decadence in the Chin family isolates her; she is able to find some Common ground only with the understanding, upright Chia Pao-yu. Therefore, their love relationship is based on honest attraction, Common interests, and a Common understanding of family affairs.

Tai-yu's deep and sincere love for Chia Pao-yu is the only spiritual support that she has to live for. It is no wonder that when she hears the news of Pao-yu's upcoming marriage to Pao-chai, she loses all hope. The beam of her only possible happiness in this world will soon be extinguished. The weak and helpless Taiyu can do nothing but choose death. The tragedy is a powerful condemnation of the tyrannical feudal society and the hateful patriarchal clan system.