Significance of the Novel
Above all, A Dream of Red Mansions reflects the rottenness and decadence of the Ching Dynasty and the inevitability of the end of a long-established feudal system. The theme of the novel is embodied in this revolution. It is also true, of course, that the main thread of the novel contains the love story of Chin Pao-yu and Lin Tai-yu — a love story told so touchingly that almost all readers shed sympathetic tears at the tragic ending of the story. However, sensible readers should go further and analyze the reasons why such a tragedy could happen in that society. Their tragedy was not an isolated social phenomenon.
The tragic love story of Pao-yu and Tai-yu is closely related and interwoven with the rise and fall of the feudal families of that era — the Chin family, in particular. The lovers' tragedy lays bare the conflicts and struggles between two opposing political forces — those defending feudal social order on the one hand and those fighting against the feudal forces on the other. The author's description of the four major families, their prosperity and their decline, is actually a miniature version of the declining Ching Dynasty itself.
The four major families do have their heyday, but that is recalled only through the characters' reminiscences. The author of this novel focuses, for the most part, on the decline of the four families. The Hsueh family is still wealthy but has no political influence; the Wang family still has some power but no money; the Shib family has neither power nor money. Only the Chin family still enjoys some superficial prosperity and political influence. This situation is revealed by a curio-dealer's son, Leng Tzu-hsing, in Chapter 2:
"A centipede dies but never falls down, as the old saying goes. Although they are not as prosperous as before, they are still a cut above ordinary official families. Their households are increasing and their commitments are growing all the time, while masters and servants alike are so used to lording it in luxury that not one of them thinks ahead. They squander money every day and are quite incapable of economizing. Outwardly, they may look as grand as ever, but their purses are nearly empty. That's not their worst trouble, though. Who would've thought that each new generation of this noble and scholarly clan would be inferior to the last."
This statement is worth special attention. It plays a key role in the artistic structure of the novel, and it can help the reader fully comprehend the author's intentions and objectives for his literary creation.
The fact that each generation of this noble and scholarly clan is inferior to the last indicates the probability that the current ruling group of the Chin family will not be able to generate enough prosperity for its successors. According to the author's descriptions in the novel, Chin Sheh is an amorous person, indulging in dissipation every day; Chin Cling doesn't lift a finger in the household affairs — except to pray all day and burn incense, hoping that he will go to heaven after death and become an immortal; Chin Chen fraudulently poses as a person of high morals, but, in reality, he is mediocre and incompetent; he can't be trusted to shoulder the responsibility of administering the household affairs.
Members of the later generation — such as Chin Cheng, Chin Lien, and so forth — are even worse than their elders. They yield to all of their desires; they freely indulge in parties, luxuries of all sorts, gambling, and whoring. They belong to the "beat generation" of the eighteenth-century declining landlord class. They are the real "spendthrifts" of the Chin family, and the detailed depiction of their decadence in the novel exposes the ugliness of these ducal aristocrats and young dandies.
The phrase "but their purses are nearly empty" is a vivid clue that there is a severe economic crisis in the Chin household. Later, the author uses a number of chapters in the novel to expose the family's excessive extravagances as clear indications that the Chin family will soon suffer an economic crisis. For example, the grandmother of the Chin family is extremely fond of enjoying a luxurious life. She and her favorites eat only delicacies from both the land and the sea; they wear silk and brocaded clothes; they use golden plates and jade cups; and they live in palaces and beautifully decorated buildings. What they eat during one meal could feed a peasant for one year, according to Granny Liu. Likewise, the description of Ching Ko-ching's funeral is a typical, illustrative example of the Chin family's extravagance and waste — not to mention the enormous budget for building and maintaining Grand View Garden. Even Hsi-feng , a very influential person who takes care of the family household affairs, is forced to admit, "The income of the family has been more reduced than the expense." All these details reveal convincingly the inevitability of the Chin family's economic decline.
In addition, there are other forces at work undermining the Chin family; for example, the endless disputes and struggles over the controlling power of the Chin family's domestic affairs and rights of inheritance among different factions of the family accelerate its decline and bankruptcy.
The Chin family's economic crisis is also due to the fact that the peasants cannot afford to pay their usual heavy levies to their landlords (the Chin family) any longer, nor can they bear the Chia family's cruel exploitation. The author presents a vivid scene of Bailiff Wu of Black Mountain Village, who comes to pay his land taxes and other levies. The long list of levies consists of many, many items — including pigs, chickens, fish, deer, rice, grain and charcoal. Here, we realize why no one can afford to pay the heavy taxes: The Chin family makes no allowances for natural disasters such as floods, droughts, heavy snows, or hail. The emphasis in this scene is clearly on Chin Chen's greed.
After Bailiff Wu rends the long list of levies, Chin Chen is dissatisfied and says to Wu, "I count on your bringing at least five thousand taels. We've only eight or nine manors left now; already two of them claim to have suffered from flood or drought; how are we to get through the New Year I'd like to know?" This statement clearly shows that the cruel exploitation by the landlord is due to his insatiable greed. His extravagant way of living relies mainly on his ruthless exploitation of the peasants' labor; his parasitic life is fed by the peasants' sweat and toil.
In addition to the exorbitant land taxes and levies, the peasants also have to suffer from the exploitation of commercial capital and high-interest loans. Recall that Hsueh Ko's fiancée, Hsiu-yen, pawns her padded clothes in a pawnshop, which turns out to be a pawnshop run by the Hsueh family. This shows that the Hsueh family earns a lot of money from the pawnshops in the city. Even Lin Tai-yu dislikes their way of exploiting the poor. She comments, "How clever people are at making money!" and asks whether other pawnshops make money in the same way. Her naiveté reveals the ruthlessness of the commercial world and its cruel exploitation of poor people.
In Grand View Garden, in order to gain more money or force maids to have sex with their masters, a lot of servants — especially girl servants — have been killed or have been driven to commit suicide. Tsao Hsueh-chin describes these events and tragedies with sympathy. There are more than four hundred characters described in the novel, but most of them are oppressed slaves. The ruling members number less than fifty. However, with all the power in their hands, this handful of people can keep the slaves under their control because the slaves can be criticized, beaten, or driven out of the family if they "violate" the rules of the Chia family. The cruelty of these aristocratic landlords and the courage of their slaves are vividly contrasted throughout the novel in order to condemn the evils of the feudal society and to eulogize the praiseworthy qualities of the peasants' longing for a happy life, as well as their heroic spirit of rebellion.
Another social struggle described in great detail concerns the budding democratic ideology, represented by Chia Pao-yu, and the old feudalistic ideology, represented by Chia Chen. Almost all the characters in the novel are part of this main thread of the story, and their attitudes towards this struggle are revealed in one way or another, directly or indirectly, in their actions or words.
Chia Pao-yu, the hero of the novel, is the young master of the Chia family and a favorite of Lady Dowager. All the future hopes of the feudal Chia family are pinned on him. Chia Pao-yu's behavior, however, runs counter to the volition of the Chin authorities.
First, Chia Pao-yu looks down on official ranks and riches and honors; second, he opposes the traditional attitude which holds women in contempt; third, he reveres people's individuality; fourth, he opposes the feudal ethical code, in general, and, in particular, he fights for the freedom to love Lin Tai-yu. All of these new ideas are obviously antithetical to feudal ethics and feudal morality.
Many oppressed servants and slaves in Grand View Garden express their sympathy for the young lovers and support their struggle in every possible (if limited) way. All of the new and brilliant ideas of Chia Pao-yu represent the characteristics of the rising capitalistic and democratic spirit of the time. Therefore, Chin Pao-yu's struggle against his father, Chia Chen, symbolically represents the larger struggle between anti-feudal ideology and conventional feudal ideology.
Tsao Hsueh-chin interweaves all these opposing, contradictory social forces, presenting ever more clearly the declining social reality of the feudal society. His narration is remarkably realistic and compelling.