Tsao Hsueh-chin Biography


In the entire history of Chinese literature, Tsao Hsueh-chin (also called Tsao Shan) is recognized as being the country's greatest realistic novelist. He was born in 1715 to a Han family, some of whom served in the Manchu army. His grandfather Tsao Yin (1658-1712) was one of the most eminent and wealthy men of his time and was in charge of the Nanking Silk Bureau during the reign of Kang Hsi. The Emperor stayed five times in Tsao's residence during his inspection tours in the Yang-tze Valley, and Tsao Yin was present during the last four visits. In addition, two of Tsao Yin's daughters were chosen as the emperor's concubines. Clearly, the Tsao family was quite influential at the time; their relationship with Emperor Kang Hsi was very close.

Like his grandson, Tsao Hsueh-chin, Tsao Yin was fond of literature and won a name for himself as a scholar; more than ten of his texts were printed, and he left behind some additional writings, including five volumes of poems and some plays, before his post at the Silk Bureau was passed to Tsao Hsueh-chin's father.

Tsao Hsueh-chin was born in Nanking at the end of Kang Hsi's reign, and not much is known about his childhood until he was thirteen years old. At that time, his father was dismissed from his post, and Tsao Hsueh-chin accompanied him to Peking. The Tsao family's home and properties were searched and its lands were confiscated because of wrongdoings by some of their relatives. During the reign of Chien Lung, the Tsao family underwent even greater financial reverses, and in Tsao Hsueh-chin's later years, he lived in poverty in a western suburb of Peking, not always having enough to eat. Still, however, he remained a proud scholar, who often drank heavily and composed poems. It was during this period that he began A Dream of Red Mansions (Hung Lou Meng), in which he praised the worthy virtues of the girls around him, using recollections of his family's past prosperity and the vicissitudes of his own life. In 1762, his son died and he himself fell ill of grief, dying in his early forties on February 1,1764. He left behind eighty chapters of an unfinished novel.

Little is known about Kao Ngo (Kao O, Kao I), the author of the last forty chapters of A Dream of Red Mansions. We do know, though, that he too came from a Han family which served in the Manchu army, and, after passing the provincial examination in 1788 and the palace examination in 1795, he entered the Hanlin Academy and became a Reader. In 1801, he was made Assistant Examiner of the Metropolitan Examination.

It is believed that he wrote the last forty chapters of the novel in 1791, or thereabouts, before he passed his final examination. The fact that he had so much leisure time and was slightly bored made him sympathize with Tsao Hsueh-chin's loneliness. However, unlike Tsao Hsueh-chin, "beset by poverty and illness in his old age and sinking into decline," Kao Ngo did not lose hope. Therefore, although an atmosphere of melancholy prevails through the sequel, the Chia family recovers its lost fortune — instead of being left with nothing "but the bare naked earth." This ending, of course, runs counter to Tsao Hsueh-chin's original tragic intent.