Browse Exhibits (8 total)

1. The Text of the Novel


The Dream of the Red Chamber circulated in manuscript from 1754 until it was published in 1791.  Like many works of Chinese literature and philosophy, it accumulated layers of commentary which guided the reader as she or he read the novel.

The manuscript version of the novel had an inconclusive ending; the publishers of the novel added 40 more chapters--the novel today is normally read in its 120 chapter version.

The editors of the 1791 edition no longer knew the nane of the author of the novel.  It was not until critical textual scholarship in the early 20th century that Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 was identified as the author of the novel (or at least of its first 80 chapters.)

Since Cao 曹 was identified as the author, many readings of the novel have been autobiographical, connecting details in the novel to events in the life of the Cao 曹 family.

These and other questions are explored in this section of the course.

2. The Opera


Dream of the Red Chamber. An Opera in Two Acts.

3. Characters in the opera


The novel Dream of the Red Chamber has hundreds of characters. One of the transformations David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng made in the process of creating the opera was to reduce radically the number of characters. From perhaps 500 total characters in the novel, they reduced the number to seven singing characters, plus a monk (who speaks but does not sing). Other characters (maids, eunuchs, and so on) are played by a chorus.  

Baoyu 寶玉 is the only male solo singer in the opera; this underscores the degree to which he lives in a world of women.

In this section of the course, we'll introduce the characters who are featured in the opera.  We'll also look at illustrations of these characters from a variety of sources. 

4. Nineteenth-Century Responses to the Novel


Dream of the Red Chamber was wildly popular with a wide variety of readers, and provoked responses from many of them.  One scholar has cataloged more than 300 works that were written in response to the novel. Nineteenth-century literati reported that women in particular were captivated by the novel. We have, by Ellen Widmer’s count, extant works referring to the novel by more than twenty nineteenth-century women.  Most of the works are poems, though one sequel, Honglou meng ying 红楼梦影, was written later in the century by a woman, Gu Taiqing 顾太清. The novel was popular with women of the elite. And by the late nineteenth century it was also popular with Shanghai courtesans, who assumed names of characters in the novel and played board games based on the novel.

This section of the course will present poems by a number of early to mid nineteenth-century women writers.  The writings of these women offer us a window into the imaginations of readers of the novel.  As you read the poems on the following pages, you can write your own responses--to the novel, to the opera, to the illustrations, and to the poems themselves.  In many cases, the translations are provisional--we welcome your input.

Visual representations of the novel--from texts like the Honglou meng tuyong 紅樓夢圖詠  (1879) or New Year's prints are interspersed throughout this course.  But at the end of this segment, we will look at several visual representations that have not come up earlier--including a fabulous narrative embroidery of the novel, embroidered clothing which features episodes from the novel, and several images which were used in peep shows which illustrate chapters from the novel.

5. Twentieth (and Twenty-first) Century Responses to the Novel


This is just a small smattering of the responses to the novel we see in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  I have chosen a sampling of genres--peepshows, opera, pingtan 評彈, and television shows.  There are many more, and if you have favorites, please feel free to mention them in the comments section of these pages.

According to Shang Wei, by the middle of the twentieth century, versions of the novel had appeared in more than thirty subgenres of regional theater and performance literature. (Shang in Lu and Schonebaum, 404)

In this section of the course, we will also have interviews with Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang about their adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as an interview with Pearl Bergad, of the Chinese Heritage Foundation in Minneapolis. The Chinese Heritage Foundation was instrumental in the generation of the opera; in this interview, Bergad describes their role.

6. The Social World of the Dream

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The Dream of the Red Chamber is the product of a particular time and place--China of the mid-eighteenth century, in spite of its cosmic framing.  But it is not an account of life as it was actually lived; fiction never is.

One of the first scholars to call Dream of tbe Red Chamber an encyclopedia was Wang Xilian, the husband of Zhou Qi, who referred to it as such in his 1832 editon of the novel. Since then many other scholars have refered to it aa a veritable encyclopedia of everyday life in the Qing dynasty---everyday life in a family of extraordinary wealth, that is. But what might we be able to learn from the novel about life in the Qing dynasty?  Of course as we read it, we need to keep in mind that it is fiction.  But there is now enough scholarship on the domestic lives of the elite in the eighteenth century that we can place the novel in a historical context.

This section of the course will set the novel in that context. It will look at what we know about marriage, about gender relations, about daily life, Qing politics, and so on and suggest ways in which what we know about the eighteenth century can inform reading of the novel.  And it will suggest ways in which the novel can deepen our understanding of eighteenth century society. It is undeniably true that the novel speaks to readers across time, across space, across languages. But how might knowing more about the contexts that produced it inform our reading of it?

There are two key developments in eighteenth-century China which we might keep in mind as we read the novel. One is the increasing pressure from European countries and the other is dramatic population growth. This section of the course will discuss both, briefly, and provide suggestions for further reading. 



7. And for your further viewing (and listening) pleasure...


Here you will find links to television shows and other resources which will enhance your understanding of the novel.  Some of the resources are in Chinese and some are in English; some are subtitled and some are not.  In a few cases where a television show is available only in Chinese, we have provided an English summary.    

The enormous range of material related to the novel (televison series, multiple theatrical productions, a television show which provides information on how to cook food which is featured in the novel, to name just a few) shows just how important the novel has been, and remains, in Chinese culture.


Dreaming of the Qin 琴

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An exploration of the guqin 古琴 and its role in the novel and the opera.