1/ Here is a family tree for Hong lou meng that I drew in October, based on the Wikipedia character lists:
This family tree would need to be updated but quite a lot of the important characters are there and you can see how the 3 main characters relate to each other.
2/ My initial impression, which of course might change, is that Hong lou meng feels more like a long tale or a story that is written down, than a novel that is neatly constructed and arranged and developed as a work of art. What I mean is that Cao Xueqin seems to focus on telling the story—there is some description, but the focus is on who is who, who does what (to whom), what happens, then what happens next, and so on. The narrator tells the story, then in chapter 2 for example, 2 characters meet and one tells the other a story about the Rongguo House and the Ningguo House, which is essentially telling us the story and introducing us to the Giả (Jia) family.
I suppose I’m not explaining very well why Hong lou meng feels like a story written down, but I think that it doesn’t quite have the artistic sophistication of the 19th century Western novels I generally read (I don’t really know what 18th century Western novels are like). My impression is that, in terms of psychological depth and complexity, Cao Xueqin isn’t Tolstoy (but who is?)—the characters seem to be largely depicted through action and manners and dialogue rather than thoughts.
The writing of Hong lou meng isn’t particularly beautiful either. Kenneth Rexroth, an American poet, translator, and essayist who ranks Hong lou meng above The Tale of Genji, also notes that when you’re reading Murasaki Shikibu’s novel, you’re always aware of her beautiful style whereas you can’t say the same about Hong lou meng, but its beauty comes later.
It is captivating however. I imagine that the strengths of Hong lou meng would be in the scope and philosophical ideas and the range of characters, especially female characters.
3/ In chapter 1, Cao Xueqin introduces the Sentient Stone, which would later come to earth as Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baiyu), and Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin) and Giả Vũ Thôn (Jia Yucun).
In chapter 2, Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin) faces a series of family calamity and leaves the world, the story then follows Giả Vũ Thôn (Jia Yucun) and he becomes tutor to Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu). As her mother Giả Mẫn (Jia Min) is dead and her father Lâm Như Hải (Lin Ruhai) is now older and she doesn’t have any siblings, she is sent to the capital to live with her maternal grandmother and the family, and chapter 3 details her introduction into phủ Vinh quốc công (the Rongguo House) and the Giả (Jia) family.
It is a fascinating chapter, until the meal. First of all, there is a strict hierarchy and a clear sense of order and propriety—people sit at their proper place around the table in relation to the grandmother Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) and the girls have to ask for permission to be seated. Anyone who knows me or has read my blog for a while must know how allergic I am to Confucianism—I know Cao Xueqin is depicting Chinese society as it is, so it is a failing on my part, but I am perhaps more Westernised than I realised and cannot help feeling some distaste for the hierarchy and all these rules and customs. But perhaps to Westerners these rules appear strange and exotic and don’t evoke strong emotions as they do for me, who grew up in a Confucian culture and still have to deal with certain aspects of it.
Secondly, this is a rich aristocratic family but they rinse their mouths with tea into spittoon at the dinner table! Gross, no? I should separate politics from literary discussions but can’t help thinking of the photos of Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai with a spittoon at state meetings. Again this is perhaps a failing on my part, but I’m talking about my personal reactions and not the quality of the novel.
4/ I’m going to be frank and say that I don’t particularly like the descriptions in Hong lou meng. Let’s look at the first appearance of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu), as seen by Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu):
“[He] had a small jewel-encrusted gold coronet on the top of his head and a golden headband low down over his brow in the form of two dragons playing with a large pearl.
He was wearing a narrow-sleeved, full-skirted robe of dark red material with a pattern of flowers and butterflies in two shades of gold. It was confined at the waist with a court girdle of coloured silks braided at regular intervals into elaborate clusters of knotwork and terminating in long tassels.
Over the upper part of his robe he wore a jacket of slate-blue Japanese silk damask with a raised pattern of eight large medallions on the front and with tasselled borders.
On his feet he had half-length dress boots of black satin with thick white soles.” (Ch.3)
That is gaudy, and the description is too detailed, no? I understand that Cao Xueqin wants to describe the character’s wealth and opulence, especially to a less rich outsider, but I think it would be better to describe some details but convey the essence and the general look and the impression the character has on another character, than to describe every single layer and pattern and detail on a character’s clothes. It reads like a list.
Cao Xueqin goes on to describe him as having “a face like the moon of Mid-Autumn, a complexion like flowers at dawn…” and so on and so forth. A series of conventions.
Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) also wears the famous jade which was in his mouth when he was born.
In the scene he comes in to bow to his grandmother (David Hawkes translates as “salute”), who tells her to come back after he has seen his mother. He then returns to the room in a different outfit and again Cao Xueqin spends a long paragraph describing every single detail on it: rose-coloured gown with flowers, padlock-shaped amulet and a lucky charm, ivy-coloured embroidered silk trousers, thick-soled crimson slippers, etc.
“She was even more struck than before by his fresh complexion. The cheeks might have been brushed with powder and the lips touched with rouge, so bright was their natural colour.” (ibid.)
While I like the elegance and the exquisite sensibility in The Tale of Genji, the taste in Hong lou meng appears to me garish. Is this my personal prejudices? I have always preferred Japanese aesthetics to Chinese aesthetics (I even prefer the Japanese red to the Chinese red—google to see the difference).
This means that I would have to try harder to adapt to Hong lou meng, to see what Cao Xueqin’s doing and to see the merits of the novel.
5/ Hong lou meng exposes the ugliness of Chinese society in the 18th century. Giả Vũ Thôn (Jia Yucun) is a government official in the area and in chapter 4 has to solve a case of manslaughter, but it turns out that every government official must have a list of rich and powerful families that they cannot touch—in this case, Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) beats a man to death over a girl they both try to buy, and gets away with it because the Tiết (Xue) family is one of those untouchable families. I mean, what?
The girl is Anh Liên (Yinglian), the lost daughter of Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin).
Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) is brother of Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai), one of the 3 main characters of Hong lou meng. I expect him to be one of the selfish jerks of the novel. After the manslaughter case, he and his mother move in to live with the Vinh (Rong) branch of the Giả (Jia) family, because his mother Tiết Di Ma (Xue Yima) is a sister of Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen), wife of Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) and mother of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu). Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) and Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) are cousins.
Despite some misgivings, I do find the story captivating and want to know more.