1/ Because of the pandemic, somehow 2020 seems to have become my year of East Asian classics, starting with 4 Vietnamese works—Văn tế thập loại chúng sinh and Truyện Kiều by Nguyễn Du, Chinh phụ ngâm by Đoàn Thị Điểm or Phan Huy Ích (still a debate), and Cung oán ngâm khúc by Nguyễn Gia Thiều.
Since then I have happily discovered The Tale of Genji and Japanese classics, especially the Heian era.
It is natural, therefore, that I have now started reading Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin, known in English as Dream of the Red Chamber, Dream of Red Mansions, or The Story of the Stone (and known in Vietnamese as Hồng lâu mộng by Tào Tuyết Cần). It is one of the 4 Chinese classics, and sometimes said to be the greatest Chinese novel. Now that I’ve read beyond the Western canon and acquainted myself with Japanese literature, it seems like the next place to go. Kenneth Rexroth for example thinks that The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng are the 2 greatest novels in the world, in the whole history of literature. Of course you can say that works of art can’t be ranked, and all that, and this is no more than an enthusiastic fan talking in hyperbole, but does that not make you curious?
Generally when people (in the West) name the greatest novels of all time, the usual suspects are all Western novels—Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Wuthering Heights, Lolita, etc. These are masterpieces. But also often mentioned are much inferior novels such as The Great Gatsby, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. What about the great classic novels of other countries and other cultures?
I don’t know about the development of the novel in other places (the Vietnamese literary tradition is mainly poetry, for instance) but the first Japanese novel was from the 11th century and the Chinese novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin were from the 14th century.
It is of course understandable that Hong lou meng isn’t very well-known. According to Wikipedia, there are about 13 English translations of Anna Karenina and about 11 of War and Peace (not counting revised translations and abridged translations), whereas Hong lou meng wasn’t fully translated into English until the 70s-80s and there are only 2 complete versions—the more acclaimed one is by David Hawkes and John Minford (Penguin Classics) and the other one is by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi. Even The Tale of Genji from Japan had a complete English translation in the 30s, and so far has had 4 different versions in English.
Length is another matter, Hong lou meng is longer than The Tale of Genji, and people say that it’s twice as long as War and Peace.
I’m intimidated, but I’m also intrigued—I want to see how Hong lou meng compares to the wonderful books by Tolstoy or Flaubert. Almost, most of the very few people who have read both The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng think of them very highly, and place Cao Xueqin’s book above Murasaki Shikibu’s. I’m curious.
2/ I do have an English translation (David Hawkes and John Minford), but I’m reading Hong lou meng in Vietnamese (Hồng lâu mộng)—the second best option to read Hong lou meng, after reading the original, is perhaps to read it in Vietnamese, because of the similarities in language and culture.
The first advantage is that it would be closer to the original text. I don’t speak Chinese but I know enough about it to know that the Chinese language is extremely different from English—it’s a different culture, different mindset, different way of looking at things.
The second advantage is that in English (or any other Western language) the names would just appear to be meaningless sounds that are difficult to remember, like Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu, Xue Baochai…whereas in a Vietnamese translation they would be proper names, like Giả Bảo Ngọc, Lâm Đại Ngọc, Tiết Bảo Thoa… and they all have meaning. Giả (Jia) for example means “fake, fictitious, or unreal”. Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) means “precious jade”, Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) means “blue-black jade”, and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) means “precious/ jewelled hairpin”.
In Vietnamese, it would also be easier to notice that Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) has both Bảo from Bảo Thoa (Baochai) and Ngọc from Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)—his link to both women is already implied in the names.
In my blog posts I will use both the Vietnamese names and the English names.
3/ In chapter 1, Cao Xueqin introduces the main themes and philosophical ideas (Buddhist and Taoist) in the novel, which are partly reflected by the names.
For example, the novel begins with the myth of Nữ Oa (Nu Gua) using 36,500 stones to mend the sky. She does so at Đại Hoang Sơn (Da Huang Shan) and Vô Kê Nhai (Wu Ji Ya), meaning “Mountain of Great Absurdity” and “Cliff of No Record” and translated by David Hawkes as the Great Fable Mountains and Incredible Crags respectively. One stone is left behind at Thanh Ngạnh Phong (Qing Geng Feng), meaning “Green Meadow Summit” and translated as Greensickness Peak. The name is a near homonym of Tình Căn (Qing Gen), meaning “root of feelings”.
The characters that pass by the area and bring the stone to earth are called Mang Mang (Mang Mang), meaning “far and wide”, and Diểu Diểu (Miao Miao), meaning “far and invisible”—their names put together become Diểu Mang (Miao Mang), meaning “inauthentic”.
Later a Taoist figure passes by, reads the story of the stone and becomes enlightened, and changes his name from Không Không (Kong Kong), meaning “Empty the Emptiness”, to Tình Tăng (Qing Seng), meaning “the Monk of Feelings”. His names are translated as Vanitas and then Brother Amor in Davis Hawkes’s translation.
Here’s the passage:
“As a consequence of all this, Vanitas, starting off in the Void (which is Truth) come to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth). He therefore changed his name from Vanitas to Brother Amor, or the Passionate Monk, (because he had approached Truth by way of Passion), and changed the title of the book from The Story of the Stone to The Tale of Brother Amor.” (Ch.1)
Here’s the same passage in Vietnamese:
“Vì đạo nhân thấy “sắc” là do “không” mà ra, rồi “tình” lại do “sắc” mà có, “tình” biểu hiện qua “sắc” rồi lại từ “sắc” trở về “không” cho nên đổi tên mình thành Tình Tăng, đổi tên Thạch đầu ký là Tình tang lục.” (Ch.1)
Notice the difference in length? The English passage is longer because David Hawkes has to add some brackets to further explain the meaning.
Next, Cao Xueqin introduces 2 characters named Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin) and Giả Vũ Thôn (Jia Yucun). Chân Sĩ Ẩn is a homonym of Chân Sự Ẩn, meaning “true matters concealed”—the story is a work of imagination based on the author’s true experience. Another homonym of the name means “true scholar in seclusion”.
Vũ Thôn’s name means “words used in a village”, but he also has 2 other names Giả Hóa (Jia Hua), a homonym of Giả Thoại meaning “false words”, and Giả Thời Phi (Jia Shi Fei), a homonym of Giả Thực Phi meaning “actually false”.
His last name Giả (Jia) is already a homophone of a word that means “false, fictitious, or unreal”, to contrast with Chân (Zhen), homophone of a word meaning “true”. True and False here are not only neighbours but good friends.
Here is an essay in English about naming in Hong lou meng: https://www.jstor.org/stable/495626
Đây là bài viết tiếng Việt về ý nghĩa tên nhân vật trong Hồng lâu mộng:
For now I’m not going to write about any themes or ideas yet.
The book seems fascinating so far.