Sunday, 27 December 2020

Murasaki Shikibu, Cao Xueqin, Lev Tolstoy, and my top 10 novels

If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on twitter, you may have guessed correctly that the 2 greatest novels I’ve read this year are: Genji monotagari, better known as The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and Hong lou meng, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin

The 2 novels have quite a few things in common. Both are East Asian classics—The Tale of Genji is recognised as Japan’s greatest and most important novel, and Hong lou meng is one of the 4 Chinese classic novels though some people would argue that it’s the greatest novel from China. Both handle Confucianism and Buddhism, but the former is a Buddhist novel while the latter is a Taoist novel. 

Both are extremely long, Hong lou meng is much longer than War and Peace, and have a great scope with about 400-500 characters. The Tale of Genji depicts all aspects of the Japanese court during the Heian period: life at court, hierarchy, beliefs and lifestyles, exorcism, rituals, festivals, letter-writing, calligraphy, poetry, music, dance, incense-making, painting, gardening, fashion, Buddhist philosophy, marriage politics, double standards for men and women, etc. Similarly, Hong lou meng depicts everything about Chinese society in the 18th century: festivities, funeral rites, customs, cuisine, medicine, drinking games, card games, music, poetry, classic literature, painting, architecture, gardening, fashion, mythology, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, polygamy, sexuality, human trafficking, corruption, etc. 

Both have a male character in the centre, but focus more on the surrounding female characters. Both have sympathy for women. However, Murasaki Shikibu’s novel follows Genji from birth to death, then moves on to the new generation, whereas a large part of Cao Xueqin’s novel focuses on the teenage years of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and the girls. 

Now you may ask, which one is better? I can’t really say. Murasaki Shikibu and Cao Xueqin have very different styles, and the 2 novels have different qualities.

The Tale of Genji is a psychological novel while Hong lou meng is more like a novel of manners, in which the characters are largely characterised through action and dialogue—in a way, Cao Xueqin writes like a playwright. Compared to Cao Xueqin, Murasaki Shikibu has a more beautiful style, exquisite sensibility, and a melancholic tone—the entire novel is pervaded by a sense of mono no aware, and one of the main themes of the novel is transience and the uncertainty of life. Her novel may have more emotional depth. Out of all the writers I’ve read, Murasaki Shikibu and Tolstoy are the two I think are best at handling death—no one else comes close. The difference is that Tolstoy mostly focuses on the person who is dying while Murasaki Shikibu also writes about it but writes more about the impact of death on other people—death of a beloved or family member as a transforming experience. She doesn’t kill off characters to serve the plot as most writers do—every single death has significance. 

Compared to Cao Xueqin, she is also a more visual writer, especially in her descriptions of nature. Everyone who reads The Tale of Genji is always conscious of its beauty, on every page. 

The qualities of Hong lou meng are a different kind. It is a rich, diverse book—Cao Xueqin seems to write about all kinds of people, of both sexes, and from different classes of society. While Murasaki Shikibu focuses on a handful from her large cast of characters, Cao Xueqin treats nearly 40 characters as major, and there are many pairs who appear similar but they are all distinct and memorable. The former focuses more on depth and writes about a much longer span of time, following the main character from birth to death to his descendants, while the latter focuses more on breadth. We know Genji much better than we know Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), but as a whole the characters in Hong lou meng are better-realised, more vividly real, more colourful, and more diverse. The novel is especially striking in its sympathy for women and humane portrayal of servants.  

Like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Hong lou meng has an expansive scope but at the same time has great attention to detail. Like Tolstoy’s novels, it has a vividness and naturalness that feels more like life than a work of art, and every single character, even the most secondary and unimportant ones, feels like a real person. I expect that Cao Xueqin’s characters would stay with me the way Tolstoy’s characters have stayed with me over the years. 

Cao Xueqin is comparable to Tolstoy in his humanity, in his compassion and true sympathy for everyone. In terms of psychological depth, Tolstoy is much superior—he is unsurpassable, while the characters in Hong lou meng are largely conveyed through action, dialogue, and occasionally monologue, though Cao Xueqin also characterises them through poetry. Tolstoy is superior in terms of style. 

However, Cao Xueqin has his own qualities. He is no preacher, no moralist—his presence is not felt in the text. He is no sexist—Hong lou meng has a wide range of female characters, and the most intelligent, excellent characters in the novel are girls. 

Above all, Hong lou meng has supernatural or dream elements and the real/unreal theme. There are also supernatural elements in The Tale of Genji, mostly ghosts: the jealous and vengeful spirit of the living Rokujo Haven is one of the most powerful images I’ve encountered in literature, especially when the Rokujo Haven herself is not aware of any anger or resentment, suggesting that Murasaki Shikibu is aware of the gap between conscious and unconscious feelings. Hong lou meng goes even further in its dream elements: the novel is framed as the story of the stone, which comes to earth as Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), so there’s a real/unreal theme that runs through the entire novel and there are many magical elements such as the Land of Illusion, the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest, the Mirror for the Romantic, the double, ghosts, demons, and so on. These elements add another layer of meaning to the novel and elevate it beyond a social novel or a family novel. My favourites are the story of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) and the mirror, and the encounter of the 2 Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu).

To me, Hong lou meng and The Tale of Genji are not just my best reads of 2020, but they’re the best over the past few years, and I do think that they’re on a par with the finest works of Western literature. To be honest, most novels would appear small and narrow next to them. 

And yet in the West, they’re often neglected. 

Updating my top 10 favourite novels (order changed on 18/5/2022): 

Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin 

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 


Here is Kenneth Rexroth on The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng

“When I was a kid, I used to read novels by sets: Tolstoy, Conrad, James, Dostoevski, Turgenev, Zola, Flaubert. They weren’t one book at a time, but a whole world that would envelop me for months and from which I would emerge into real life with the strange outlandish feeling of someone back from years abroad. One Chinese novel can do this to you, sweep you away out of sight of home and self, and lose you for a week or more in its own pullulating verisimilitude.

It is this total verisimilitude which differentiates the greatest Chinese novels from the Japanese and puts The Dream of the Red Chamber in a nobler class than Genji. The Japanese novel is a universe of exquisite sensibility. It is concerned with the most profound moral issues ever undertaken in any work of fiction, and implicitly with philosophical issues utterly beyond the grasp of any European novelist. It handles all this with breathtaking skill. But it is possible, immediately, to say these things about it. They are patent. You are unaware of anything like this in The Dream of the Red Chamber until the week after you have laid it down. You are always aware of the vertiginously beautiful style of Lady Murasaki. In The Dream of the Red Chamber, you are unaware you are reading, and nobody remembers who the author was. It is the difference, on a much lesser plane, between Walter Pater and Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser is horribly crude, but Pater is barbarous. I am afraid Dreiser is the better stylist. In Genji they eat but seldom, drink a little, but never move their bowels. In the Chinese novel, as in the gardens of Italy where the nightingale sings in the blooming pomegranate, the odor of the night soil of ten thousand years is never out of your nose.

[…] The Dream of the Red Chamber is the better novel because it is the truer, the more profoundly humane. Genji is true and profound and humane and beautiful, too, but we are not all able to identify ourselves with the insouciant demigod who dips souls from Hell through ten million reincarnations, just, as it were, for fun. On the other hand, there is no question but that we too are part of that astronomical mass of living human beings made of real flesh, sweeping past forever like stardust, and that if we are wise, we will take it easy, like the resting stone and the falling stream.” (source


  1. For what it's worth, here is my current top 10, in no particular order except the top 3 which stand above all the others. I also limit myself to one book per author, otherwise Anna Karenina would also make it.

    - Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin
    - The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
    - War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
    - Emma by Jane Austen
    - Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
    - All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
    - Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
    - Middlemarch by George Eliot
    - Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
    - À la Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust

    1. Haha good list. Your list is mainly made up of big books, I notice.


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