The Story of the Stone, perhaps more recognisably known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is an epic work of Chinese fiction, my copy in five volumes weighing in at a massive 2480 pages long. I bought it ages ago intending to read it over a Christmas holiday but always balked at the length and the commitment to one book of such epic proportions, knowing how easily I get bored and knowing I would burn to move on to the next book, something different, something unknown. In my former book gnashing state, I would never have got around to this book. I may have held onto it, or I may have decided to get rid of it. In my quest to read all those ‘ideal reader’ purchases, this was an obvious choice for the list.
I have a full 3 weeks off work this summer and I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism and Taoism recently and I was thinking about maybe tackling War & Peace when my eye chanced upon this set and I thought ‘well, how about it?’ and it didn’t feel too terrifying. This felt like a real mind-shift. In slowing down my reading, and focusing on the books in front of me, I have achieved a state of greater calm, of greater endurance, or lesser distraction perhaps. It may help that I’ve been meditating daily for a month and a half, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, the idea of absorbing myself in a book of such unthinkable size has actually grown quite appealing. It doesn’t matter that it will take a long time to read.
I feel like I have turned a corner (knowing, of course, that corners are illusory).
So, what is The Story of the Stone about? In the beginning when the goddess Nu-wa was repairing the sky she created a great quantity of building blocks. One of these blocks was left discarded, unused, at the foot of Greensickness Peak. There it lay in its shame and misery until along came a Buddhist monk and a Taoist monk. They picked it up, recognising its magical properties, and inscribed words upon it and promised to send it on an enlightening journey. And so the stone is born as a piece of jade in the mouth of Bao-yu, a son of the wealthy Jia family. Bao-yu is a constant disappointment to his father, being rather dreamy and more interested in hanging around with the girls than in submitting himself to the study of Confucianism. So the story of the stone is the story of a boy, living a transient human life with no recollection of his former status.
Alongside Bao-yu is a bewildering cast of characters, hundreds (it certainly feels like) sharing the daily trials of life in eighteenth century China. The principle characters surrounding Bao-yu are his cousin Dai-yu, a wilful, sorrowful orphaned girl with whom Bao-yu shares a strong emotional connection, and another cousin Bao-chai who is the epitome of the ideal woman: beautiful, restrained, gracious. There is his Aunt Xi-feng who runs the households, his father Jia Zheng who Bao-yu is terrified of, his various helpers and maids – Aroma, being the principle one, with whom Bao-yu loses his virginity – and a billion and one family members. At first the vast array of character is quite overwhelming, not helped, of course, by my ignorance of Chinese names. But as the book develops, this bewilderment becomes less pronounced and by about halfway through I was beginning to more easily recognise the various parties to the story.
Bao-yu himself is fortunate to be born into a wealthy family with all benefits and opportunities available to him. The Story of the Stone follows a relatively conventional narrative arc, recounting the experiences of Bao-yu’s days, along with those of the principle characters that surround him. Despite its enormous size, the book is surprisingly easy to read; it has an easy-going nature, pleasant and often quite funny. It chronicles the daily comings and goings, the ordinary intrigues, the sorrows, tragedies and the virtues of a traditional, though wealthy, Chinese household. There are plays and poems, games, fallings out and assignations. A lot if it is extremely amusing, like here where Nannie Li is having a moment and it all spins out of control:
“Xi-feng happened to be in Grandmother Jia’s room totting up the day’s scores for the final settlement when she heard this hubbub in the rear apartment. She identified it immediately as Nannie Li on the rampage once more, taking out on Bao-yu’s unfortunate maids some of the spleen occasioned by her recent gambling losses. At once she hurried over, seized Nannie Li by the hand, and admonished her with smiling briskness:
‘Now Nannie, we mustn’t lose our tempers! This is a New Year holiday and Her Old Ladyship has been enjoying herself all day. A person of your years ought to be stopping other people from quarrelling yourself. Surely you know better than that? If anyone has been misbehaving, you have only to tell me and I’ll have them beaten for you. Now I’ve got a nice hot pheasant stew in my room. You just come along with me and you shall have some of that and a drink to go with it!’
She proceeded to haul her off the premises, addressing a few words over her shoulder to her maid Felicity as she went:
‘Felicity, bring Nannie’s stick for her, there’s a good girl! And for goodness’ sake give her a handkerchief to dry her eyes with!’
Unable to hold her ground. the old Nannie was borne off in Xi-feng’s wake, muttering plaintively as she went:
‘I wish I was dead, I really do! But I’d sooner forget meself and make a scene like I have today and be shamed in front of you all than put up with the insolence of those shameless little baggages!’
Watching this sudden exit, Bao-chai and Dai-yu laughed and clapped their hands:
‘How splendid! Just the sort of wind we needed to blow the old woman away!’
But Bao-yu shook his head and sighed:
‘I wonder what had really upset her. Obviously she only picked on Aroma because she is weak and can’t defend herself. I wonder which of the girls had offended her to make her so…’
He was interrupted by Skybright:
‘Why should any of us want to upset her? Do you think we’re mad? And even if we had offended her, we should be perfectly capable of owning up to it and not letting someone else take the blame!’
Aroma grasped Bao-yu’s hand and wept:
‘Because I offended one old nurse, you have to go offending a whole roomful of people. Don’t you think there’s been enough trouble already without dragging other people into it?'”
This was not one of Bao-yu’s better days!
Volume 1 of The Story of the Stone has proven a gentle, fun and playful read which explores the growing relationships between Bao-yu and his cousins, as well as the daily goings on in the Jia family. In some areas I grew a little tired of the voluptuousness of the family life – the endless delicacies and taels of silver, the shining brocades and jewellery – but I suppose I have to appreciate that in the era in which it was written the extravagant lives of the aristocracy would have been of interest much as the extravagant lives of celebrities holds interest today, and it’s a minor niggle in what has otherwise been a surprisingly compelling read. And I half wonder if it’s leading up to something which will take the book in a different direction. Either way, I don’t mind. This book was not quite what I expected, but I’m intrigued enough to continue to volume 2 and if it continues in the same vein I’m still going to be happy. It’s fun, humane, often silly and very entertaining. Whatever is in store for innocent (or not so innocent) Bao-yu. I’m on board.