Teaching Honglou meng 紅樓夢

I recently happened to discuss teaching the monumental Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber  (Honglou meng 紅樓夢) – commonly viewed as the best Chinese novel ever written – with professors from both Italy and Taiwan. As you can imagine with a book that is associated with such high praise, there is quite a chance that students will walk away disappointed if they aren’t introduced to it properly. I formerly wrote about the advantages of obscure novels in this regard: If you have never heard of the book before you are more apprehensive of its quality and there are greater chances of it exceeding your barely-there expectations. Honglou meng does not have this advantage. And while its important to note that it is a great book, the standards for “the best novel” are very subjective and largely as dependent on personal preference for genre as on the quality of the writing.

A good introduction should therefore probably start with an overview of the genre of  “novel of manners” (renqing xiaoshuo 人情小說, a term coined by Lu Xun 魯迅 in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction 中國小說史略) and probably also point out some essential facts about family life and the wealthy elites of late imperial China. Once you have prepared this introduction, the next question is: Do you give it to your students before you assign them individual chapters to read or do you throw them right into the novel before putting what they read into context? Importantly, which approach is more likely to make your students actually read the assigned reading?

The Taiwanese professor I talked to thought the answer to the latter question was fairly easy: Just give your students a quiz at the start of every lesson to make sure they actually read it! This approach seems work in Taiwan, where Honglou meng classes are taught at Departments of Chinese Literature, maybe even as part of a compulory Introduction to Chinese Literature class. But in the context of European Sinology or Chinese Studies, Honglou meng (and sometimes even Introduction to Chinese Literature) classes are usually electives and as such in competition other electives. Fear of next weeks quiz is far more likely to make students drop Chinese literature in favor of more “practical” classes, like Chinese economics, or classes with fewer requirements.

It is therefore essential to show students that a novel like Honglou meng can be very interesting and maybe even fun to read. Reading assignments should never only be chores. For the same reason it is also impossible to assign students the whole novel to read. Like any good late imperial novel it is loooong – 80 chapters written by author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and 120 in the “complete” version. Selected chapters it is then.

But which episodes do we choose? The mythological framework at the beginning, a.k.a. “The Story of the Stone” (that gave the novel its first title)? Jia Baoyu’s 賈寶玉 dream in chapter 5, a.k.a. “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (that gave the novel its current title)? selected scenes of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu’s 林黛玉 romance, the most celebrated romanic couple in Chinese literature? Granny Liu’s 劉姥姥 visit to the garden, which shows the excessive splendour of the Jia family mansion through the eyes of a country woman? Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, a capable and quite badass manager, eaten by jealousy and “too masculine to bear a son”? Spoiled rich brat Xue Pan 薛蟠? The poetry club? The visit of the imperial concubine? Jia Baoyu and his father? Grandmother Jia’s 賈母 lecture on romantic literature? Or just a random domestic scene with Jia Baoyu and his maid Xiren 襲人?

This question is complicated by a narrative feature of Honglou meng that is quite characteristic for late imperial Chinese novels: Stories are generally told in an episodic framework with sometimes minimal contact between individual episodes. This feature is the most obvious in Suihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), where characters are geographically extremely mobile. We follow one character for a couple of chapters until his story arch nears its conclusion. Then he usually meets an aquaintance, they have a drink together and we laeve that first character  behind as the aquaintance becomes the protagonist of the next episode. Only occasionally former main characters make guest appearances in new episodes.

This is an unusual narrative framework if you are used to Western narratives with clear overall protagonists and parallel storylines that are alternatively brought to the forefront. It is even more perplexing in Honglou meng, where all characters live in the same place. But the novel has no problem exclusively focusing on a certein charachter and its story arch while completely ignoring all others for the time being. It even fundamentally changes its narrative tone after the first few chapters from a tale steeped in mystery to a largley realistic destription of family live. For large parts we may even be forgiven for forgetting that there ever was a mythological framework.

Another problem of the episode structure is the huge cast of characters it creates, since every episode essentialy introduces its own host of supporting characters, meaning the novel features over 400 named characters. This is something that makes students’ reading experience very frustrating and confusing. Providing at least a schematic of the Jia family tree is essential to make any reading comprehension possible.

I do not have a definite answer to the question of how to teach Honglou meng. But generally speaking I would probably start with an introduction of family live in late imperial elite families and give a bit of background on author Cao Xueqin. Then I would assing and discuss chapters from the middle parts, because these descriptions of family life make up the majority of the novel. I would save the mythological framework for last, since that could lead into a discussion of the textual history of the novel when talking about the missing conclusion of the frame and the later completion.

What are your experiences with teaching Honglou meng? Have you had a chance to teach students from different backgrounds? How did they react to the novel differently?


The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel in Five Volumes, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, on Worldcat.org

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, on Worldcat.org

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, on Worldcat.org

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Published by

BWitt

Barbara Witt 衛易萱, graduated with a PhD in Chinese Studies from LMU Munich, currently a Postdoc at NCCU 政治大學 in Taipei at the Center for Chinese Cultural Subjectivity 華人文化主體性研究中心.

One thought on “Teaching Honglou meng 紅樓夢”

  1. Thank you so much for this article, Barbara ! Well I never wondered how to teach a class on Honglou meng, although I love this novel so much. I think you’re right: even though the mythological framework of the novel makes it so special, it requires a deep understanding from the students. So bringing up first the main characteristics of life in large families of late imperial times could arouse better the students’ interest. However, pointing out the “supernatural” aspect of the novel (Jia Bayou originally being a stone, and Lin Daiyu originally being a plant) could also show them something they could be interested in.

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