Dowager Jia and Granny Liu

Today’s look at the two grand old ladies of Honglou meng 紅樓夢 was first conceived of and published as a shorter post for the “Older Women in Translation” month on the Global Literature in Translation Initiative blog, curated by Caroline Lodge of book word. I am very thankful to Caroline for accepting my submission. Make sure to check out her fascinating series!

There aren’t many interesting older women in traditional Chinese novel, apart from the stereotypical “70-year-old widowed mother” that is rhetorically invoked by characters as a person they need to take care of. This makes the meeting of Dowager Jia 賈母 (also Grandmother Jia) and Granny Liu 劉姥姥 in Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 (first print 1791) by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715 or 1724 – 1763 or 1764) so fascinating.

This book is one of the most famous Chinese novels and describes the life in an elite household of late imperial China. It is mostly focused on the day to day life of the youngest generation, a group of cousins – all female except for the protagonist Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 – and in some part on the squabble and intrigues of their parents and married relatives. Only occasionally their routines are punctuated by receptions in the living quarters of the revered Dowager Jia and by visits from outsiders such as the peasant woman Granny Liu in chapter 40 of the 120 chapter novel. 

The Jia family is, however, in general decline due to changing circumstances and the ineptitude of its male descendants, culminating in an imperial raid of the clan’s premises that makes it necessary for Dowager Jia to use her jewelry and valuables to bail out her children and grandchildren. Not soon after she passes away with the knowledge of the clan’s imminent ruin, that is described in the remaining chapters.

Cao Xueqin wrote Honglou meng to commemorate the talented young women he had met in his youth, before the decline of his own clan’s fortunes. His melancholy view on women is reflected in Jia Baoyu’s famous assessment that, while young girls are pure creatures, marriage irrevocably corrupts them. Even though the narrative follows its teenage protagonist into a world of brilliant female youth, it treats its side characters with the same care. Consequently, both “old ladies” are portrayed as realistic and interesting characters during their appearances.

Dowager Jia surrounded by her grandchildren. Illustration by Sun Wen 孫溫 (1818-1904), via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout most of the novel, the Dowager Jia is presented as a respected yet distant authority figure, sometimes receiving family members in audience in her living quarters and joining them on special occasions. She has long since retired from her duties as a household manager, handing over management of the vast family compound to her daughters- and granddaughters-in-law, enjoying the spoils of decades of hard work in the clan of her husband, whom she outlived. She demands respect from all other household members and holds onto what she believes her due, even in instances when this goes against the wishes and interests – both reasonable and not – of her two sons.

Despite the demands of patriarchy that would see her living for the Jia clan alone, she shows attachment to both her birth family and her deceased daughter by allowing her neglected grandniece Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲 and her orphaned granddaughter Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 to stay in the Jia family household and receive similar treatment to the Jia patrilineal offspring. She is no just authority figure either, having clear favorites among the Jia clan, such as her talented yet spoilt grandson Jia Baoyu and granddaughter-in-law Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, whose astute (and sometimes aggressive) management of the household reminds her of her own youth.

It is through the latter that she is introduced to Granny Liu, a peasant woman whose whose son-in-law had a superficial connection to the Wang clan. When lack of money to support themselves prompts her son-in-law to take out his frustration on his wife, Granny Liu decides to take matters into her own hand: To protect her daughter from further abuse, she intends to procure funds from the Jia family by paying a visit to Wang Xifeng with her small grandson in tow for extra sympathy points. Xifeng, always eager to please the Dowager and remains in her good graces, sees some entertainment value in the simple country woman and invites her inside for a meeting. Her instincts prove right and Dowager Jia not only gives Granny Liu the much needed handouts, but also a tour of the spectacular garden that the novel centers around.

The Garden. Illustration by Sun Wen, via Wikimedia Commons.

While both woman live in vastly different circumstances and even though Granny Liu expertly plays the part of bumbling country fool for the Dowager’s amusement throughout her visit, a brief moment of kinship shines through in the meeting of these two old women. Both have presumably lived a live full of hardship, though of different kind, one living in poverty, one standing her ground against the jealousy of other household members. Both have outlived their husbands and are spectators for the lives of their children and grandchildren. Both in very different ways defy the stereotype of the helpless “70-year-old mother” utterly dependent on her children for her own livelihood.

Their circumstances and actions might at times feel strange to 21st c. readers, especially those unfamiliar with Chinese literature and its female characters. Nevertheless, their characters are quite rounded and realistic, even if their ways of managing things doesn’t always make them likable. Their meeting is a high-point in this novel about a group of young people.

Seeing that Dream of the Red Chamber is very much a story of youth, you shouldn’t turn to it to read about older women (or even middle aged ones for that matter). But if you come across this novel as part of a quest for world literature, genre-defining masterworks, or even just to check out the book all the Chinese readers rave about, you might want to pay some special attention to those two remarkable women.

The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, 1973-1980, on

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Glady Yang and Yang Hsien-yi, 1978-1980, on

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, 2006-2009, on

Popular Novels, Their Endings, and Their Fandoms

Today’s post discusses the ending of Dream of the Red Chamber(Honglou meng 紅樓夢), namely the last forty chapters of the 120-chapter novel, and the different ways the fans of Honglou meng deal with them. These chapters were added on by the publishers of the first print edition around three decades after the death of the author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715 or 1724-1763/4) in 1791. This post is mostly inspired by the recently aired finale to Game of Thrones that lead to heated online debates among disappointed fans who were quick to point to the overall decreased quality of the show after the material of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin was surpassed and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to take over writing according to Martin’s outline themselves. Chinese fans had the added disappointment that the scheduled broadcast of the very last episode was cancelled due to Trump’s war on Huawei. This didn’t stop online discussions of the finale though, and it seems that I’m not the only one to make a connection between Game of Thrones and Honglou meng.

So what had happened in 18th c. China and how does it affect readers of Honglou meng today? Cao Xueqin, a scholar from a prominent clan which had since lost both prestige and wealth, worked on a epic novel based on his own childhood experiences of living in the compound of a rich family. Manuscripts of this unfinished novel, still called The Story of the Stone 石頭記 in those days, circulated among his friends, some of which added commentaries on the margins as a sort of peer-review to help Cao improve his work. These are known as “rouge versions” 脂本. Unfortunately, Cao only completed 80 chapters before he passed away in his 40s or 50s. We don’t know the exact life dates of Cao Xueqin, nor are we able to ascertain his place in the family tree of the Cao family. This tells us that he was nowhere near as revered in his own day as he became later. After Cao’s death the Honglou meng was in danger of remaining an unfinished manuscript circulating in handwritten copies. But in 1791 publishers Cheng Weiyuan 程偉元 and Gao E 高鶚 published a complete 120 chapter version based on the “rediscovered original draft” by Cao Xueqin. With the rigid structure of full-length novels 章回小說 there is no doubt that Honglou meng was conceived as a 120 chapter novel, but the fortuitous rediscovery of a draft that had remained unknown for almost 30 years is highly dubious.


The increased reach of print medium allowed the now complete work went on to make an impact on the literary scene. Parents even feared for their daughters’ health as they were binge reading and observed depressive bouts when they reached the chapter in which Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 dies of a broken heart. I don’t know if boys didn’t read Honglou meng or if parents simply weren’t as concerned about their reading habits. Lin Daiyu’s helplessness when love clashed with matchmaking certainly was something most of the young ladies 閨秀 of the Qing would understand and share.

Honglou meng‘s popularity continues to this day. I’m not aware of anyone reading themselves to death, but both the novel and a 1987 TV show are held in great esteem in the Sinophone world. The academic study of the book is so plentiful that it spawned its own discipline: Redology 紅學. In the course of this study the author Cao Xueqin, his life and his work took center stage in the discussion and appreciation of the novel. Consequenlty, a purist reading of the novel would insist to stop at chapter 80, claiming the ending to be a purely economically motivated hack-job not worthy of attention. They would lament the lack of an ending but prefer its unfinishedness to an inferior conclusion. Fans disappointed by inferior endings/ sequels/ adaptations to beloved works take similar stands, choosing to not engage with these (parts of) shows. As an additional coping mechanism, fans also like to pretend these seasons/movies never happened. Currently people might say that its neat that the excellent animated series Avatar-The Last Airbender is being adapted into a life-action TV show, since its a shame that is has definitely never been adapted into a movie. (Statements like these have the added benefit of separating fans from casual bystanders who tend to accept claims to the contrary on Google, Wikipedia, imdb etc.)

1963年 越剧红楼梦
Photo from a Shaoxing Opera 越劇 production of Honglou meng in 1963. Depicted is the pivotal scene of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu reading a script for The West Chamber 西廂記, a romantic play deemed to racy for them . Via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not aware that a consensus on denying the existence of an ending to Game of Thrones has been reached, but there has been a petition to re-shoot the 8th season. While nothing similar is known concerning a rewrite of the Cheng-Gao version ending, several unauthorized sequels show that there was a market for alternative endings. However, in the case of Honglou meng that meant writing a happy end that the original author never intended. It is clear from some hints early in the novel, that Cao had envisioned fates for his characters that were probably much more devastating than what the Cheng-Gao version describes. Yet sequels and rewrites were overly concerned with resurrecting their heroine Lin Daiyu and creating a household in which formerly clashing characters now lived in harmony. Game of Thrones fans on the other hand seem to accept the fact that beloved characters need to meet cruel fates, since that is part of the nature of the show, but they would prefer them to do so in a way that does not insult character development and storytelling.

It remains to be seen if Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire will be able to establish its own discipline of scholarship (“Gameology”? “Throneology”?). If it does the current debates and the debacle of the last season are definitely going to contribute immensely to academic debate. In the meantime, the resonance this show found online in American, Chinese and other markets and the heated online debates it sparked, serves to show the power of great narratives and how they inspire people everywhere, just as Honglou meng continues to inspire readers to this day. And a little (or a lot of) controversy around its inception only serves to liven the debate.

A lot of excellent introductory essays to Honglou meng and Redology can be found in:

Andrew Schonebaum and Tina Lu, Approaches to Teaching “The Story of the Stone” (Dream of the Red Chamber), on

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

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

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

P.S. I haven’t had a chance to watch Game of Thrones or read A Song of Ice and Fire yet, since the show came on while I was writing my PhD and I can only deal with one epic narrative (i.e. the topic of my PhD, Fengshen yanyi 封神演義) at a time. A question for everyone who has seen/read it: Knowning how it ends, should I still watch it? Should I watch to the end or stop before? Should I read the books instead? I’d love to hear your recommendations! Also, when the show first came out, people told me it was like The Romance of the Three Kindoms 三國演義. Does this assessment still hold up?

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

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

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