Chinese scholars like to compare Cao Xueqin to Shakespeare and have subjected his novel to similarly intense analysis (a field known as "Redology"), but a better parallel to The Story of the Stone might be the works of Jane Austen. It has had a huge impact on popular culture, especially as the subject of multiple television and film adaptations, and its characters are widely known. It has a similar focus on social interactions within a constrained and rule-bound social world — here one huge extended family instead of "three or four families in a country village" — and though Cao's humour is quite different and his subject material is in places much darker, he shares with Austen a playfulness and a lightness of touch.
In its subject material The Story of the Stone is a far cry from its peers — The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West — which are full of politics, martial encounters, and adventure. It follows the lives of a "a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only for their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue", mostly in their mid-to-late teens. (By some counts there are 108 women involved, supposedly paralleling the heroes of The Water Margin.) At its centre is Bao-yu, a teenage boy who prefers female company. Born with a jade stone in his mouth and spoilt by a doting grandmother, the family matriarch, he lives in fear of his father and prefers writing poetry to studying the classics.
Most of the other characters are related to Bao-yu, who is a kind of anthropological Ego in the extended Jia kinship network. (Hawkes and Minford thankfully provide a couple of family trees to help the reader follow these connections, as well as a character list that covers all the different names of the characters. They have also "translated" the names of the maids — so Xi-ren becomes Aroma — and Anglicised titles.)
Bao-yu's beautiful cousin Dai-yu is sickly, prone to depression, over-sensitive, always conscious of her status as an orphan, and prone to sarcasm — her nickname is "Frowner". She is also a poet and player of the classical qin stringed instrument. In short, a classic Romantic heroine. She and Bao-yu are in love with one another and this, and their continual misunderstandings and Dai-yu's eventual unhappy end, forms one of the novel's central strands.
Contrasted to Dai-yu — and indeed quite deliberately complementing her — is Bao-yu's pragmatic and empathetic cousin Bao-chi, whom he seems destined to marry. She is learned but unassuming and always a voice of commonsense, reason, and compassion; her perspective provides the reader a stable point of return throughout the novel. She is, however, somewhat passionless, and almost too perfect.
Another central character is Bao-yu's cousin's wife, the brash Xi-feng, who through sheer competence — her ability to browbeat the domestic staff and her skill in keeping her grandmother-in-law happy — has ended up managing the entire household. Xi-feng is capable of affection and even love, but she is not a good woman to cross, capable of murderous jealousy where her husband is involved. She doesn't always resist the corruptions of power, either, and resorts to some shady methods in her attempts to balance the family finances. One of the most compelling characters in the novel, Xi-feng seems almost to have imposed herself on the author as well.
Bao-yu's sister Yuan-chun has been raised to become an Imperial Concubine, and features mostly indirectly. His sister Ying-chun is apathetic and withdrawn from the world. His half-sister Tan-chun proves to be more assertive, almost a peer to Xi-feng. His deceased elder brother's wife Li-wan is an ideal, if rather bland, Confucian widow, dedicated to raising her son. His cousin Xin-chun is a painter and a devout Buddhist. His second cousin Xiang-yun is something of a tomboy, but also a poet and scholar. And then there's the Buddhist nun Adamantina whose origins and eventual fate are both a little mysterious.
Among the older generation, Bao-yu's mother Lady Wang and aunt Lady Xing are relative non-entities, but his grandmother Lady Jia is a fine portrait. There's also Bao-yu's aunt Xue, Bao-chai's mother, and his scheming aunt Zhao. Several maids are also key characters: Bao-Yu's Aroma and Skybright, whose tragic end is one of the emotional climaxes of the novel, Grandmother Jia's loyal Faithful, and Xi-feng's kindly Patience, who smoothes some of her mistress' edges.
Early on, the Jias build a huge pleasure garden, "Prospect Garden", for a visit by the Jia Imperial Concubine. This is subsequently used to house Bao-yu and all the girls and in the early "golden days" their life there is almost idyllic, with their foremost occupation for a while a poetry club. As the novel proceeds, however, the girls are scattered, by death, dismissal, marriage, and other misfortunes — and for Bao-yu, and by implication Cao Xueqin, marriage really is a misfortune.
The Story of the Stone is a homage to the girls and women Cao Xueqin knew in his youth, but it is not a simple idealisation. Based on his own interpretation of the concepts of qi (life force, energy) and qing (compassion, empathy), his psychology allowed for complex characters and his portrayal of women was quite a radical departure from earlier literature. Whether this makes him some kind of "proto-feminist" is debatable, but he was certainly a philogynist.
Of the men in the family, the most active is Bao-Chai's brother Xue-Pan, who is something of a rascal and whose misdemeanours and adventures provide many of the external story elements. His concubine Caltrop and his termagant wife Jin-gui are also important. Bao-yu's half-brother Huan is a source of mischief-making. Bao-yu's father Zheng is a scholar-gentleman, but a source of terror to his not very diligent son. Uncle She is more of a playboy, as is cousin Zhen. Xi-feng's philandering husband Lian is a pale shadow to his wife. And then there are the stewards, cooks, gardeners, page-boys, and so forth, as well as assorted relatives seeking patronage. Jia Yu-cun, who uses his family connections to climb in the bureaucratic hierarchy, is the most notable figure here, with a major role in the framing story.
The Story of the Stone is very much a domestic novel, with its dramas set almost entirely in the household sphere. Much of the "action" involves the characters holding banquets, giving each other precious objects, putting on plays, composing poetry, sharing clothing, and so forth. Cao Xueqin has a remarkable ability to lure the reader into caring about such mundane domestic matters, however, and intertwined with this is an ever-present background of tension and conflict over status, involving both the family and the servants. Aunt Zhao schemes to raise the status of her own children by bringing down Xi-feng and Bao-yu. A faction among the domestic staff attempts to unseat the cook. And so on.
In the earlier part of the story, the outside world mostly intrudes in comic "low life" episodes: a schoolboy riot in the clan school, retaliation by Xi-Feng against unwanted advances from a would-be lover, a visit by country bumpkin Grannie Liu, blow-back when an actor Xue Pan takes a fancy for turns out to be a martial-arts expert, and so forth. There are also visits to temples or the imperial court, trade ventures, and exercises of patronage, but mostly these are reported on indirectly.
Events become darker as the story progresses, involving unhappy marriages and problems with the family finances — the Jia rely on rents from their land, but are living beyond their means. And the last forty chapters are darker still, involving politics and the law: Xue Pan ends up in prison on murder charges, while part of the family falls from imperial grace, is stripped of its title, and has its property confiscated (a similar fate to Cao Xueqin's own family).
The work as a whole is robustly realist, and indeed exhibits quite some skepticism about both religion and the Confucian values at the heart of Chinese society. There is a supernatural frame involving a magic stone, and an early prophetic dream reveals the fates of many of its central characters, but this is used by Cao Xueqin to locate his work in (and to some extent outside) the existing literary tradition. Within that is a more mundane framing story, which brings key characters to the Jia household and helps to locate it geographically and socially. Along with plot elements such as a "mirror protagonist", this also reflects an awareness of the creative process itself.
The Story of the Stone reveals a huge amount about everyday (aristocratic but also commoner) life in Qing China, about food and drink, ceremonies, family structures, the gradations of status, illness and medicine, astrology, religion, the legal system, and so forth. This is incidental to the story — this is not a historical novel where the author might have highlighted this material for its own sake — but is all the more fascinating because of that.
The original work is, like much Chinese literature, littered with references to history and literature. These could have been handled with copious footnoting, but Hawkes and Minford instead opted to add material and sometimes expand dialogue so as to provide any necessary context within the text itself. Brief appendices are used for some more involved information, such as an explanation of the significance of the qin stringed instrument, the workings of various drinking games, the structure of different poetic forms, and so forth. And Minford opts to translate some Chinese school texts into Latin, which works reasonably well, at least for readers with the right background.
There is also a considerable amount of embedded poetry, which is translated into forms which flow naturally in English. This, and the handling of the poetry exchanges more generally, may not give that much of a feel for Chinese poetry in itself — a difficult undertaking — but does convey something of its significance for the characters.
The Story of the Stone is divided into five volumes in this translation for Penguin Classics. The first three, translated by David Hawkes, are the original 80 chapter work which circulated in various partial manuscripts, possibly before as well as after Cao Xueqin's death in 1764. The last two, translated by John Minford, are the 40 chapter conclusion published in 1791, supposedly edited by Gao E from Cao's notes. Hawkes, in his introduction to volume one, suggests they were edited by a family member before being used by Gao E. Minford, in his introduction to volume four, suggests they were based on an earlier version of the full work.
There is controversy over the last 40 chapters, since they disagree in places with the foreshadowings and prophecies in the first 80, and some scholars claim they are a complete forgery. There are certainly places where, as Minford puts it, the reader "becomes aware of 'something missing'" — they are perhaps starker and less multi-textured. But Minford also writes:
"No amount of scholarly argument has succeeded in supplanting these last forty chapters as the ending, despite their shortcomings. They are here to stay, and indeed some of the scenes in them are deservedly among the most famous in the whole novel."
The Story of the Stone comes to over 2300 pages, even excluding the introductions in volumes one and four and the brief appendices. This should not be allowed to deter readers, however, as it is remarkably easy to read once one gets started. And it really is one of the great literary creations of the world.