Rereading the Stone:
Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber

Anthony C. Yu

Princeton University Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
In Rereading the Stone Yu engages with both Chinese and European literature and critical traditions, in a tour-de-force of scholarship that is perhaps the pre-eminent critical study, at least in English, of Dream of the Red Chamber (Chinese Hongloumeng, best known translation The Story of the Stone). Close-reading of the novel is combined with explication of its historical and comparative context, in five chapters which explore some of its major themes.

Chinese critical approaches to Dream of the Red Chamber emphasize its realism and autobiographical elements, and the depiction of Qing society is one of the major attractions for Western readers. In "Reading", however, Yu explores how Dream deliberately sets itself as a work of fiction, unusually among its peers; the context for this is provided by a potted history of Chinese "history" and "fiction".

"The stress on the annal and chronicle as favored modes of writing in much traditional Chinese historiography thus reveals a condition not merely of politics but also of language. ... It is in this light that we may begin to comprehend why Cao Xueqin takes such pains to describe his tale as unverifiable and undatable discourse. His rhetoric does not so much accentuate his story's timelessness or its political innocuousness as it does its sharp contrast to a different and rival mode of writing — history itself."

"Desire" presents an account of the long-running Chinese philosophical discourse on desire (qing), a "disputation" which "holds importance not merely for politics and ethics in Chinese cultural history but also for literature and aesthetics".

"The reception history of many literary works of the Ming-Qing period can thus appear as one long crisis of the containment of desire, but that development has its antecedents. ...
To advocate understanding the female on her own terms is already to challenge the foundational hierarchy long established, much as to privilege qing, especially the affects between the sexes, as both the educative and regulative forces in life potentially subverts the norms of orthodoxy."

Neither Cao Xueqin nor the Dream of the Red Chamber have featured that prominently so far, but in "Stone" Yu brings together the ideas from the first two chapters to analyse the novel's Buddhist themes, its use of dreams and mirror imagery and its broad structure. It may be "virtually impossible" to avoid considering it "as a grand parable of Buddhist quest and enlightenment", but Yu suggests this is not so simple.

"The trajectory of the plot, since it follows Bao-yu's quest for deliverance from his sufferings, may tempt the reader to think that the novel supplies but a mimetic enactment of the Buddhist vision. If the analysis in the present study thus far is not far off the mark, however, then I believe that the 'flavor' or 'secret message' of the work lies in the differentiation between the Buddhist 'reading' of the world and our reading of literary fiction. [...] Whereas Buddhism draws from its 'reading' the conclusion that detachment is the ultimate wisdom, the experience of reading fiction, at least according to our author, is nothing if not the deepest engagement. In Hongloumeng, therefore, the medium subverts the message, the discourse its language."

The fourth chapter, "Literature", turns to the background of Confucian ideals, to marriage, learning and examinations, and to traditional attitudes to poetry, drama, and fiction and their ability to "lead astray". Yu looks in detail at the role of literature and reading — notably works such as The Story of the Western Wing and The Peony Pavilion — in Bao-yu's sexual education and his relationship with Dai-yu. "It is no random detail that Dai-yu is moved to ardent longing by two dramatic texts of Chinese literary history not only most forceful in their glorification of heterosexual love, but also most daring in their portraits of young women living through their own sexual awakening."

Drawing on comparisons with Greek tragedy, "Tragedy" further explores Lin Dai-yu as a tragic protagonist, analysing her position in the story, her character, her "thwarted communion" with Bao-yu, and her death.

"Although Lin Dai-yu has been a character of irresistible charm for most traditional Chinese readers, recent criticism has become discernibly more muted in its acclaim. ... modern writers place greater emphasis on the neurotic and self-destructive tendencies in Dai-yu's personality."
"The full tragic stature of Dai-yu, however, is not to be measured merely by the depth of her suffering, as sustained and excruciating a portrayal as that may be, comparable to any in world literature, but also by the strenuousness of her struggle — in her words, her poems, her tears, and even her dreams — against impossible constraints and overwhelming odds."

A shorter "conclusion" looks briefly at the role of poetry in the novel, and warns again against an autobiographical reading:

"the poem as the poetic fiction a writer has invented need never be identical with autobiography, because the manner and means of representation can generate a difference in perceived intention and reception. In this regard, traditional Chinese poetics and the commentarial tradition are often blind to the practice of their own poets."
"The autobiographical reading, however, is virtually oblivious to the implication of fiction couched in the Stone's apology that claims the authoritative knowledge and representation of other minds and lives. ... moreover, [it] conveniently ignores or slights the complex and sophisticated system of rhetoric that the text constantly uses to call attention to its own fictiveness."

Rereading the Stone is quite dense and, though it doesn't rely on any elaborated body of theory, it is an academic work which presupposes some familiarity with literary criticism. It is, however, accessible without a background in Chinese literature, and could be used as an introduction to that for students or scholars studying other traditions.

October 2016

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%T Rereading the Stone
%S Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber
%A Yu, Anthony C.
%I Princeton University Press
%D 1997
%O paperback, glossary, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0691090130
%P 321pp