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In 'Red Chamber,' A Love Triangle For The Ages

Jul 15, 2012
Originally published on August 14, 2012 2:48 pm

Before most readers in China learned of Romeo and Juliet, they were captivated by a love triangle between a boy and his two female cousins.

It's the "single most famous love triangle in Chinese literary history," says author Pauline A. Chen, who's written the latest retelling of the tale of Jia Baoyu and his cousins Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. The three characters form the central love story of the Chinese novel Hong Lou Meng, often translated as Dream of the Red Chamber in English.

Chen's adaptation of the 18th-century novel shortens both the title (to The Red Chamber) and the notoriously long plot in hopes of introducing more English readers to a Chinese classic.

Boiling Down The Story

The original tale, by Cao Xueqin, follows the decline of a well-to-do family at a time in China when an emperor still lived in the Imperial Palace, marriages were arranged and romances between cousins were socially acceptable.

The novel features 400-plus characters, and the full English translation is more than 2,500 pages long. The book is so multilayered that it even has its own academic field, known as Redology. But Chen's adaptation boils down the original story to focus, in part, on that famous triangle that just about everyone in China knows.

Here's the Cliffs Notes version: Boy meets girl No. 1; then boy meets girl No. 2. Boy likes them both, but he's in love with girl No. 1. So [spoiler alert] when the boy is forced into an arranged marriage with girl No. 2, tragedy ensues.

The Chinese 'Gone With The Wind'?

Chen says it's a story that American readers may recognize; she sees a "strange resemblance" between the novel and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.

There's no roguish Rhett Butler to further complicate the love triangle of Dream of the Red Chamber. But both novels do follow the decline of an upper-class family and, Chen says, both share a similar tension between their female protagonists.

"In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O'Hara is desperately jealous of Melanie Wilkes for most of the book because she loves Ashley Wilkes, Melanie's husband," Chen explains. "But then by the end of the book, when Melanie dies, suddenly Scarlett realizes how much they have gone through together, and that her bond to Melanie is far stronger than what she felt for Ashley."

Chen says Scarlett and Melanie remind her of Dream of the Red Chamber's Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, who also strike a complicated friendship despite their love for the same man. Their relationship inspired Chen to write her own version of the story with a new, less tragic ending.

'Ways A Chinese Woman Could Be'

Chen, who has taught college courses on Dream of the Red Chamber, says early readers of the novel immediately took sides on its love triangle.

"Some people liked Lin Daiyu and they loved her spontaneity, her expressivity, her passion," Chen says. "But some people hated her because actually she's also very petty and gets really angry and always goes off in hissy fits over relatively small incidents."

In contrast, Xue Baochai is depicted as "even tempered, kind, generous," Chen says. "I think right away, these two women represented kind of the two ways a Chinese woman could be."

Banned In China

While it was first published more than two centuries ago, Dream of the Red Chamber still has generations of fans today. Sasha Gong, who heads the China branch at the international broadcaster Voice of America, has read it so many times she can recite passages by heart. She says she first read it as a young teenager in China during the Cultural Revolution.

"When I read it in the early 1970s or late 1960s, it was banned," Gong recalls. "But everybody still loved it."

In his youth, even Chairman Mao Zedong was an avid reader of the novel. At one point, Chinese communists celebrated the book for its depictions of bourgeois decadence and of arranged marriages as a backward institution of feudal China.

Still, Gong says, "Mao loved a lot of things, [but] he banned everything," especially during the Cultural Revolution, when reading practically anything except Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" became a political crime.

But that wasn't the first time Dream of the Red Chamber was deemed a "bad" book to read. Before the Chinese Communist Party came into power and banned arranged marriages in 1950, parents would often tell their children to stay away from a book that seemed to encourage romantic free will.

A 'Dirty' Classic

Chen says the novel has always stood out in Chinese literature for depicting a romance that was more a meeting of souls than lust.

"And I think that that type of romantic love is an expression of individualism and free choice and personal choice," Chen says. "Even today, China is a society in which Confucianism is still fairly important, and Confucianism is something that emphasizes roles based on hierarchies. And so I think, still, the idea of free love and free choice outside the family is something that's very compelling."

The Chinese government lifted its ban on the novel after the Cultural Revolution, and it's now held up as one of China's greatest literary treasures. Casting for its latest television adaptation even inspired a reality competition on state-sponsored television in Beijing.

But grandparents can be a different story. Catherine Chen (no relation to Pauline Chen) has read Dream of the Red Chamber twice, first as a middle schooler in China, against her grandmother's wishes.

"My grandma said it's not a good novel," Chen, 24, recalls. "She said it's dirty [and] that I shouldn't read [it], especially [a] young girl like me."

But Chen says she likes the book anyway. So have generations of readers in China. And now, perhaps, readers in America will too.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If there's one book that proves romance is alive in China, it's "Dream of the Red Chamber." The novel was written more than two centuries ago, but it still has generations of fans in China today.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on a new English adaptation that will introduce more American readers to a classic Chinese love story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Before most readers in China learned of "Romeo and Juliet," they were captivated by a love triangle between a boy and his two female cousins.

PAULINE CHEN: This is the single most famous love triangle in Chinese literary history.

WANG: That was Pauline Chen.

CHEN: And I'm the author of "The Red Chamber."

WANG: The latest retelling of a classic Chinese novel called "Hong Lou Meng," or for English speakers, "Dream of the Red Chamber."

It's about a well-to-do family living in an old China when an emperor still lived in the Imperial Palace, marriages were arranged and romances between cousins were socially acceptable. The full English translation of "Dream of the Red Chamber" is more than 2,000 pages long and it features more than 400 characters.

But Pauline Chen has written a new adaptation that boils down the story to focus on that famous love triangle that just about everyone in China knows. Here's a Cliff Notes version.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: Boy meets Girl Number One, then boy meets Girl Number Two, Boy likes them both but he's actually in love with Girl Number One. So spoiler alert: when the boy is forced into an arranged marriage with Girl Number Two...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

WANG: ...tragedy ensues. Sound familiar? You know, it's kind of like this story...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GONE WITH THE WIND" THEME MUSIC)

WANG: ...or at least Pauline Chen thinks so.

CHEN: I do think that there's a strange resemblance to "Gone with the Wind."

WANG: There's no Rhett Butler to further complicate the love triangle of "Dream of the Red Chamber." But both novels follow the decline of an upper-class family. And Chen says both share a similar tension between their female protagonists.

CHEN: In "Gone with the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara is desperately jealous of Melanie Wilkes for most of the book because she loves Ashley Wilkes, Melanie's husband. But then by the end of the book, when Melanie dies, suddenly Scarlett realizes how much they have gone through together, and that her bond to Melanie is far stronger than what she felt for Ashley.

WANG: Chen says Scarlett and Melanie reminded her of the two main female characters of "Dream of the Red Chamber," characters that she says readers immediately connected with when the book was first published in the mid-1700s.

CHEN: So, some people liked Lin Daiyu and they loved her spontaneity, her expressivity, her passion. But some people hated her, because actually she's also very petty, and gets really angry, and always goes off in hissy fits over relatively small incidents. And then the other character, Baochai, is even tempered, kind, generous. So, I think right away, these two women represented kind of the two ways a Chinese woman could be.

SASHA GONG: You actually see Chinese traditional literature, you will see a consistent pattern of strong women and weaker men.

WANG: Sasha Gong heads the China branch of Voice of America. And she's read "Dream of the Red Chamber" so many times she can recite passages by heart. She first read it as a young teenager in China during the Cultural Revolution.

GONG: When I read it in the early 1970s or late 1960s, it was banned, but everybody still love it.

WANG: Everybody, including Chairman Mao.

GONG: Oh yeah, Mao loved it. Mao loved a lot of things. He banned everything.

WANG: Especially during the Cultural Revolution, when reading practically anything except Chairman Mao's Little Red Book became a political crime. But that wasn't the first time "Dream of the Red Chamber" was deemed a bad book to read. Before the Chinese Communist Party came into power and banned arranged marriages in 1950, parents would often tell their children to stay away from a book that seems to encourage romantic free will.

CHEN: And I think that that type of romantic love is an expression of individualism.

WANG: Again, Pauline Chen.

CHEN: And that even today China is a society in which Confucianism is still fairly important. And Confucianism is something that emphasizes roles based on hierarchies. And so I think still the idea of free love and free choice outside the family is something that's very compelling.

WANG: The Chinese government has longed stopped banning the novel. It's now held up as one of China's greatest literary treasures. But grandparents can be a different story.

CATHERINE CHEN: My grandma said it's not a good novel.

WANG: Catherine Chen is 24 and she's read "Dream of the Red Chamber" twice - first as a middle schooler in China - against grandma's wishes.

CHEN: She said it's dirty, that I shouldn't read, especially for like young girl like me. But I like it anyway.

WANG: And so have generations of readers in China - and now, maybe one day in America, too. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.