in a large Chinese household in the mid-18th century Qing dynasty. It
remains a fascinating novel for modern readers with its vivid and detailed
descriptions of the minutiae of daily life - from clothing, food and
interior design to education, marriage and death.
For all its realism however, The Story of the Stone is not set entirely in
reality. The very premise of the whole tale, that of a single rock left out
of the goddess Nu-wa's repairing of the sky, is one based on a
magico-religious dream world. The rock is found by a Buddhist and a Taoist
who take it down to the mortal world where it lives out a human life, that
of Jia Bao-yu, before attaining Nirvana. Once a rock again, a Taoist copies
the inscription on its surface ''from beginning to end and took it back
with him to look for a publisher''.
Cao Xueqin's emphasis on dreams can be seen in the alternative titles for
his masterpiece. A Dream of Red Mansions is the title by which the book is
perhaps most commonly known. Twelve Young Ladies of Jinling is also a title
suggested in chapter one. Both of these titles refer to the same dream. As
David Hawkes explains, 'hong lou', red mansion, has the more specialised
meaning of the residences of the daughters of rich men and thus, the young
The dream alluded to in these appellations occurs in the fifth chapter of
volume one, The Golden Days. Cousin Zhen's wife, You-shi, has invited the
women of the Rong-guo house, accompanied by Bao-yu, round for a flower
viewing party. Needless to say, Bao-yu soon tires and asks to take a nap.
Rather than going back to the Rong mansion, the wife of his nephew, Jia
Rong, leads him to her chamber to sleep. Bao-yu immediately drops off into
a vivid dream world.
He meets the fairy of Disenchantment who shows him to the Land of Illusion
and into the Department of the Ill-Fated Fair. Within this department is
housed the 'Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register', a record of the
twelve most notable females in Bau-yu's own province of Jinling. The fairy
of Disenchantment allows Bao-yu to read the fates of the twelve girls as
recorded in the form of four-line verses. Bao-yu can make little sense of
what he reads. Later, the quatrains are expanded into a series of twelve
songs entitled A Dream of Golden Days. While the words are sung by a troupe
of entertainers, Bao-yu reads along with the manuscript. He still does not
Indeed, both the verses in the register and in the song-cycle contain
allusions and metaphors not immediately obvious and not easily deciphered.
Yet at a most basic level, they provide an outline of the fate of twelve
principle female characters in The Story of the Stone. Their fate unfolds
throughout the course of the five volume novel. The Golden Days therefore,
is only the beginning. But, by the end of the first volume, to what extent
have the women already prepared the way for their future course?
The first verse in the Main Register is a joint record of Lin Dai-yu and
Xue Bao-chai. These two young girls share the affection of Bao-yu and
Grandmother Jia. In their own individual ways, they are both paragons. It
seems odd therefore that they share only one verse between them. Hawkes
puts forward the argument that Dai-yu and Bao-chai ''represent two
complementary aspects of a single ideal woman''. Evidence for this
interpretation lies in the first two lines of their quatrain: One was a
pattern of female virtue, One a wit who made other wits seem slow. The
combination of wit, or intelligence, and virtue were ideal traits in a Qing
woman of the upper class. Arguably it was Dai-yu who held the upper hand in
wit while Bao-chai, with her ''generous and accommodating disposition'',
was the more virtuous.