The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin is an animated, lively account of life
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...