Historical Notes

What was the historical context in which Dream of the Red Chamber was written?

Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber was written in the mid -1700’s, during the Qing (pronounced “Ching”) dynasty (1644-1911.) During the Qing, China was occupied by the Manchus, semi-nomadic invaders from the north skilled in horseback riding and the military arts, who overthrew the Chinese Emperor, and established a dynasty of their own. While the Manchus allowed the Chinese to serve in the government and embraced many aspects of Chinese culture, their political dominance was absolute, and the position of even the highest Chinese officials was precarious.

This was particularly true of Cao’s family, whose ancestors had settled in Manchuria and been captured and made “Bondeservants,” or slaves, of the Plain White Banner (The Manchus organized their state into “Banners,” or companies of soldiers and their families and dependents.) After the members of the Plain White Banner were selected to manage the daily operations of the Imperial Palace, the Caos for many years enjoyed high status and close relations with the Emperor Kangxi, until their fall from grace after his death in 1722.

Members of the Blue Banner under Emperor Qianlong

Did the women in Dream of the Red Chamber have bound feet?

Although foot-binding was popular among Chinese women during the Qing dynasty, the Manchu emperors forbade Banner members from binding the feet and adopting other Chinese fashions. Given that the Caos were Bannermen, I do not believe that the Jia women, believed to be modeled after Cao’s female relatives, had bound feet.

Chinese shoes for bound feet

Manchu high-heeled, or “horse-hoof” shoes worn for special occasions

What happened to the original ending of Dream of the Red Chamber?

Most scholars believe that Cao Xueqin completed Dream of the Red Chamber before his death, although only the first eighty chapters of the novel now remain. Marginal and interlinear notes on early manuscripts, evidently written by one of Cao’s intimates, refer to the names of chapters that are no longer extant. These notes, known as the “Red Inkstone Commentary,” also suggest that parts of the manuscript were freely lent to family and acquaintances to read; it is possible that the ending was lost due to sheer carelessness. However, a contemporary of Cao’s remarks that he was wary of reading the novel because of its “indiscretions.” It may have been that the end of the novel, in depicting the precipitous downfall of the Jias, was implicitly critical of the Emperor, and was therefore deliberately suppressed.

The last forty chapters of the novel as it now exists were compiled by Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan about twenty years after Cao’s death, based on scattered fragments of the book they claimed to have collected at book markets over the years.

A handwritten manuscript of Dream of the Red Chamber. The Red Inkstone Commentary is in red.

What is the significance of Dream of the Red Chamber in Chinese culture today?

The beloved and central place of Dream of the Red Chamber in China can scarcely be exaggerated. The characters are so well know that their names have entered the common vocabulary; “Wang Xifeng,” for example, has become an instantly understood shorthand for a cruel, conniving woman. Despite the nearly canonical status of the 1987 Dream of the Red Chamber TV series (CCTV), a new version, cast by a reality show, aired in 2010, initially garnering an audience share of over 23%, despite heated debates about the performers’ costumes, hairstyles, and acting. There are Dream of the Red Chamber video games and comics, and restaurants devoted to serving “Red Chamber” cuisine. A Disney-style Dream of the Red Chamber theme park is slated to open in Jiangsu province in 2014.

Dream of the Red Chamber comic book

A poster for the 2010 TV series

How does The Red Chamber differ from Dream of the Red Chamber?

Because traditional Chinese novels tend to be episodic in structure as well as extremely long (Dream of the Red Chamber is about 2500 pages in translation), I felt that it was necessary both to streamline the plot and to create more narrative momentum in order to make the book more accessible to modern audiences. I did this primarily by focusing on the inner lives and motivations of three major female protagonists, cutting out literally hundreds of both subplots and secondary characters, and reshaping the plot to highlight the intertwinement of Daiyu, Baochai, and Xifeng’s lives, as well as their differing personalities.

Partial family tree for Dream of the Red Chamber