Although born of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, as a child I spoke only rudimentary Chinese; my parents were of a generation who believed that teaching children a foreign language would inhibit their ability to learn English. Instead I grew up reading Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy, and Dickens. At Harvard I studied the Classics, with a special interest in Latin poetry. I came upon Chinese literature later, and quite by accident. A Taiwanese friend showed me an eleventh-century Chinese poem. As she translated it, line by crystalline line, a door opened into an undreamed world of new literary forms, philosophy, and aesthetics.
Fascinated, I began the long journey of learning classical Chinese. It was in graduate school in East Asian Studies that I discovered the canonical Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The story of brilliant and talented women whose lives were constricted by lack of physical freedom and opportunity (aristocratic Chinese women were confined to Women’s Quarters, where men were allowed only limited access), the novel resonated with my own family’s history: my two grandmothers were both illiterate, and my mother had struggled to gain access to the education her brothers received. More than twenty-five hundred pages long, the book was structured far more loosely than a western novel, linking hundreds of characters and meandering through years of mealtimes and naps, parties and chats. And yet, tracing with exquisite care the inner worlds of characters from princesses to maids, and unearthing the depths of feeling and disparities in power beneath the most everyday interactions, Dream of the Red Chamber more closely mirrored my experience of life than any work I had previously read.
Teaching the novel to undergraduates at Oberlin College, I came to realize how the vast majority of American readers, even if they had known of the book, would be discouraged from reading it by its length and unfamiliarity. I began to write a version for western readers, translating Dream of the Red Chamber not merely into another language but into another form, that of a contemporary western novel. Moreover, Cao’s original ending had been lost, and the final third of the novel as it now exists had been written by another hand after his death. Haunted by a sense of incompletion, I needed to finish the story for myself.
My first drafts succeeded only in being abridgements. I had to allow myself greater freedom to depart from the original plot to distill what I found most compelling about the work: an elegiac awareness of the illusory and evanescent nature of human life; also the excruciating conflict between female friendship and romantic love that occurs when women intimates become rivals for the same man. To these two central themes, I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women’s opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies?
About the Book
THE RED CHAMBER is an ambitious and exquisite first novel by Pauline Chen that has already drawn early praise from best-selling writers Julie Otsuka (“compelling”), Arthur Golden (“remarkable”), and Janice Lee (“impossible to put down”). An epic reimagining of the Chinese literary classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, THE RED CHAMBER tells the story of three women in an aristocratic household in 18th-century Beijing, with an utterly absorbing love story at its center.
Daiyu is an impoverished orphan adopted into the household who falls in love with Baoyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortunes. Despite his love for her, the family betroths Baoyu to his cousin Baochai, who hides her own desires under a dutiful exterior. Meanwhile, the young matron Xifeng struggles to protect the family from financial ruin, even as her husband spurns her for her inability to bear a child. Linking the three women’s fate is the jade, a mysterious stone found in Bayou’s mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family.
The idea for THE RED CHAMBER came to Chen years ago when she was teaching a class on Dream of the Red Chamber, widely considered the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition. Perhaps due to its daunting length (2500 pages) and complex cast of characters (more than 400), the novel is largely unknown to western audiences. And like many readers of the classic, Chen was haunted by a sense of incompletion—Cao’s original ending has been lost, and a new ending was written by another hand after his death.
In THE RED CHAMBER, Chen attempts to finish the story for herself, while streamlining the original plot to focus on the inner lives and motivations of the three female main characters. In a world where women lacked power and were pitted against each other by the system of concubinage, these strong women forged bonds, redeemed their lives, and found moments of happiness through friendship and generosity. Chen’s resolution to the story is sure to astound and enthrall readers up until the very last page.
From the rich descriptions of the customs followed in this cloistered, yet opulent world, to the cast of fully-rounded characters, THE RED CHAMBER reads like a Chinese Downton Abbey and is a fitting homage to a beloved masterpiece.
Release Date: July 13, 2012
About the Author
I left home for college more than twenty-five years ago fully intending to become a writer. And yet, by the time I graduated, I had lost that ambition. What had happened during my four years at Harvard? In part, no doubt, I was intimidated by the superior talents of so many of my classmates. But something else, deeper and more fundamental had happened, although it took me many years to realize it.
I had gone to Harvard to broaden my horizons, to become educated. If there was one thing I knew, it was that my upbringing among the strip malls of Long Island in an insular and conservative Taiwanese-American family, was not the subject of serious writing. The authors I admired had distinctly European sensibilities: cigarettes and grappa at Parisian cafes; country dances and muslin frocks in a Derbyshire ballroom. I came from another world, of embarrassingly idiosyncratic personal and dietary habits. Before I left for Cambridge, my mother, worried that I would have nothing to eat before the Student Union opened, made me a batch of her special rice with mushrooms and dried shrimp. But I threw it into a dumpster, determined to shed what I considered to be the provincialism of my roots, along with my frizzy perm and Long Guyland accent. I would no longer use the contents of a single basin to bathe my whole body—instead I would steam up the mirrors with my endless showers like the other members of my rooming group. I would learn to use a knife and fork to consume the (to me) cosmopolitan and unfamiliar cuisine served up by the dining hall, including, in the mid-eighties, beef chimichangas and cauliflower au gratin.
But somehow during my transformation into international sophisticate, I stopped feeling that I had anything to say. My writing dried up; I did not understand that the experiences which made me nervous and uncomfortable, which I was quick to bury, also made me creative. For many years afterwards, I did everything but write. I went to law school, the great refuge of those “trying to keep their options open.” I promptly closed off my options by doing graduate work in classical Chinese poetry. I spent time in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and then, most alien of all, northeastern Ohio. I got married, had two children, got divorced. In 2001 I was diagnosed with a rare ovarian cancer and went back to Long Island for treatment, undergoing chemotherapy at, yes, a strip mall. When I was too nauseated to eat, my mother’s rice was one of the few things I could stomach. When I was in the hospital, my mother was the only one could stop my son from crying. Somehow it became clear that that group of bickering Taiwanese-American provincials, also known as my family, were my source of strength, the lens through which I saw everything, and my real subject—and I began to write again.
The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, contrary to popular wisdom, tells her students: “Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know.” I think that the problem with many young writers is they are so filled with preconceived notions, that they cannot “know” even what is before there own eyes. For years I deplored my childhood circumstances as narrow. In fact my parents had lived on two continents and spoke three languages. All along the narrowness had been in my own vision—and I had had to travel to the ends of the earth in order to see the place that I had come from.
The child of Taiwanese-American parents who came to the United States to study in the sixties and seventies, Pauline Chen earned a B.A. in Classics from Harvard, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a doctorate in East Asian Studies from Princeton University. She has taught Chinese language, literature, and film at Oberlin College and the University of Minnesota. Her articles on Chinese film have appeared in Film Content and Cineaste. She is the author of Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas (Bloomsbury, 2007), about a Taiwanese-American girl who longs to celebrate Christmas despite resistance of her traditional family.
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