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The Chronicles of the Stone

The Chronicles of the Stone (石頭記) or The Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦, Hnglu Mng) is one of the greatest masterpieces of Chinese fiction, written during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911). The author is Cao Zhan (曹霑, 1715 - c. 1763), also known as Cao Xueqin.

As riveting as any soap opera, it can also be read as a study of 18th-century Chinese manners, or as a Buddhist allegory. A lengthy work, the first 80 chapters were written by Cao and the remaining 40 chapters attributed to a Gao E, who published the combined version in 1792. Gao E claimed to have completed the work based on a manuscript by the author.

The story orbits around a wealthy but declining family, the Jia clan, who occupies two large family compounds in the capital. The main characters are the powerful family matriarch Grandmother Jia, the peculiar grandson Jia Baoyu (賈寶玉) and his two girl cousins, the socially-graceful but inwardly cold Xue Baochai (薛寶釵) and the temperamental Lin Daiyu (林黛玉). In fact, it would be more accurate to say the main character is the family itself: its many members, their servants, their mutual obligations and expectations, and the unfolding fate of each person.

The novel is graced with different styles of foreshadowing. Through all, the author reveals the reality of life amidst the "red dust" -- the grasping, yearning, opulent, and ultimately futile life of both peasant and elite in 18th-century China. Taoist and Buddhist themes are woven deeply into the structure of the novel and one of Cao Xueqin's aims is to reveal the emptiness and beauty of the aristocratic society he unveils for us.

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