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On Sale: July 10, 2012
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95841-9
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Synopsis

In this lyrical reimagining of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, set against the breathtaking backdrop of eighteenth-century Beijing, the lives of three unforgettable women collide in the inner chambers of the Jia mansion. When orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to take shelter with her cousins in the Capital, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendor, presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering façades, she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue and hidden passions, reaching from the petty gossip of the servants’ quarters all the way to the Imperial Palace. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each woman must choose between love and duty, friendship and survival.

In this dazzling debut, Pauline A. Chen draws the reader deep into the secret, exquisite world of the women’s quarters of an aristocratic household, where the burnish of wealth and refinement mask a harsher truth: marriageable girls are traded like chattel for the family’s advancement, and to choose to love is to risk everything.

Excerpt

1

Lin Daiyu crushes apricot kernels and black sesame seeds in a marble mortar. She scrapes the medicine into a bowl of stewed bird’s nests and stirs it with a porcelain spoon. She brings the bowl to her mother’s bed near the window. Propped against her bolsters, Daiyu’s mother sips the dose, grimacing a little. Daiyu watches every mouthful, as if by her vigilance she can somehow will the medicine to work.

Mrs. Lin lies back, exhausted even by the act of drinking. “Daiyu,” she says, her voice a reedy thread.

“Yes?”

“I want to show you something.”

“What is it?”

“Go and look in the bottom of my old trunk.”

Daiyu kneels before the wardrobe and opens the battered chest where the family keeps their winter clothes. She rummages beneath the piles of bulky padded trousers and quilted jackets, and finds a flat bundle in a crimson brocade wrapping cloth.

“Yes, that’s it. Bring it here.”

Her mother’s thin fingers struggle with the knot, and Daiyu leans over to help. Inside are two flat boxes. Mrs. Lin opens one to reveal a necklace of reddish gold in the form of a coiling dragon. In the other is a tiara of flying golden phoenixes, a string of pearls arching from each beak.

“These are from your dowry, aren’t they?”

Mrs. Lin does not seem to hear the question. “Help me up,” she says.

Daiyu climbs onto the bed and adjusts the pillows so that her mother is sitting upright. Her mother places the tiara on her uncombed hair. “Bring me a mirror.”

Reluctantly, Daiyu gets the one on the dressing table. Leaning against the cushions, her mother tilts the tiny bronze hand-­mirror back and forth, catching little glimpses of herself on the polished surface. “What a fine young lady I was back then, looking down my nose at everything. Why, I’d never even touched, let alone worn, silks like these, made by common weavers.” Her fingers pluck at the worn honey-­colored material of her robe. “Everything we wore was made in the Palace by the Imperial Weavers. Even our maids didn’t wear such stuff!”

Daiyu’s mother laughs a little, as if marveling at her younger self.

“I was fond of fine things in those days, and my parents spoiled me by giving me anything I wanted. My eldest brother, Jing, didn’t mind, but my second brother, Zheng, was always jealous.”

Daiyu sits by her mother’s feet, watching the play of expression on her face.

“I remember one New Year’s, when our grandfather—­the first Duke of Rongguo—­was still alive. He asked us to write lantern riddles in verse. When he read what the three of us had written, he said it was a pity I hadn’t been born a boy, for I would have been sure to win the Jias glory if I had been allowed to take the Civil Service Exams.”

Daiyu nods. Her mother loved poetry, and had taught Daiyu the rules of meter and rhyme as soon as she could read.

“As it was, Zheng had to take the Exams I don’t know how many times until he passed. Your father passed the first time, of course. But in the end, Zheng did pretty well for himself.” To Daiyu, her mother’s voice sounds slightly grudging. “Under-­Secretary in the Ministry of Works. Zheng always was a hard worker.”

“What about your eldest brother?”

“Jing never did pass. All he did was fritter away my father’s money on concubines and gambling.” The reminiscent smile fades from Mrs. Lin’s face, and her expression grows somber. She hands Daiyu the mirror and plucks the tiara off her hair. “And now Zheng is the only one of us who is still alive, and living at Rongguo Mansion with my mother.”

“Do I have any cousins there?” Daiyu says.

“Well, there’s the famous Baoyu, of course.”

“Why is he famous?”

“Haven’t I told you about him?” Her mother’s delicate eyebrows arch in surprise. “He’s Zheng’s son. He was the one born with the jade in his mouth. That’s why your grandmother named him ‘Baoyu,’ ‘Precious Jade.’ ”

“How could a person be born with a jade in his mouth?”

“Who knows?” Mrs. Lin shrugs. “All I know is that my mother—­your grandmother—­thinks it’s a miracle, and spoils him to death. His own mother died when he was barely twelve or thirteen, and from all I’ve heard he’s turned into a rare handful. He skips school every other day, and runs around with his girl cousins in the Women’s Quarters instead of studying.”

“How old is he?” Daiyu asks.

“Eighteen—­more than old enough to take the Exams. Your other male cousin, Lian, is more than twenty-­five, but they gave up on his passing years ago. He’s Jing’s son. Like father, like son, I suppose. I don’t know how the Jias are going to keep up their prestige if they don’t have more sons entering the Civil Service. If Baoyu doesn’t pass—­” Mrs. Lin pauses, coughing, then leans back against the pillows with her eyes shut, trying to catch her breath.

“Help me lie down.”

Daiyu climbs onto the bed and eases her mother into a lying position. She wipes her mother’s lips.

After Mrs. Lin’s breath has slowed, she says, still with her eyes closed, “You’ll have to go live with them, you know, after I die.”

“You won’t die,” Daiyu says quickly, but even to her own ears her voice lacks conviction.

“Yes, I will. And when I do, you’ll have to go to the Jias.”

“I’ll stay with Father.”

“I want you to go to the Capital.”

“Why?” Daiyu starts to cry.

“You’ll be able to make a good match there—­someone from one of the big families. The Jias will see to that.”

“What does that matter?” Daiyu cries. “You didn’t have a match like that.” Though her father comes from an old and educated family, he had been the sole offspring of an only child; and now only distant members of the clan, whom she has never met, are still alive. “Why can’t I stay here?”

Her mother lies silent for a long time, staring at the ceiling. At last she says, “When I was young, I didn’t think anything mattered as long as I was with your father. Now, since I’ve gotten sick, I’ve realized how hard it is to be without any family.” Her eyes turn to Daiyu, and Daiyu sees they are full of tears. “I’m worried about what will happen to you when I’m gone. I don’t want you to have to struggle like I did . . .”

Her words fill Daiyu with something akin to panic. “But—­but you’ve been happy with Father, haven’t you?”

Mrs. Lin doesn’t answer. Her eyes move past Daiyu to the phoenix tiara on the dressing table. “We should never have raised you like this.”

“Like what?”

“Keeping so much to ourselves. You’ve never met people of your own age and background.” She looks back at Daiyu and her eyes are almost challenging. “Well, you’ll have to learn how to get along with other people at Rongguo. You’ll need to learn to think before you speak.” She puts out her hand, and Daiyu takes it, feeling how cool her fingers are. “Still, you mustn’t let them cow you. You’re strong enough to stand up to them.”

Daiyu wants to ask more questions, but her mother starts to cough again. This time she coughs so long and hard that Daiyu rushes to get a spittoon. Mrs. Lin spits out a mouthful of phlegm scarlet with fresh blood. When her mother finally stops coughing, Daiyu does not say anything more, just climbs into bed beside her. She feels how small and frail her mother has grown over the last six months, her limbs like twigs against her own strong, warm body; yet her mind shrinks from picturing a future without her. She nestles her face deeper in the crook of her mother’s neck, and sniffs for the last lingering scent of her skin not yet obscured by medicine and sickness.



Towards the end of the Forty-­Nine Days mourning, a strange man appears at the temple where Daiyu and her father are keeping vigil beside her mother’s coffin. Like them, he wears mourning robes of undyed hemp. Daiyu’s father stares at the man unrecognizingly. Then he starts to his feet with a cry of surprise.

“Why, it’s Zheng, isn’t it?”

“Ruhai, old fellow. It’s been a long time!”

Daiyu scrambles from the floor, startled by her uncle’s unexpected arrival. She searches his careworn face and stocky figure for something of her mother. The only resemblance she can find is about the eyes: there is a little thickness to the eyelids, giving her uncle the same dreamy, slightly sleepy look as her mother, and as Daiyu herself.

Daiyu’s father tries to kowtow, but his brother-­in-­law catches him by the elbows. “I set out as soon as I got her letter,” Jia Zheng says. “When did she die?”

“More than a month ago.”

Jia Zheng’s eyes begin to water. “That’s probably just after she sent the letter. Did she suffer at the end?”

“Not too much. It was quicker than we expected.”

Daiyu turns away to hide her tears. Her father manages to control himself. He clasps her uncle’s hand. “I’m glad you’ve come. Will you stay the rest of mourning?”

“I’m afraid I can’t. I have some business in Nanjing. My barge is waiting for me at the dock.”

“You’ll come for dinner at least?”

“Yes, of course.”

For the rest of the day, Jia Zheng stays at the temple with them, kneeling before the spirit tablet. For the past six weeks, Daiyu and her father have come to the temple every morning, the mourning rituals and funeral arrangements drawing them together and organizing their days. Now, the presence of her uncle disrupts their silent rapport, making her self-­conscious. She watches him mopping his streaming eyes, finding it odd that a stranger is sharing their grief.

Before dinner, her father accompanies Jia Zheng to his barge. Back in the kitchen at Bottle-­Gourd Street, Daiyu distracts herself with her daily tasks. She makes up the fire, washes the rice, and chops the vegetables. The wooden handle of the cleaver, smoothed by years of use, fits effortlessly in her hand, and her eyes are soothed by the familiarity of the room: the blue and white dishes, the faded picture of the Kitchen God on the wall, the sound of neighbors’ voices through the open window. She sees that the bucket is almost empty and goes to the well to draw water. It had rained earlier in the afternoon, one of those late summer showers, and the stone bridges and canals are dark and slick. The air is so heavy that it feels as if the least disturbance would bring on the rain again. The byways are nearly empty at this time of day, but on the other side of the canal a woman stoops beside the water with a basket of winter clothes. The hollow sound of the woman pounding the laundry with a wooden block reminds Daiyu that, despite the heat, summer is drawing to a close.

As she slips back into the kitchen, she hears voices in the front room.

“Daiyu, is that you?” her father calls.

She is surprised to see two tall, elegantly dressed women standing near the front door. She remembers her mother’s words about how even the maids at Rongguo didn’t wear ordinary silks.

“I want to introduce you to Nanny Li and Nanny Ma,” Uncle Zheng says, rising from his chair. “They’ll be taking care of you on our trip north.”

“North?” Daiyu shakes her head. She backs away from the women instinctively. “I’m not going north.”

“Min wrote that you were coming. Everyone at Rongguo is making preparations for your arrival.” Uncle Zheng smiles at her, stooping his head and rubbing his hands together. “You’ll like it there. You’ll have many cousins to play with. There’s another girl staying with us, too, Xue Baochai. She’s the daughter of my wife’s sister. She’s eighteen, just one year older than you.”

“I don’t ‘play,’ ” Daiyu says, irritated that he is speaking to her like a child.

Ignoring her interruption, he continues, “And Wang Xifeng, your cousin Lian’s wife, will take good care of you. She’s only twenty-­three, but runs the household like a little general.”

She looks towards her father for support, but to her amazement, he is nodding as if in agreement with her uncle.

“I’m not going!”

With a muttered apology to Uncle Zheng, her father leads her out through the kitchen to the back stoop so they can speak privately.

“I can’t leave you here alone,” she says.

“Before she died, your mother made me promise that you would go north to stay with her family.”

She feels a surge of outrage, as if her parents have been colluding against her. “But what about you? You can’t stay here on your own.” The picture of her father eating alone every evening pierces through her own grief.

“Of course I can. I’ll have ‘Granny’ Liu down the street cook and clean for me. I’ll be fine.”

“But—­”

“You must go. It’s what your mother wanted.”

She can hear the finality in his voice. She looks at him in the light filtering through the paper panes of the kitchen window. His face looks tired, and a little irritated. He is too exhausted to argue with her.

“It’s just a visit,” he says.

“How long do I have to go for?”

“Just a few months. You can come back in time for New Year’s.”

She calculates quickly. It is now the Eighth Month. To be back for the New Year she will have to leave the Capital by the end of the Eleventh Month.

Thus it was decided that she would go north to her mother’s family.
Pauline A. Chen

About Pauline A. Chen

Pauline A. Chen - The Red Chamber

Photo © Michael Levy

Pauline A. Chen earned her B.A. in classics from Harvard, her J.D. from Yale Law, and her Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from Princeton. She has taught Chinese language, literature, and film at the University of Minnesota and Oberlin College. She is also the author of the children’s novel Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas.
Praise

Praise

“Dazzles on every page. Heartbreaking, exhilarating, and impossible to put down.” —Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic

“Bold and memorable. . . . Chen retells and recreates in lush detail the daily life inside the Rongguo Mansion, where scandalous secrets and lies are hidden behind a grand façade.” —Chicago Tribune

“Elegant. . . . takes a long hard look at the complex interconnected desires, ambitions, and conventions that can bind a family together—or tear it apart.” —The Daily Beast

“Rarely does a cast of beloved literary figures from another culture and time come alive on the pages of a modern writer’s work. Pauline Chen has reimagined the characters from my very favorite novel to make a compelling new version of China’s great literary masterpiece.” —Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“Draws a memorable portrait of the Qing dynasty era, revealing a dangerous world of intrigue and secrets within the entrapping web of societal mores and manners. Written in a precise, cinematic style, Chen’s novel brings this fascinating historical period to vivid life.” —Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake

“Chen’s adaptation boils down the original story to focus, in part, on that famous [love] triangle that just about everyone in China knows.” —NPR

“All the reversals and treachery of a telenovela. . . . moving, startling, and quite beautiful.” —The Plain Dealer

“Offers a window into a foreign world. . . . Chen’s framework provides a context for her characters’ actions, as often flawed as they are heroic, that makes things not just knowable but comprehensible.” The Denver Post

 “A tangled past shapes a present rich with sex, violence, intrigue, guilt and jealousy. . . . Here is clearly a work of love and a pleasing introduction to a novel—and a world—that Americans deserve to get to know.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“Chen raises the bar extraordinarily high in this reimagining of one of the most famous Chinese books ever written. . . . reads like a cross between Upstairs Downstairs and War and Peace. This is a well-crafted novel full of skill and grace from an author to watch out for.” —Sunday Business Post (Ireland)

“Gripping. . . . These are complex storylines and well-loved literary characters, but Chen handles their emotions artfully and with compassion. . . . Chen has successfully unravelled and rethreaded Cao’s masterpiece for a new audience.” —Sunday Morning Post (Hong Kong)

 “Guaranteed to appeal to fans of Lisa See. . . . From the mighty heights to the depths of poverty and despair, the significance of female relationships, friendships, and rivalries are at the forefront of this compelling glimpse into an exotic time and place.” —Booklist

“The writing is supple and Chen often touches notes of emotional depth.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Full of lavish details of the palace, sumptuous feasts, and day-to-day minutiae, levitating whispered conversations overheard by the wrong parties, capricious scheming between family members, and gossip hidden beneath every elegant tapestry and beaded pillow to lofted heights.” —Publishers Weekly

“Fans of historical fiction who appreciate resonant details, unexpected intrigue, and multigenerational plotting will find this work irresistible. . . . just the right blend of the highbrow literary and guilty summer pulp” —Library Journal

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber.

About the Guide

In her magisterial first novel, Pauline A. Chen reimagines Cao Xueqin’s great eighteenth-century Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Chen’s novel compresses the 2,500-page epic to a ferociously paced 400-page journey into the heart of a ducal palace, where the lives of three unforgettable women collide. Dayiu, an impoverished orphan adopted into the household, falls in love with Baoyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortune. Despite his love for Daiyu, the family betrothes him to Baochai, who hides her own passion 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 said to have been found in Baoyu’s mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family.

From the petty gossip of the servants quarters to the political turmoil that will overthrow the dynasty and plunge the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, The Red Chamber is at once sweeping and intimate, a grand historical fiction that provides a singular lens through which to view contemporary culture, and the social, political, and romantic mores of our times.

About the Author

After studying classics at Harvard and law at Yale, Pauline A. Chen completed a doctorate in Chinese literature at Princeton. She has taught Chinese language, literature, and film at the University of Minnesota and Oberlin College.

Discussion Guides

1. In the introduction to Dream of the Red Chamber, the eighteenth-century novel on which The Red Chamber is based, the author states that an important impetus for writing the novel was nostalgia for his pampered and carefree youth. How is the theme of nostalgia also central to The Red Chamber?

2. At the beginning of the novel, do you feel that Baochai is presented sympathetically, while Xifeng is not? Do you feel that these two characters “switch places” toward the end of the book, with Xifeng becoming more likeable and Baochai less so? If so, what is the process by which Xifeng becomes more sympathetic? Does Baochai retain your sympathy at the end of the novel?

3. Were you shocked or dismayed by Baoyu’s decision to run away from his family to become a monk at the end of the book? Do you feel that he was abdicating his responsibilities to his wife and family, or did you sympathize with his decision? Do you feel that The Red Chamber can be read as a coming-of-age story, with characters like Baoyu and Daiyu achieving a higher level of understanding or maturity by the end?

4. What are the sources of tension between Baoyu and his father, Jia Zheng? Can you imagine a father and son today experiencing similar types of tension? Do you consider Jia Zheng’s beating of Baoyu to be abusive, or does it seem understandable given the cultural context?

5. There is some controversy among scholars as to whether the female characters in Dream of the Red Chamber have bound feet. The Red Chamber follows David Hawkes, the eminent translator of Dream of the Red Chamber, in presenting the Jia women as adhering to the traditions of their Manchu conquerors and not binding their feet, as most Chinese women of the period did. (The Manchus were known for their athleticism and horsemanship, while Chinese culture was considered to be more highly refined.) Would the story have unfolded differently if the characters did have bound feet? Would it have affected your perception of the characters?

6. An alternate title for the original novel upon which The Red Chamber is based is The Story of the Stone. What is the significance of Baoyu’s jade to the story? If the jade is the family’s luck, how is Baoyu an asset to his family?

7. Does Lady Jia’s favoritism toward Baoyu affect how the other members of his family—the women, his father and brothers—see him? How does being her favorite shape his life? In what ways it is advantageous, and in what ways does it create unique obstacles and difficulties?

8. What type of male ideal does Baoyu represent? What is desirable or attractive about him? How is he different from a modern Western ideal of male beauty?

9. Is Baoyu a romantic hero or an antihero? How and why?

10. Discuss the relationship between Daiyu and Baoyu. Is this a relic of youth or true love that might have had great longevity and sustained them both had circumstances not intervened? Baoyu’s love for Daiyu proves to be deep and all-consuming, yet Daiyu feels herself to be forsaken. Does Baoyu love better than Daiyu? Would the two have achieved happiness together?

11. Baoyu and Baochai are believed to be destined to marry each other because of his jade birth stone and her gold pendant: “Gold and jade make a perfect pair” in the words of an old saying (page 59). What is the notion of destiny that is in evidence in the family, and in the society? In what ways might this notion serve the purposes of the aristocratic class to which the Jia family belongs? Does it inform marriage choices, for example?

12. Discuss the character of Ping’er and how she is transformed by her journey over the course of the book. Is she a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

13. Could it be said that the central relationship of  Xifeng’s life is with Ping'er? How are they linked by bonds of friendship, rivalry, and sisterhood? How are these bonds broken, and in what ways do they ultimately survive?

14. Baochai is rigorous in observing the social codes and mores of her times. Does her propriety serve her well or poorly in a society that is undergoing political change? What does she gain by suppressing her emotions and serving her elders according to expectations? In what ways does she pay a price for doing so?

15. Daiyu and Baochai are paired in friendship and rivalry, as are Xifeng and Ping’er. Xifeng and Baochai win out in the Jia family, but it is a hollow victory. In what ways are Ping’er and Daiyu better off for having lost?

16. In the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, the original ending was lost or suppressed, possibly for political reasons. What elements in the story could have been politically dangerous? If the novel reflected the life of the author’s family, what aspects of their private life might they have wished to conceal?

17. Compare and contrast Daiyu’s eventual marriage with that of her mother and father. What social and economic sacrifices did both Daiyu and her mother make for the sake of either love or marriage? Would Baochai or Xifeng have made those types of sacrifices?

18. Does The Red Chamber feel to you more like a classic or more like contemporary fiction? In what ways could The Red Chamber be considered truly a story for our time?

Suggested Readings

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy; Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha; Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic; Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber

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