Friday, February 02, 2018

'Renegade, or Halo2' Timothy Mo

Globalisation, an American dictionary informs us, is ‘the removal of barriers between national economies to encourage the flow of goods, services, capital, and labor’. Well, in practice, of course, it means the rich countries of the West exporting and imposing their norms on everyone else, whether through language, legal inequalities, superior marketing nous or the always present threat of violence. This is the great theme of this stupendous novel by the British/Hong Kong writer Timothy Mo, who tells the truth of globalization as seen from the other end, from the bottom, so to speak, by one of Frantz Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth.’

Rey, Castro or Sugar (the fact that he has a plethora of names is significant in itself) is a member of the Philippine underclass, the illegitimate son of a prostitute and an African American serviceman. We follow him from his wretched childhood in a Philippine slum, his membership of a street gang, his rescue and education at the hands of the Jesuits; his enrollment in college to study law and his developing talent for basketball. Rey is possessed of a hugely powerful physique, which makes him ideal for basketball, a game he says the Filipinos had no sane reason to take up. How could a short, wiry –fathers and mentors let me not be mealy mouthed – teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, chronically malnourished, genetically-disadvantaged South-East Asian folk ever have chosen a less appropriate endeavor by which to be measured?  He also has curiosity and a passion for reading, and forms a bond of intellectual friendship with one of the Fathers. Through his unwilling involvement in a crime he is forced into exile to escape the law; we follow his adventures as a chauffeur to a British expat family in Hong Kong, a travel-guide cum baby-sitter in Thailand; an indentured construction labourer in a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula, probably a composite of Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar or another of those appalling shitholes, a bodyguard on a business trip to Mumbai; a layabout in England, a layabout in Cuba, a long spell as a seaman on container ships on the high seas – the engine room of globalization - and after a brief spell in America, home again to the Philippines. Everywhere he goes in the underdeveloped world he is, as he says, a member of the international underclass who were the slaves of our century. And everywhere he goes he experiences himself as the outsider, the renegade, by virtue of the colour of his skin, his size and ability to handle himself, his intelligence and gift for observation, his peaceable temperament in the face of open hostility.

It’s through certain repeated images that Mo explores his themes of globalization, identity and aculturalisation. The most powerful appears in the first paragraph: the photographic negative. Isn’t the negative always more intriguing than the print? At one stage he encounters a group of Filipino albinos, at another, a group of coral divers, whose hair has been bleached and whose backs have been burnt black by the sun they too looked like the precursors of a photograph, or shadow relics of a nuclear blast. This is the flipside of globalization, the negative to the print. Another image is the halo, a type of desert, a many hued and multi-textured confection of ice-cream, cereals, neon syrups, crystalized fruits, frosty shavings, leguminous preserves and bloated pulses that you can find in different names all over South Asia. Images of other kinds of composites abound. Rey makes friends with a master huntsman, and he shows Rey his prize possession: a composite bow made of leather on one side and horn on the other: you got antagonistic forces working together just for you! It gets its power from putting together a whole assembly of parts that ain’t worth diddly on their own. Rey himself is both a negative and a halo.

It’s significant that the protagonist of the novel is Filipino, because that country is at once the most obvious victim of globalization, and at the same time a potent symbol of racial, religious and linguistic diversity. Rey, in his encounters with the wide array of people he meets, seems to be saying the real strength of globalization is in the diversity with unity it can bring. He recognizes that people are formed as much by their context as by their essence. He learns from the Jesuits how to decode things he doesn’t at first understand from their context, and everyone he meets has been taken out of their context and placed in a new one. In such a decontextualized world, all values become relative: Commander Smith’s virtues, those absolutes I had been disposed to worship, I was starting to see as relatives, as part of my own Philippine family of vices. They were only successful in their own context, in a better society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the linguistic energy of the novel, and this is its chief strength and originality. There are frequent puns (the word halo is tremendously fruitful in this regard) and meditations on language. I reckon Philipino would look a whole lot better than Filipino, a spelling demeaning in itself, while sounding just the same. I mean you’ve got Philosophy, Philology, Physiology (and I admit, Phlegm) as against Fuck, Fart and Fool. Rey tells his story himself, infusing his language with Filipino street slang in Cebuano, Visayan, Tagalog, themselves types of bastardised Spanish, one of the lingua francas of the developing world. He can veer from high literary English to curses and imprecations in Taglish (or Bislish if you like), and he knowingly and wittily references high European culture: happy ships were happy in different ways, di ba, but unhappy ships were unhappy in different ways, siguro. He also uses words like cunctatory (yes, I had to look it up too), and has read Dickens, Haklyutt, Hobbes, and the novel has obvious nods to Smollett and Conrad.

The great danger of globalisation, culturally, is that it imposes a ghastly kind of uniformity on everything, where everyone shares the values of the dominant culture, and smaller cultures are absorbed into what the cultural theorist Victor Segalen called the beige paste of entropy. You can see this process happening in the critical response to the novel. British critics accused Mo of peddling in stereotypes, but Mo and his alter ego Rey recognize that stereotypes play an important part in understanding how people operate out of their context: they work as a convenience, a first impression, as long as one is prepared to change ones mind on further acquaintance with reality. The novel preempts those critics who are more concerned with virtue-signaling their awareness of the stereotypes of racial prejudice than in squarely facing the fact that there does exist racial difference, and that cultures are relatively superior or inferior. I also believe the degree to which you discern or suspect prejudice against yourself or your kind is the measure of the prejudice in yourself. Those who inveigh the most vehemently are those who hate the most. An early but central scene involves a gang rape and murder, and Mo came under a lot of criticism for including this scene. But those who criticise the work for this are only shooting the messenger. Mo is describing the reality of the world that exists outside the context of the comfortable world of the literary critic or Western reader. In the East the placid poor lived in terror of the violent rich. In the West the rich lived in terror of the criminal poor. Unlike the critics, he is not mealy-mouthed about that reality. Unlike them he does not make the mistake of assuming that other parts of the world share the same values, and does not fall victim to the stultifying myth of cultural uniformity.

Mo has fallen off the radar a bit since his early high visibility with the Booker Prize nominated The Monkey King, Sour Sweet and his excellent historical novel about Hong Kong An Insular Possession, although rumours that he is ‘missing’ are surely exaggerated (the same exaggeration that Thomas Pynchon is a ‘recluse’). It’s just that he’s not attending literary cocktail parties in London. He reportedly turned down an advance from Random House in the mid 90s, not because it wasn’t big enough, as it has been unkindly suggested, but because one assumes he was chafing under the kind of editorial control that results in the usual, careful, anodyne, taupe prose that graduates of creative writing programs produce nowadays. By starting his own imprint, and publishing this work under it, Mo has escaped this kind of editorial interference, thankfully. It’s hard to believe that a novel of this linguistic scope, ambition and brilliance, and the taboo-breaking scenes of sex and violence that it contains would be accepted by one of the mainstream houses today. And yet there is nothing amateurish or ‘vanity published’ about this highly accomplished and finely-wrought novel. The only drawback is that by removing himself from the publishing industry in this way his novels have not had the coverage and distribution that would bring them to a wider readership, which is a tremendous shame, as this work in particular, 20 years after it first appeared, has a lot to teach complacent Western readers about the world outside their purview. With his kind of halo prose, and by moving the bildungsroman and picaresque away from the centres of tradition to marginal characters and the post-colonial world – the new centre, Mo has infused the English language and the English novel with new vigour and vitality.

Monday, December 11, 2017

'The Street of Crocodiles' Bruno Schulz

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Jonathan Safran Foer (it’s not often I find anything he says interesting enough to take issue with either way, but that’s beside the point), but when he says he loved this book but didn’t like it, I kind of know what he means.

There’s no doubt that Shulz could write: sentences of limpid beauty (miraculously translated by Celina Wieniewska) and insight follow each other down the street of crocodiles, and images are as startling and as unforgettable as a Chagall painting, but there’s a sense of disorientation about the whole thing, and one is simply unsure how to read it: as surrealism? As dream diary? As childhood reminiscences? As magical realism? As naïve art? This uncertainty is a mark of Schulz’s huge originality. There is nothing quite like him in Western literature and it’s hard to orient his work into some ready made genre. Bloom wrote that works of genius assimilate us by their strangeness, and perhaps that gives a key here. Undoubtedly strange and original, and quite possibly a work of genius, Schulz’s stories do not ultimately assimilate us.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they are all rather the same, and reading them is like seeing the same object again and again from only slightly different perspectives. There’s a feeling of claustrophobic entrapment in his world, but it’s a world where the borders are always melting away into uncertainty. Just at the edge of sight there’s a rather unsettling blur, as if the veil of reality has become threadbare at that point.

Perhaps it’s the way that one of his main themes is the often overwhelming boredom of childhood, especially on long, stultifying summer days. Schulz is a master at describing intangibles such as the way time sometimes just simply hangs; or the peculiar blend of nostalgia and renewed hope for the future which seems to permeate the atmosphere of an autumn landscape.

Perhaps it’s the overegging of the metaphors. Nothing is ever just simply itself. Schulz’s characteristic move is to mash two unrelated symbolic fields together. Here he describes his father’s haberdashery shop, combining the discourse of armies and logistics with a purely descriptive vocabulary:

My father walked along these arsenals of autumn goods and calmed and soothed the rising force of these masses of cloth, the power of the season. He wanted to keep intact for as long as possible those reserves of stored colour. He was afraid to break into that iron fund of autumn, to change it into cash.

Or perhaps it’s the way inanimate objects are symbolically brought to life (Dickens is Schulz great precursor here):

While he was opening the heavy ironclad door, the grumbling dusk took a step back from the entrance, moved a few inches deeper, changed position and lay down again inside… 

These things are all very well and good, and indeed contain much beauty and truth in them, and they are handled by Schulz to great effect. But, as the narrator remarks towards the end of the story Autumn:  

Finding no surcease in reality, you created a superstructure out of the figurative stuff of metaphor, you moved among associations and allusions, the imponderables between things. All things referred to other things, which in turn called further things to witness, and so on. In the end your honeyed words grew cloying...

And that there is exactly how I felt reading him. Reading Shulz is rather like being stuck in someone else’s dream. But as Auden so wisely warned, nothing is more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams. Schulz’s genius is perhaps best appreciated in very small, concentrated doses, like the raspberry syrup he adores. But a whole flagon of the stuff leaves one feeling slightly queasy and quailing at the idea of taking any more.

The Book is a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as get older.

Monday, November 27, 2017

'Diary of a Madman and Other Stories' Lu Xun

Lu Xun’s two published collections of short stories, Cheering From the Sidelines, (1922) and Wondering Where to Turn (1925) reveal him as one of the supreme masters of the short story to rank alongside Chekhov and Maupassant, and the greatest writer of modern China, at once that country’s Dickens and Joyce.

Dickens because, like the great Victorian, Lu Xun creates characters who enter the folklore and become symbolic, mythological, and yet remain rooted in the contemporary. You can see Lu Xun’s characters all around you every day, but it took Lu Xun’s descriptions to make you notice they are there. Who can forget Ah Q once you have read his story, and not see him in all the louts, layabouts and betel nut chewers who hang around at taxi ranks and MRT station entrances of the poorer neighbourhoods? Like Dickens, Lu Xun is the master of realism and atmosphere, with Dickens’s same ability to delineate and capture character in one swift fleeting gesture. Like Dickens too, Lu Xun is motivated by a deep compassion for the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised and by the desire to achieve some kind of social change through his writing.

Joyce because, at the same time as being China’s greatest realist writer, Lu Xun is also its greatest innovator in linguistic and formal terms, its greatest Modernist. Lu Xun was the first writer to write serious literature in the speech of the common people, an innovation that seems less creative unless you know that for thousands of years the common speech was not regarded as being suitable for literature, and that literature was the domain of classical Chinese, a language that the common people could not read. In the way that Joyce wove classical references into the hidden fabric of his language, Lu Xun cites the classics, usually to satirise them and to expose what he sees as their nullity. In the story A Warning to the People, describing a public execution, the focus is on the crowd. The victim is there wearing the customary placard detailing his crimes, but none of the bystanders can read it. The crowd is ultimately distracted by a traffic accident and disperses to take an interest in other things. The decapitation is never described, but it is there nonetheless in all the opportunities the text takes to display the word ‘head’ in a myriad of different connections. This lifts the text out of the realm of mere reportage into the realm of great literature.

This translation, with excellent introduction and explanatory notes, really brings the text to life for a non-Chinese audience, and captures the blend of bitter cynicism and compassion that is Lu Xun’s unique voice.

Monday, November 06, 2017

'The Mad Patagonian' Javier Pedro Zabala

It’s probably fair to say that Javier Pedro Zabala is the greatest Latin American writer you’ve never heard of, and his magnum opus The Mad Patagonian is the greatest novel in Spanish of the 21st century that you’ve never read.

Zabala was born in the US in 1950, but lived most of his life in Cuba. Apart from two life-marking meetings with Roberto Bolano in 1975 and 1989 in Mexico City and Caracas respectively, Zabala seems to have passed under the radar as a writer. Largely unpublished during his life, he seems to have spent his time doing odd jobs and writing in his diary, and working on his huge novel. Written between 1983 and 2002, Zabala died two months after its completion. His daughter, ignoring her father’s last wish to have all his writings destroyed, passed on the manuscript to a publisher in Caracas, which soon after went out of business, leaving the novel unpublished. After many vicissitudes, the novel will finally be brought out in English in 2018 by Riverboat Books.

The facts of Zabala’s life and the creation and publication of his only novel read like the typical fantasy of those marginal types who spend years secretly slaving away on a book that they keep in the bottom drawer and which is only published after their death, finally vindicating all their years of unregarded effort and neglect with worldwide fame and recognition of genius, the familiar story arc of a Pessoa, a Kafka, an Emily Dickinson. What’s unusual in this case, though, is that the work in question had to be published in a translation in order for it to reach the light of day. It remains unpublished in Spanish and is presented to us in a miraculous translation by Tomas Garcia Guerrero.

The novel consists of nine interlocking novellas which together tell the story of two interrelated families over several generations, how they left the Old World and came to the New, chiefly to Cuba, and then to Miami. Each family has a clairvoyant sister, and this device allows the narrative to be aware of what is happening to both families. This device is obviously a nod to the multi-generational magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the novel is more than a magical realistic romp through the history of Cuba, although magical realism does get a look in as being part of that history.

The nine novellas are related to each other in various ways: they grow out of each other, with a peripheral character in one becoming a central character in another; or the same event is viewed from different perspectives; or there might only be a tenuous relation that becomes clear when you have read another novella. This method allows for tales within tales, digressions within digressions and a great deal of sophisticated structural irony in which insignificant events appear later as much more significant, and vice versa. There is a great deal of anachronistic jumping around. Reality is always under threat of being replaced by just another version of reality, dreams, or yet another narrative, puppet show, slide show, family history, anecdote or memory, a letter, a postcard or a pornographic movie. Each novella is told in a different style, with nods (at least in this English translation) to Hemingway, Carver and other practitioners of the I’m-not-writing school of writing, Joyce, Borges, Bolano, film noir, an actual movie script, Andre Breton and the Surrealists, and a whole host of references to poets and philosophers, both in English and in Spanish.

The novel is fiercely erudite and thick with ideas discussed by the characters, or by the narrative voice, about history versus the fictionalization of history (Zabala seems to have lived his life through his diary, writing events as they should have happened, rather than as they did), the search for happiness, the eternal fight against Fascism, the Church, international crime, conspiracy theories, Communism, UFOs, Latin American politics and Latin American literature, The Struggle. Ultimately, these ideas crystalise into an epic enquiry into the nature of reality, and about the uses and inadequacies of language itself in creating, transcribing and fixing that reality. Zabala is acutely aware of the limitations of language, as aware as no other writer of his generation, except perhaps David Foster Wallace. He knows that language describes what is not as much as it describes what is: gun delineates a specific object as much as it rules out the possibility that the object is not something else, like nun or gum.  Zabala knows that when a writer writes something as apparently innocuous as a description of the night, he is also drawing a line through other possibilities: Outside the moon has set. can also just as well refuse to be: Outside the moon is glowing in the night sky. or even Outside it is twilight and the birds have stopped calling to each other. Zabala gives us all three descriptions, as if asking us to choose, or to understand them as a radically telescoped sequence, or to consider their possibilities as palimpsest. Either way, he is drawing attention to the very process of writing.

The prose itself acts as a vehicle for that enquiry, ranging from rapturously inspired word painting to the most coldly clinical, specs laden passages. At times, Zabala’s experiments threaten to topple over, but he always manages to pull it off by the sheer audacity of the undertaking. In one of the last novellas, it appears as if Zabala has simply taken advantage of his computer’s highlight-copy-and-paste functions to reproduce whole paragraphs and reassemble them in different orders. The repetitions, and juxtapositions of large chunks of text not only summons up a musical analogy, but on further reflection also seems to be making something quite concrete out of language, like bits of coloured glass arranged into a mosaic, or collage. The language has become so foregrounded through repetition that it becomes quite physical, which is something that one usually forgets in reading, as the eye flows across the page devouring meaning. 

At almost 1250 pages, the book is a daunting read. However Zabala’s imagination is a fount of fecundity; a multitudinous world envelopes the reader, crowded with vivid characters and events, a great deal of salt, genuine feeling, irony and humour, and a kind of unstoppable energy. Mahler said of the symphony that it should embrace the world, and the really great novels of the 20th/21st centuries: Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, Underworld, 2666, seem to have also embraced this view. Zabala’s novel should rightfully take its place alongside them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Dream of Red Mansions' Cao Xueqin

I live in town without all that racket
horses and carts stir up, and you wonder

how that could be. Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute. Whenever I start
explaining it, I’ve forgotten the words.

Tao Qian
trans: David Hinton

This enormous novel occupies the same central place in the literary culture of the Chinese as the works of Shakespeare do in English, as Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin does in Russian, and as Dante’s Divine Comedy does in Italian literature. Like them, it creates a whole world that is at once very specific to a time and place (China in the middle of the 18th century) and yet also universal. Like them it embodies the paradox of great art, best expressed by Matisse: All art bears the imprint of its historical epoch. Great art is that in which this imprint is most deeply marked.

And yet in the West the novel is hardly known at all. Reasons for this no doubt include unfamiliarity with the world the novel describes and creates, the vast number of characters (with names which are more than usually difficult for Western readers to remember) and its sheer length. It’s even difficult to arrive at a fixed title for the work, compounded by the fact that in Chinese it has many names, all of them given in the text itself. These titles include: The Story of the Stone, The Precious Mirror of Love, The Twelve Beauties of Jingling, and Dream of Red Mansions. The Penguin translation by David Hawkes uses the first of these titles. Dream of Red Mansions is the closest translation (by Yang Hsien Yi and Gladys Yang) of the most common Chinese title, but other translations of this title might also include A Dream of the Red Chamber, or Dreams in a Red Chamber. This plethora of titles and translations of titles neatly reflects the great difficulties of translating a work from a language in which ambiguity is prized and preserved, into language where it is not.

Given these difficulties for a Western reader, perhaps the best way to approach this work is to look closely at the three characters which make up the most common title in Chinese. In so doing, we shall see that each one loosely defines a category that might help us to orient ourselves in the multifarious world of the Hong Lou Meng.


/hong/ red
This character consists of two elements. On the left is the ‘silk’ radical /si/, on the right is the ‘work’ radical, /gong/, here to give a suggestion as to the correct way to pronounce this character.

Silk is of course the quintessentially Chinese product, and silk cultivation and production has been known in China since the Neolithic age. Silk is a signifier of wealth and patronage, and has been used since ancient times as an instrument of foreign policy. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, records how the first Han emperor sent a specified quantity of silk floss and cloth, grain and other food stuffs each year to the Xiongnu, the ancient enemies of the Han, so that the two nations would live in peace and brotherhood. In the Hong Lou Meng, at weddings and festivals, the fabulously wealthy Jia family are presented with rolls of silk, and they lavish gifts of silk on their superiors. The early part of the novel especially is filled with descriptions of clothes and furnishings, all of them costly and beautiful.

The silk radical also appears in characters to do with ‘binding’, ‘braiding’, ‘roping’, and also in characters to do with ‘patterns’, ‘succession’ or ‘continuation’, ‘experience’, in other words, the underlying patterns of everyday life, familial associations and experiences, in which communities are bound together through work, ritual ceremony and festivals. Red is ubiquitous in the Chinese world to an extent that is not so in other cultures: a red light always burns before the family altar; a wedding is not a wedding without the presence of red; red lanterns adorn the temples and gifts of money are made in red envelopes. Likewise in the Hong Lou Meng, red is everywhere. Baoyu, the male protagonist, lives in a pavilion called ‘Happy Red Court’, and in Chapter 1, Cao Xueqin is described as having written the work in his studio called ‘Mourning-the-Red Studio’.  In its widest form, red always symbolizes festival. The novel is full of lavish and evocative descriptions of ceremonies and festivals, weddings, funerals, New Years Eve celebrations, the Lantern Festival celebration; Cao Xueqin writes with a painterly hand, creating images as unforgettable as the cinematic images of Zhang Yimou. In the novel, as in Chinese life, great prominence is given to rites and rituals, both on major state occasions and the minor rituals of dining at home with family. In Chapter 2, an official is impeached, and a list of the crimes against him is given; the second item on this list is ‘tampering with the rites’ which shows the importance given by the Chinese to rites and ceremony.

Red also symbolizes art and beauty. A white, black and grey ink painting is not considered beautiful until it is set off by the artist’s seal in red ink. One of the women in the family is a talented artist and she is painting a huge picture of the garden in which a great deal of the action of the novel takes place. Her picture becomes a symbol of the Hong Lou Meng itself.

The ‘silk’ radical which makes up the character ‘red’ also appears in the characters for ‘literary classic’, and ‘paper’. The Hong Lou Meng itself has given rise to a paper mountain of critical commentary, known as Redology紅學.  The Hong Lou Meng abounds with descriptions of people interacting with the classics, and creating art and literature of their own. Baoyu and his soulmate, the beautiful and doomed Daiyu, read the Romance of the West Chamber 西廂記 together, a Yuan dynasty play. In Chapter 37, the young people in the Jia family start a poetry club, in which they drink, eat and set each other subjects – and rhyme schemes -  for poetry.  At one autumn meeting of the club, the chrysanthemum is chosen as a subject, but someone objects that this is too hackneyed a subject for an autumn poem. Then someone has an idea that instead of writing about chrysanthemums, they will focus on the people looking at it and on their reactions to the flower. They come up with a list of subjects:

Thinking of the Chrysanthemum
Seeking out the Chrysanthemum
Visiting the Chrysanthemum
Planting the Chrysanthemum
Facing the Chrysanthemum
Displaying the Chrysanthemum
Writing about the Chrysanthemum
Painting the Chrysanthemum
Questioning the Chrysanthemum
Wearing the Chrysanthemum
The Chrysanthemum’s Shadow
A Dream of Chrysanthemum
The Withered Chrysanthemum

And then go on to create an album of chrysanthemum poems. This is a picture of the pastime of leisured, rich, educated, secluded women, but it’s also a picture of the age–old activity of the literati/scholar class. The novel is full of such scenes. There is a great deal of sophisticated wordplay, both by the narrator and by the characters and absolutely untranslatable jokes and puns. The characters (people) discuss the meaning of characters (words, symbols), and they seem able to make up poems according to a rhyme scheme proposed by someone else at the flick of a sleeve, quite an accomplishment, given that many of them are only teenagers. But what’s most interesting to note about this little scene is the tension, the dilemma it voices between following the traditional rules laid down by the masters (Confucian idea), and originality (Daoist idea), a tension that can be seen in the Hong Lou Meng as a whole.

Etiquette and manners are also presented with the full importance which they are given in real life; who sits where, who serves whom, who takes precedence over whom, who gives face to whom, an incredibly complex affair in a family as large and multi-generational as the Jia family with its army of 200 - 300 retainers, all with a pecking order of their own.

‘Red’, then, in the Hong Lou Meng represents the world of art and beauty, literature and scholarship, rite and ceremony, manners and etiquette, which bind the family and the wider society together.


/lou/ building
This character (pronounced ‘low’) consists of four elements. On the left is the ‘wood’ radical /mu/. The ‘wood’ radical is found in all characters describing objects made of wood, and in characters to do with constructed objects, such as machines and engines and buildings.

The right element consists of a character that can stand alone, independently, with the same pronunciation as the composite character, when it is the name of a constellation, and a common family name.

This character is composed of three elements. The top element used to be a slightly different character meaning something like ‘don’t’, and this character combined with the character for ‘woman’ meant ‘seclusion’, or the women’s quarters which were taboo to outsiders. The middle element is actually the same character for ‘middle’ /zhong/ and it’s the character which appears in ‘China’: ‘the Middle Kingdom’. The bottom element is the character for ‘woman’ /nu/.

The character has a range of meanings, most literally any building more than two stories high, and the floors in such a building. But the history of the character shows us that it was also associated with that part of a building that was reserved for the women, and to which outsiders were not permitted.

The action of the novel revolves around two huge mansions, the Rong mansion and the Ning mansion, and an enormous park or garden which lies between them. There are almost no glimpses of nature outside the compound walls. Most of the scenes take place in interiors, or in the carefully controlled ‘natural’ environment of the ornamental park, specially constructed for the visit home of an elder daughter of the family who is an Imperial Concubine. The two branches of the Jia family gain much of their social prestige and wealth from this daughter’s position in the Imperial household, and her death is one of several turning points in the fortunes of the family.


Women occupy a central place in the novel, just as they do in Chinese culture, which is and always has been a matriarchy. Power relationships in Chinese culture are predicated on the family, and in the family it is the oldest woman who rules the roost. The Lady Dowager rules her family with a rod of iron and even her eldest son – a minister in the Qing government – defers to her decisions. Her personal favourites achieve positions of prominence and privilege within the world of the family. Much of the action of the novel centres on the intrigues between the women of the family, the mothers, the mothers in law, the sisters, the wives, the concubines, the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, the maids of the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, and the lowly serving maids who serve all those maids. The novel is full of domestic detail:  a teacup is overturned; a handkerchief is lost; a precious cloak is spoilt by a burning ember. These incidents are not trivial for those concerned, however, as they result in an adjustment of power positions. Suicides and murders are often the result of these feminine intrigues, and in one sense the novel may be read as an examination of the politics of the harem.

This domestic world is the scene of operations of that archetypal figure in Chinese culture and history: the uberbitch. Jia Xifeng, the wife of one of the grandsons first achieves prominence through her exceptional organizational skills at the funeral of another woman in the family, and soon thereafter is given the overall management of the Ning mansion, a task that she manages with aplomb, maintaining everyone in the lavish lifestyle they are all accustomed to, while secretly putting aside silver and lending it out at interest, which activity eventually contributes to the downfall of the family. Her position is protected because her ready wit makes her a special favourite of the Lady Dowager. When she secretly discovers that her good-for-nothing husband has secretly taken a second wife and established her in a household of her own in a lane behind the family compound, Xifeng insists on having  the second wife brought into the mansion and installed as official concubine, treating her with fastidious kindness and correctness. She then poisons her, after months of physical and mental torture and calculated cruelty. Xifeng comes from a long line of Chinese uberbitches: the Han dynasty Empress Lu cut off her chief rival’s hands and feet, plucked out her eyes, burned her ears, gave her a potion to drink which made her dumb and had her thrown in to the privy, calling her ‘the human pig, Sima Qian tells us. Ironically, that 20th century uberbitch Madame Mao- Jiang Qing- used Hong Lou Meng as a pretext to launch a political attack on an old rival from her sing-song girl days. But it is in the nature of uberbitches that they fall, and many pages and chapters later, Xifeng meets her own miserable end.

Over against this chambered world of the women, is the wider social world of the men. Baoyu is sent to school where he learns to interact with boys his own age after a lifetime spent only in the company of women. This incident is one of the main homosexual episodes in a novel that contains many homosexual characters and scenes. The men in the family have social obligations and political roles outside the family. The Lady Dowager’s two sons are active ministers in the Qing government, and the fortunes of the family are closely tied to their fortunes in the political world. It’s this aspect of the novel where Confucian ideology is most visible. Baoyu is sent to school to study the Four Classics of Confucian thought 四書; throughout the novel, incident after incident shows the workings of the Confucian concept of filial piety , most notably in Baoyu’s relations with his father, and in everyone else’s relations with their parents. This is extended to include filial piety towards ones ancestors. Towards the end of the book, when the mansions are raided by the government, Baoyu’s father’s first worry is how to protect the ancestors from the fall from grace that this will entail for the family. There is a subplot involving a peripheral member of the family who is arrested for murder, which gives us a wealth of information about Qing legal procedures (and how they are corrupted as a matter of course). However, despite these occasional excursions to the world outside the mansion, the men are usually assigned to a peripheral role and serve most often as messengers – both literally and symbolically - from outside the walls of the mansion, or a means by which women can assert their dominance over other women through marriage, concubinage or sexual liaison.

Here, then,  in our reading of the Hong Lou Meng we let ‘building’ stand for the sequestered world of the women’s quarters, the constructed social order both within the mansion and without, and the Confucian ideals of social harmony and correct behaviour.


/meng/ dream
This character (pronounced as the first syllable in ‘mongrel’) consists of four elements from top to bottom. The top element is the ‘grass’ or ‘seedling’ radical /cao/; next comes a radical that can mean both ‘eye’ /mu/ and ‘net’ /wang/. Under this is the ‘roof’ radical, /mien/, with one small stroke missing. The bottom part of the character is the sign for ‘dusk’ /xi/, which is a representation of the moon. So we have a character highly evocative of the way dreams sprout from the imagination at dusk under a roof and are caught in the net of the mind’s eye.

The character for /meng/ contains a picture of the moon. 20th century Lao Tzu commentator Du Erwei draws a connection between the Dao and the moon; the Ying Yang symbol of the Dao is a picture of the waning and waxing moon. And so we let this character stand for the Ying side of the novel, for the many dreams, ghosts and hauntings, and the spirit of Daoism that pervades the book.

The novel contains many magnificent night scenes and moon sightings. Dreams abound. In the first chapter, an old scholar dreams of an encounter between a Buddhist and a Daoist monk, a dream in which the symbolic,  metaphysical meaning of the novel you are about to read is explained. Baoyu has a very significant dream in chapter 5, which he then dreams again in Chapter 116. These dreams are not so much dreams as Shamanistic spirit journeys of the kind described in the Li Sao, a famous poem from the 3rd Century BC anthology Songs of the South 楚辭. Such dream journeys are an intrinsic part of Daoist poetry and meditation practices. In the Hong Lou Meng, when characters die, or are about to die, they appear as ghosts or are seen by other characters in dreams. Indeed, the whole novel is seen as a dream, in the way that Daoist and Buddhist thought see reality as a dream.

Against reality and against the Confucian ideals of familial piety and obedience to your superior are set the more esoteric teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, which teach that all such ideals, -  and indeed, reality itself – are illusions. The novel can be understood as a site of interplay between these three great systems of Chinese thought, in which the author comes down heavily on the side of Daoism. Confucianism, it is carefully suggested, is null and does little to stop the corruption of officials or the debauchery of men. People pay lip service to it, and it creates hypocrisy. Buddhists are presented as charlatans who use planchettes and sand writing to foretell the future. The most significant Buddhist character in the novel – the beautiful maid Miaoyu - meets a highly unpleasant and tragic end. While plenty of Daoist texts are quoted verbatim in the novel – especially the Zhuangzi - (as far as I remember) not one Buddhist sutra is (although the famous Bodhi tree gathas of the contest between Shenxiu and Huineng are).

Dreams, ghosts, divination are all intrinsic to Daoist ideas and practice. The novel’s overriding theme and structure – the vicissitudes of change – is also a primary Daoist concern. Characters muse on their own fates and the fate of the family and wonder how change could come so suddenly. These meditations on change and destiny are limited to the effects of change in this life only (and the afterlife) but there is almost no appearance of a theme connected to repeated lives, no discussion of karma, a prime Buddhist concern.

The novel’s alignment with Daoist over Confucian and Buddhist ideologies is seen most clearly in the character of the protagonist. Although Baoyu in the early part of the novel is called ‘Little Bodhisattva’ by his nurses, this is no more than a standard term of endearment for a young child. As he grows up, Baoyu reads Zhuangzi when he should be studying Confucian classics. In chapter 21, he reads The Housebreaker text from the Zhuangzi, whose basic message is that out of destruction comes liberation and creativity. He is inspired to create his own commentary to it, adapting Zhuangzi to his own circumstances. Do away with affection, he writes, and in the inner chambers fair and foul will then be on an equal footing. Advice kept to oneself does away with the danger of discord; beauty marred obviates affection, intelligence dulled cuts out admiration for talents.  On another occasion, exasperated to his wits end by all the emotional demands  made on him by the women of his chambers, he is reminded of this passage in Zhuangzi:

The ingenious work hard, the wise are full of care, but those without ability have no ambition. They enjoy their food and wander at will like drifting boats freed from their moorings.

At the end, Baoyu rejects the Confucian world that has opened up to him by his brilliant performance in the examination, and goes off, not to shave his head and join a sangha as a Buddhist monk, but to roam the countryside as a Daoist bum.

It makes sense that a writer as sophisticated as Cao Xueqin should ultimately come down on the side of Daoism as a resolution for his protagonist’s fate, because the teachings of Daoism come closer to an understanding of the perennial concerns of the really great novelists, namely the nature of fiction and its relationship to reality. Daoism has a more, creative approach to illusion, allegory, and symbolism; at the same time it also has a thorough awareness of the difficulties of communicating these things through language than either Chan Buddhism or Confucianism.  The name that can be named is not the constant name, says the first line of the Dao Der Jing.  Zhuangzi writes: The Dao is not named/Great division is not spoken….who can understand division that is not spoken, or Dao that is not named? In chapter 102 the characters consult the Yi Jing, and the hexagrams the oracle gives them foretell the fates of the characters consulting them, in an example of sophisticated structural foreshadowing that the Chinese prize as one of the great literary innovations Cao Xueqin made in the novel as a literary genre.

Lin Yu Tang, an early 20th century cultural commentator, wrote on the influence of Daoism in Chinese literature: All good Chinese literature, all Chinese literature that is worth while, that is readable and that pleases the human mind and soothes the human heart is essentially imbued with a Daoistic spirit.  

The Daoist underpinnings of the work result in an almost post-modernist awareness of itself as a work of fiction, an illusion. The very first named character in the novel is Zhen Shiying, which is a homophone for ‘true things disappear’; Jia, the family name of the main characters, is a homophone for ‘unreal’, ‘fake’, ‘false’. Jia Baoyu has a distant relative his own age, also called Baoyu, who is in effect his double, but his name is Zhen Baoyu, which means ‘real’ Baoyu. These two encounter one another in a dream, and when they awake, neither of them knows who the real Baoyu is. Zhuangzi, famously, dreamed he was a butterfly, but upon waking could not decide whether he had been Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. If reality is a dream, then a novel about reality is a dream within a dream, in which dreams about reality appear in a reality about dreams.

In chapter 1, as the reader is embarking on this sojourn into a fictional world,  a Daoist priest begins a journey into the Land of Illusion, passing through an archway on both pillars of which is inscribed the following couplet:

When false is taken for true, true becomes false
If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.

This of course is meant in a metaphysical sense, but what if we read it meta-fictionally, as Cao Xueqin seems to be asking us to do? As devoted readers, when we immerse ourselves into a fictional world, isn’t false taken for true? As we yearn to follow the fate of our favourite character, doesn’t being become non-being?  Near the very end, the narrator comments in another couplet:

A book not of this world records events not of this world.
A man with two lives reverts to his original form.

As we finish the novel - any totally absorbing novel - we revert to our original form, to ourselves.

The whole novel is set within a framing device which can, on the one hand, be seen as a Daoist metaphysics, and on the other, as a literary meta-fiction designed to forestall any possible political fall out for the author. The whole novel is revealed as having been engraved on a huge stone. This stone then reappears in the mouth of Baoyu at his birth (‘baoyu’ literally means ‘precious jade’). The whole engraving is copied down by a Daoist monk called Reverend Void and given to CXQ, who spends 10 years working it up…


The Hong Lou Meng, with its cast of hundreds of characters, its great length, and the timespan covered, is an epic novel. But to read it is to get an impression of intimacy rather than heroic size. Cao Xueqin’s emphasis on the inner life of the characters, on scenes of domesticity, on the economic and political sphere as it operates within one (huge) family make the novel a series of miniatures. The closest parallel to Western literature, stylistically and in terms of genre, I suppose, would be the novels of Jane Austen, or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or other novels which focus on women or family life and which use this as an allegory for a wider political view.

The novel is not an easy read: at first, the world of Qing dynasty China appears to have no relevance to the reader, and it does go on and on and on, demanding a large investment of time (and patience, it must be said). The first chapter is particularly taxing, which does Cao Xueqin no favours. But, inexorably, if you stick with it, you are drawn slowly in; the incidents are ones which reach across cultures and centuries to our own lives and remain imprinted in memory: a child’s temper tantrum, first love, a grandmother’s death in the bosom of her family, a birthday celebration, a sleepless night caused by anxiety over the future, the pangs of lust, the love of home.

Daniel Johnson wrote in his review of another long, modern novel, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy words which might just as fittingly be applied to Hong Lou Meng: You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life.