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HST271

Show and Tell 1: Stones!

For my show and tell project, I have decided to write a response paper to the book, The Dream of Red Chamber. I only knew a bit about this very famous book, so when I saw it as an option for our papers, I was immediately eager to learn more about it. Additionally, although I have read the first volume of The Journey to the West, I have not read any other older pieces of Chinese literature. So overall, I hoped that this experience would provide me with a brief look at this book and a taste of Chinese literature as a whole. Now that I have finished reading from The Dream of Red Chamber, I can definitely say that I have not read anything quite like this book before. The mix of realism -in the form of the feudalistic families- and fantasy -in the form of fairies, the land of illusion, and the stone –  was highly fascinating and something I had not expected to see in such an old work.  However, there was one specific piece of the story that really caught my attention.

This element of the story that intrigued me were the stone motifs that appeared throughout the story. Stones seem to feature heavily in Dream of the Red Chamber, with an alternate title of the book actually being The Story of the Stone, since the entire plot of the book is being told by a sentient, shape-shifting stone. The theme of stone also appears later in the reading, when the main character of the story is born with a piece of “beautiful, clear, coloured jade” in his mouth.[1]

The use of stone throughout this story also reminded me of a similar plotline from The Journey to the West, in which Sun WuKong, the famous Monkey King, is born from a stone. Additionally, stone seems to be utilized in ancient Chinese myths. One version of the story of Pan Gu, the first living being, has him being birthed from the concept of chaos, represented by a stone egg.[2] Furthermore, the tale of how the goddess Nüwa repaired the sky involves her creating new stone pillars to replace the ones that had been destroyed.[3] These “thirty-six thousand, five hundred and one large building blocks” are imbued by the goddess with magical abilities, having the power to change shape and move at will.[4] This story is actually the opening of the novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and serves as the origin of the magical stone that narrates the plot of the book.

Finding information on the reason for the recurrence of stones proved to be a bit challenging. Eventually, though, I was able to find the book, The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and The Journey to the West, which specifically delves into stone symbols in three different pieces of Chinese literature. The author of this book, Jiang Wang, posits that the inclusion of stones at the beginning of both The Dream of Red Chamber and The Journey to the West is actually a sign that the authors referenced or were influenced by each other’s works. [5] I found this interpretation to be quite fascinating, as I had not thought to view this opening stone motif as anything other than hiding some deeper, symbolic meaning. However, Wang’s theory is much more logical and made me realize how likely it was that Cao Xueqin looked to Wu Cheng’en for some inspiration when writing the talking stone.

Although I was unable to find any deeper meaning in the talking stone, I was able to find some symbolism in other areas. After doing some brief research into stones in Chinese culture as a whole, I was able to find out about the significance of jade. Jade, the stone that appeared in the main character’s mouth, was very highly prized in Ancient China and was thought to symbolize goodness and moral virtue.[6] Interestingly, due to it being viewed as indestructible, jade was associated with the giving of immortality and would often be buried along with the dead.[7] Although I do not know the entire plot of The Dream of Red Chamber, this new information makes me think that the author is attempting to convey the protagonist’s morality and purity of character to his audience. Hopefully, I can one day read the entire novel and find out if my theory is correct.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading this section of The Dream of Red Chamber. It was interesting to not only learn more about daily life in the Qing Dynasty but to also research more about other aspects of Chinese culture that appeared in this reading. The book as a whole reminded me of our readings about modernity in ‘ancient’ China. Dr. D’Haeseleer mentioned that this was one of the earliest examples of a longer, modern style of novel. This tidbit that made me appreciate how modern this book is by today’s standards, specifically in relation to its length and sweeping plot.  Although I have yet to read the entire book, I hope that I can one day read all of The Dream of the Red Chamber and gain a deeper appreciation for its symbolism, intertextuality, and modernity.

Endnotes
[1]
Cao Xueqin, Story of the Stone, Vol. 1: The Golden Days, transl. by David Hawkes. (Harmsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), Chapters 1-5, 75

[2] Mineke Schipper, Shuxian Ye, and Hubin Yin, eds., China’s Creation and Origin Myths : Cross-Cultural Explorations in Oral and Written Traditions, (Leiden: BRILL, 2011), ebook, 205, ProQuest Ebook Central.

[3] Cao Xueqin, Story of the Stone, Vol. 1: The Golden Days, transl. by David Hawkes. (Harmsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), Chapters 1-5, 47.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jiang Wang, The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and The Journey to the West (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), ebook, 2.

[6]Mark, Cartwright, “Jade in Ancient China.”,  Ancient History Encyclopedia, Last modified June 29, 2017, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1088/.

[7] Ibid.

Bibliography

Cartwright, Mark. “Jade in Ancient China”.  Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 29, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1088/.

Schipper, Mineke, Ye, Shuxian, and Yin, Hubin, eds. China’s Creation and Origin Myths : Cross-Cultural Explorations in Oral and Written Traditions. Leiden: BRILL, 2011. Ebook.

Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and The Journey to the West. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Ebook.

Cao Xueqin. Story of the Stone, Vol. 1: The Golden Days, transl. by David Hawkes. Harmsworth: Penguin Books, 2006: Chapters 1-5. PDF.

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