Synopses & Reviews
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.
“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
“Elegan...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
“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
“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
In eighteenth-century China, the beautiful orphan Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to seek shelter with her mother's family in Beijing. At Rongguo Mansion, she is drawn into a world of sumptuous feasts, silken robes, and sparkling jewels — as well as a complex web of secret rivalries and intrigues that threatens to trap her at every turn. When she falls in love with Baoyu, the family's brilliant, unpredictable heir, she finds the forces of the family and convention arrayed against her, and must risk everything to follow her heart.
Based on the epic Dream of the Red Chamber — one of the most famous love stories in Chinese literature — this novel recasts a timeless tale for Western audiences to discover.
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
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?