A Dream of Red Mansions is by no means an easy read, but I don’t mean it in the War and Peace way where it’s a long, slow slog through chapters of philosophical paragraphs weaved between ones that actually advance the plot. No, the reason is that the book has just as many characters as A Song of Fire and Ice (300 at last count, mostly minor as you would expect) but they’re not introduced slowly. Instead, they’re all sort of just thrown at you in a big whallop. It certainly doesn’t help that a lot of the characters have – as Chinese tradition would have it – similar sounding names for each generation of a family.
A Dream of Red Mansions is set during 18th century Qing Dynasty Beijing and follows the daily dramas of members of two wealthy and powerful branches of the Jia family, whose ancestors were given high titles and income due to service to the empire. The main character, Jia Baoyu (literally translated as “Precious Jade”) is a young, intelligent boy supposedly born with a piece of jade in his mouth (hence the name). He’s been spoiled by the head of the family, and despite the best efforts of his father to try to get his son’s act together is a slacker and womanises instead of learning to be the heir to the family’s fortunes and responsibilities that he needs to be.
For anyone who is considering reading this book, there are a total of 120 chapters and though individually they aren’t all that long, they do flit in and out of the large cast of character’s lives. The sheer number of characters certainly doesn’t help and I found having to go back and forth trying to discern who was actually in each scene. Thankfully, the book is written in the vernacular rather than true, grammatically correct language and translated as such. Because of the easy, flowing language, feels like a casual – albeit long – read if you approach it chapter by chapter like I have.
As of the first thirty chapters, we meet the main characters, Jia Baoyu, Jia Baochai and Lin Daiyu as well as the older generations and a tonne of maids, servants and employees of the Jia family. The story seems to be about the love triangle between the three main characters, the emotionally and physically delicate Daiyu, the smart, funny more idealised Baochai and the sharp, witty but flawed Baoyu. Small side plots like the ambitions of concubines and maids to rise up in rank and esteem within the Jia family are woven through the chapters.
All I can say about the first thirty chapters is that a great deal of the characters, especially the main children, are spoilt, jealous teenagers who fall in and out of passions on the turn of a coin. It’s annoying because you’d be enjoying a peaceful part of the book when suddenly, any of the female main characters will burst into tears over some small remark. Way to spoil the mood guys, I’m trying to read a book, not watch Days of Our Lives. I never realised people could be so sensitive!
Anyway, despite the temper tantrums flying thick and fast, it is still a well read book. It is uses simple, friendly language yet manages to be poetic and emotional all at the same time. It offers a fascinating insight into the type of lifestyle people had in late-Imperial China and is a great piece of literature. Stay tuned (for a few weeks) for the next quarter of the book to be read!