Literature / Dream of the Red Chamber

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Dream of the Red Chamber (Traditional: 紅樓夢; Simplified: 红楼梦; Pinyin: Hónglóu Mèng) is considered one of the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature, along with Water Margin, Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written in the mid-18th century by Cao Xueqin, it tells the story of the slow fall from grace of a rich family, the Jia household.

At the beginning of the story, Nüwa, an elder goddess of the Taoist pantheon, mends the heavens with stones. One of them is discarded but, having been touched by the goddess, acquires sentience. A Taoist priest and a Buddhist monk chance upon it and bring it into the world so that it may be reborn as a human.

The stone sees a crimson pearl flower, itself marked for reincarnation as a human being, and falls in love with it. The stone and the flower are respectively reincarnated into the heir to a rich family named Jia Baoyu, and his cousin Lin Daiyu. While unaware of their supernatural origins, Baoyu and Daiyu feel a deep attraction to each other; but Baoyu is expected to marry another girl, the demure Xue Baochai. This love triangle forms the main plot of the novel, against the backdrop of the decline of the family.


Dream of the Red Chamber contains examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: In Chapter 9, Jia Zheng, Bao Yu's father, questioned Li Gui, a servant, about what Bao Yu had been learning in class, and spoke of punishing him for allowing Bao Yu to neglect his studies. Li Gui nervously reported that Bao Yu was in the middle of learning the third volume of Shi Jing (Odes of Poetry) and quoted a line. But he messed up the second half of the line really badly. Everyone present laughed, and even Jia Zheng couldn't help himself.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Baoyu sometimes, particularly when he loses the magic jade he was born with.
  • Country Mouse: Grannie Liu. The character actually coined an idiom in Chinese that refers to a bumpkin in an unfamiliar, sophisticated environment.
  • Downer Ending: And depressingly so. Lin Daiyu dies, thus causing Jia Baoyu to go to a monastery and become a monk.
    • Depends on which compilation you read, the fate of the family can be a Bittersweet Ending.
  • Dream Sequence: Multiple instances, including a recurring Dream Land.
    • And arguably, human existence as we know it, by Buddhist standards invoked in the opening and closing lines of the novel.
  • Drinking Game: Several of them are played throughout the novel.
  • Karmic Death:
    • This is what happens to one of the men who lust after Wang Xifeng. After he is rejected, he falls hopelessly ill, but is given a chance to recover when a passing monk hands him a magic mirror. He is told to never look at the front, and must keep looking at the back of the mirror, at a terrifying picture of a skeleton. If he succeeds for a week, then he will be cured of his lust. He doesn't succeed, as the front of the mirror keeps drawing him into a sexual fantasy of him and Wang Xifeng, which ultimately kills him.
    • Second Sister You as well, to an extent. Wang Xifeng plans to kill her, but never does the killing herself. The most she does is manipulate the people around Second Sister You, and lets events play out.
    • Xia Jingui, who tries to poison Xiangling for inadvertently breaking up her potential tryst, ends up accidentally killing herself with said poison.
  • Kill 'em All: Or most of them. Many characters are just ruined, without actually dying.
  • Kissing Cousins: Jia Baoyu is first cousins with both girls.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Over four hundred of 'em, most of them female.
  • Love Triangle: Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai.
  • Marry Them All:
    • Jia Zheng has Lady Wang (Baoyu's mum), Concubine Zhao, and Concubine Zhou.
    • Jia Lang, who by nature is something of a Harem Seeker. He is the husband of Wang Xifeng and Second Sister You.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Baoyu means "precious jade", a reference to his previous state as a sentient stone.
    • Also, many of the characters have names that are homophones of meaningful words or phrases.
    • Many of the locations in the novel also have meaningful names. It's sometimes intentional on the part of the characters, sometimes not.
    • It might also be relevant to note that Baoyu shares a character from his name with both Daiyu and Baochai.
  • Pen Name: Everyone in the first poetry club that Baoyu, Daiyu, Baochai, and several other girls establish gets one.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Granny Liu, whose rural lifestyle causes her to behave in ways that bring amusement out of many around her when she visits the Jia household. She ends up as a Chekhov's Gunman near the end of the novel, as she provides shelter to Qiaojie when the latter runs away from Jia Huan when he schemes to sell her, bringing her back into the Jia household after his scheme is thwarted.
  • Rule 34: The novel has been adapted, among other things, into a hentai online game.
  • The Resenter: Concubine Zhao. Justifiable, as she only wants the best for her two children, but her position as secondary wife means she's not highly regarded by almost everyone else. However, given her Jerkass nature, it's also not surprising why she's not a favourite in the household. She's depicted as unintelligent, lacking in class and tact, driven by jealously, and shows open resentment towards the higher standing members of the household, including her stepson Baoyu, as well as getting into very heated arguments with her daughter. Plus, she makes a huge fuss out of nothing on several occasions, and even resorts to using black magic at one point, which almost kills Baoyu and Xifeng.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead:
    • Near the end of the investigation on Xia Jingui's death, the maid tasked with serving Xiangling, after confessing what she had done during the event that ultimately ends with Jingui dead (see Hoist by His Own Petard above for more details) and piecing things together, ends her confession by stating that Jingui had it coming. No one present blames her for saying it.
    • When Jia Huan's scheme of having Qiaojie (a maternal niece of his) sold off is foiled, some time after the passing of Concubine Zhao (his mother), Lady Wang has this to say to Jia Huan: "Concubine Zhao was such a bastard, the seed she left behind is just as bad!" Jia Huan, who knows better than to talk back at his stepmother, is left licking the wounds to his ego her words inflict on him.
  • Tomboy: Shi Xiangyun. As an occasional Wholesome Crossdresser, she also looks good in boys' clothes.
  • Unwanted Harem: Bao-yu, despite being eccentric and effeminate, is surrounded by beautiful women who are somewhat interested in him.
    • Hardly unwanted! Baoyu is well-known, even a bit notorious, for being very fond of pretty young ladies. And one of his eccentricities is being almost nauseatingly nice to girls.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Xue Pan, who coasts by like a bully without a job due to being the son of a mother whose sister is a matriarch of the wealthy Jia household. Late in the story, it takes him being embroiled in a manslaughter charge he tried to hush up via bribery before he shows signs of humility.
  • Yandere: Wang Xifeng, who also has some Stepford Smiler tendencies.
  • Your Mom: Lady Wang combines this with Speak Ill of the Dead when scolding Jia Huan (see above).


Alternative Title(s): The Dream Of The Red Chamber

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