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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.

The novel is so significant in Chinese culture that experts ("Redologists") have devoted their lives researching and interpreting every aspect of the novel; such research into the novel is termed "Redology" (紅學/红学, Hóngxué). There are also numerous film and drama adaptions throughout the years.

Note: Unmarked spoilers ahead.

Dream of the Red Chamber contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Jia Rui in Chapter 10 and 11. Xifeng, the target of his obsession, was not impressed.
  • 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.
  • Coitus Interruptus: Baoyu actually waits outside until Qin Zhong is at the brink of orgasm to do this, just to be a Troll. This actually contributes to Qin Zhong's death.
  • Corporal Punishment: A particularly harsh example that is Played for Drama, as Baoyu suffers this in the hands of Jia Zheng in part because of Malicious Slander Jia Huan secretly tells to Jia Zheng about a housemaid who was recently Driven to Suicide by insinuating that Baoyu had done something physically inappropriate to her to cause her death. The result is so bad that his body is badly bruised at many areas where he was struck, which his personal maid can't help but react with horror upon seeing him so badly battered.note 
  • Country Mouse: Grannie Liu. The character actually coined an idiom in Chinese that refers to a bumpkin in an unfamiliar, sophisticated environment.
  • The Cutie: Shi Xiangyun is adorable, cheerful, and loved by almost everyone. Her liveliness and optimism are especially striking considering her unfortunate circumstances.
  • Distant Prologue: The story of the stone before its human birth.
  • Doorstopper: The entire book has one hundred and twenty chapters, each of which lasting several pages. The total page count is in the hundreds, if not exceeding a thousand.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: The list is long. Here are some examples:
    • Second Sister You, after Xifeng's manipulations towards people around her, eventually does this by swallowing a lump of gold.
    • Yuanyang, the chief maid of Grandmother Jia, hangs herself after Grandmother Jia's passing.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: How Daiyu initally views her poetry club pen name. Everyone else finds it amusing.
  • Framing Device: The novel has a frame story of a sentient stone who, after a fanciful adventure into the mundane world, relates its experience to a monk, which becomes the main story.
  • Foreshadowing: A set of poems Baoyu finds early in the novel tells the fates of many main characters in riddle form.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The various live-action TV adaptations invariably feature those, as is appropriate for a cast of upper-class Qing Dynasty women.
  • Half-Sibling Rivalry: Jia Huan and Baoyu. Jia Huan goes as far as to spill candle wax in Baoyu's eyes, in an attempt to blind him.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Xia Jingui, wife of Xue Pan. After Xiangling, a maid in her household, inadvertently spots her (a married woman herself) with a stranger and causes said stranger to run off, Jingui decides to kill Xiangling in revenge. She sees her opportunity when Xiangling falls ill and feigns care, with the intent of secretly putting poison in the bowl of soup she is to give to Xiangling. The maid Jingui is tasked with serving Xiangling, unaware of Jingui's plot and indignant at the idea of serving a fellow maid, decides to play a prank as payback by secretly adding a large number of salt into the bowl of soup meant for Xiangling when no one is looking. When Jingui pours some soup into her own bowl and proceeds to swap bowls, the maid, upon spotting Jingui's action and fearful of reprimands from Jingui for drinking the much-too-salty soup, quickly swaps the bowls right back without anyone else noticing, not knowing Jingui has put poison into the bowl she gives to Xiangling. Jingui and Xiangling both drink the soup... with Jingui being killed by the very poison she intends for Xiangling.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Implied for Bao-yu and Qin Zhong, especially in the end of (the David Hawkes translation of) Chapter 15.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When Granny Liu slips on mud and falls on her butt, Grandmother Jia tells the maids who are present off for laughing at Granny Liu's embarrassing scene in reaction without bothering to help, while she herself is doing exactly that.
  • I Gave My Word: Baoyu tells Daiyu, on two separate occasions: "Should you die, I'll become a monk." Both times, Daiyu doesn't believe him. Guess what he does at the end, after Daiyu has died for some time already...
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: During one of Granny Liu's visits with Grandmother Jia and several maids showing her some sights, they come across a path with mud covering some of it. Grandmother Jia suggests for Granny Liu to walk the cleaner part of the path with them, but Granny Liu declines, stating that, as a Country Mouse herself, she's done it many times already and is therefore adept at walking through muddy roads. Barely a few steps unto the muddied part of the path, however, Granny Liu slips on the mud and falls on her backside, causing many a maid (and Grandmother Jia as well) to burst out laughing while Granny Liu herself awkwardly acknowledges how quickly this trope applies to her.
  • Karmic Death:
    • This is what happens to Jia Sui, who lusts 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.
  • Kissing Cousins: Jia Baoyu is first cousins with both girls.
  • Love Triangle: Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai.
  • Malicious Slander: Played for Drama. Baoyu suffers a harsh Corporal Punishment at the hands of Jia Zheng at one point in part because of a lie Jia Huan tells Jia Zheng regarding a housemaid who was recently Driven to Suicide by insinuating that Baoyu had done something physically inappropriate to her to cause her death.
  • 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.
  • Multigenerational Household: The Jia family, with Grandmother Jia in the eldest generation serving as the matriarch, her sons (Jia Zheng included) and their wives, concubines, and in-laws being one generation below her, followed by their offspring (such as Baoyu, one of Jia Zheng's sons) by one more generation.
  • Naughty Nuns: Ask Qin Zhong.
  • 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 (a maternal uncle of Qiaojie's) when he schemes to sell her, bringing her back into the Jia household after his scheme is thwarted.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: It's "bowl" instead of "chalice", but the premise is the same. Xia Jingui's attempt to poison Xiangling for inadvertently breaking up her potential tryst ends with Jingui taking the poison that was intended for Xiangling because the maid Jingui tasks with caring for Xiangling in her sickbed switches the bowls around without knowing the one Jinqui intends for Xiangling is poisoned, which results in Jinqui being the victim of her own poison.
  • Prenatal Possessions: Baoyu is born with a piece of jade in his mouth.
  • Reincarnation Romance: Between Baoyu and Daiyu. It ultimately gets nowhere when Baoyu is wedded to Baochai just as Daiyu dies from her illness.
  • 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.
  • Rule 34: The novel has been adapted, among other things, into a hentai online game.
  • Shrinking Violet: Jia Yingchun. Sweet and weak-willed, she stays out of the family affairs and is eventually wedded to an official in a Marriage of Convenience, which ends badly for her.
  • 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 and piecing things together, ends her confession by stating that Jingui had it coming. Given the circumstances leading up to it, no one present blames or punishes 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.
  • Unwanted Harem: Bao-yu, despite being eccentric and effeminate, is surrounded by beautiful women who are somewhat interested in him. Subverted in that 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.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: People trying to work out a timeline for the overall story, characters' ages and birthdays have found several contradictions.
  • 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.

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