Cao Xueqin and Gao E: The Story of the Stone

(ca. 1750–1792)

The Story of the Stone, China's most famous novel, is one of the world's longest literary works. The Chinese text is about fifteen hundred pages long, divided into 120 chapters. David Hawkes's English translation, from which this excerpt is taken, runs to about twenty-five hundred pages. In the first chapter the reader is told that the novel was written ages ago on a giant stone, hence the title. Other translations use the title A Dream of Red Mansions or, more often, Dream of the Red Chamber. The word red refers to red dust, a Buddhist metaphor for the transience of romance; chamber suggests luxurious rooms conducive to dreams of love.

The author, Cao Xueqin, died around 1763 or 1764, leaving his novel unfinished. (Another author, Gao E, wrote the final forty chapters.) Cao Xueqin's ancestors had once enjoyed the largess of the ruling Qing Dynasty, but the family's status and fortunes declined when he was still young, and he lived in relative poverty. Very little is known...