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The Red Chamber (Vintage)
by Pauline A. Chen

Published: 2013-04-09
Paperback : 400 pages
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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 ...
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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.

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Discussion Questions

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?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


“Pauline Chen’s boldly imagined retelling of The Dream of the Red Chamber is a literary wonder. An epic yet intimate account of palace intrigue and political tumult that dazzles on every page. Heartbreaking, exhilarating, and impossible to put down.”

—Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic

“Rarely does a cast of beloved literary figures from another culture and time come alive on the pages of a modern writer’s work. Pauline Chen has reimagined the characters from my very favorite novel to make a compelling new version of China’s great literary masterpiece. I highly recommend The Red Chamber. It will transport you into an altogether new world.”

—Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

New York Daily News Summer 2012 Must-Reads

Review from Barnes & Noble:

Justly viewed as one of the masterpieces of classical Chinese literature, the Dream of the Red Chamber has inspired numerous translations since it was first published in 1791. With a Ph.D. from Princeton in Eastern Asian Studies, Pauline Chen certainly possesses the qualifications to add another, but instead, she did something far more interesting: She re-imagined the novel, providing deep glimpses into the emotional lives of three of its main female characters. Subtle and beautifully written, this historical fiction has a resonance all its own. (P.S. This is Chen's debut adult book; her only previous work was a novel for young readers.)

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  "Good family drama set in China"by lsamani (see profile) 08/28/12

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