Writers at home and abroad distort Red Mansions

This entry has been corrected. See below for more details.

More frustration from parents and teachers over parodies of revered classics. This time it's A Dream of Red Mansions that needs protection from online pastiches that threaten the foundations of traditional Chinese culture. A Comic Red Mansions (大话红楼) has people upset with its depictions of the novel's famed beauties getting involved in swimsuit competitions and affairs, and being subject to sexual harassment at the hands of Jia Baoyu and other characters.

Last week's China Youth Daily quoted a literature teacher at a Yunnan middle school who said that this type of parody "tramples over our ancestors" to a degree that "can no longer be tolerated":

In the practice of education, Ma Xiaodong long ago became aware that students respected great works while staying away from them. In the two classes of third-form middle schoolers that he teaches, many students aren't able to say which books make up the "Four Great Novels", and they frequently mix up the classic characters in those books. Once, he assigned his students to read several chapters of Journey to the West, but at a checkup one month later, few had completed the task. He also understands that the great classics are difficult for students to understand - their basic classical language is too low, so it is hard for them to appreciate how the works are masterful. What is most disturbing is that these parodies, sneaking in under the flag of "adaptation", will disrupt and misdirect the understanding of the youth toward the original works.

"Adults can laugh it off and not take it seriously, but youth and children do not have the ability to distinguish, so they need proper guidance." In Ma Xiaodong's view, some publishers have forsaken their cultural conscience, have overlooked their social responsibility in putting these out as books; the publication administrative departments aren't working to manage things, and bookstores place the books in prime locations in the "campus literature" category. These actions work to "free up" this kind of writing to expand its popularity among the student population.

The Yunnan Press and Publications Department defended those administrators, saying that GAPP has strict regulations concerning approval of the content of published material. However, publications office head Yue Hua said that the administrative departments make their judgement on the basis of a several-hundred word description, so sometimes things may escape their notice.

In this case, it seems that the ribaldry of A Comic Red Mansions escaped their notice. The book is credited to Niu Huang (text) and Ah-Gui (illustrations), and is part of a series of parodies of the four great classic novels published by the Dehong Nationalities Press in Yunnan. The book also seems to have escaped the notice of most of the country's cultural guardians as well; it was published in 2002 and went through several printings without any significant fallout.

There are several other identically-titled parodies of A Dream of Red Mansions that also started life online. A Peking University student's fusion of the stories of Jia Baoyu and the Monkey King was published posthumously a few years ago, and another Comic Red Mansions reworks the classic story as a "Peking drifter in Emperor Kangxi's court" sort of time-travel fantasy.

That novel is actually a fairly inventive reworking of the classic story: Jia Wu, a recent college graduate who can't find a job with his Chinese degree, buys a piece of jade inscribed with those famous lines from the Cao Xueqin novel, and the next morning he wakes up in Prospect Garden surrounded by beautiful women who call him Baoyu. He makes his way through the affairs of the Jia household only really remembering the first twenty chapters of the book.

Not that it matters much, as the story's been warped quite a bit. Baoyu's the grandson of the emperor, Daiyu as well. Xue Baochai is somehow related to Li Zicheng, and halfway through the book foreigners like Jennifer and Mark pop in and out. We discover that Cao Xueqin is actually Xue Baochai's younger sister, who has been surreptitiously recording an unauthorized history of the family. Sure, it's not great literature, but it's diverting.

The book is credited to one Ah-Te (阿特), an obvious pseudonym, and the author is said to be an American physicist who works at NASA and who pursues literature as a hobby. When it was published in late 2005, some online serializations apparently thought this wasn't American enough and changed the attribution to 阿特金森, or "Atkinson".

The book is actually the composition of a writer going by the name of Tewu (特务, or "secret agent") who posted it to a Red Mansions online forum several years ago under the title A Night Visit to the Red Mansion (夜探红楼). The title change is understandable - everyone knows that 大话 is supposed to be funny - but the author's name change is a puzzle. There's a forward to the book written by someone called 阿谍, carrying on the espionage conceit.

It's possible the Americanness of the author is made up as well; even though some of Tewu's other online writing claims to be written in California, something just doesn't feel right about classifying A Comic Red Mansions under "contemporary American fiction," as is done in the library data in the book's frontmatter.

Still, the idea of some NASA scientist coming home from a long day at the lab to sit down at his computer and post Red Mansions fan fiction to a Chinese BBS brings a smile to my face, so they've got no argument from me.

In unrelated Red Mansions news, a Beijing TV station recently aired a program in which a technology company revealed its computer-reconstructed portraits of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. Detailed descriptions of the two characters were drawn out of the novel and input into a police-issue face-matching system, which ran for three days before coming up with the images at right.

Or at least that's how things were presented in the initial report in the print media. A later report in Beijing Sci-Tech Report made clear that artist Zhou Yanhua selected the facial features according to her own impression of what the characters should look like, and merely used the face-matching system to compose her pictures, which are intended as a reference for a Red Mansions-inspired talent competition/reality show.

And as it turns out, Zhou's impression of the ideal Baoyu and Daiyu is pretty close to the 1980s TV version of the characters.

Correction: This article originally stated that the "American" Tewu version of A Comic Red Mansions had invited criticism from teachers and parents in Yunnan. As far as we are aware, that version has not been criticized for trampling on traditional Chinese culture.

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There are currently 6 Comments for Writers at home and abroad distort Red Mansions.

Comments on Writers at home and abroad distort Red Mansions

Nice. Question: Is the spin on HLM where Lin Daiyu turns out to be an 'ernai' and the 12 Beauties of Jinling frolick in bikinis? Just checking. Also, is there in fact a Japanese or Taiwanese comic book connection to such mainland plot twistings?

my thoughts:
1. the chinese are far too sensitive about their heritage (so, what's new?). Shakespeare has been parodied to death and is none the worst for it. Better even.

2. Dream of Red Mansions (in translation at least) is so overrated. Very, very boring. Got halfway through book 3 of 4 before realising that nothing was ever going to happen. A load of crap.

xiao qiao: After I posted this last night, I went and read more of the book I have on hand (it just arrived yesterday afternoon), and the more I read, the more I felt that this wasn't the book Mr. Ma was complaining about.

It turns out that the bikinis and ernai adaptation belongs to a different 大话红楼, which I'd not come across before. I've made the correction in the text above.

It's possible that there's a connection to Japanese and Taiwanese popular adaptations - do you have anything in mind?.

But it's also quite possible that some of these books arise out of the simple fact that Hongloumeng is a major part of Chinese culture, and a ripe target for parody. Lu Xun lists 13 sequels/adaptations of Dream in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction, and other classics got the same treatment. And let's not forget that 1978 film classic starring Leslie Cheung - "Erotic Dream of the Red Chamber", which always seems to get left out of these discussions.

also, eswn reported some time back on a japanese version of DORM that played up the sex a lot more than traditionalists could handle. not sure if it was a computer game or animation.

One of my university lecturers only moved into Chinese studies after finishing his doctorate in astro-physics. And he was American - makes me wonder what he's been working on recently...

we have lots of great pieces of works have been adopted by TV makers and movie producers.they even changed the content just use this famous brand to make more money.maybe sometimes we just donnot have time to read these,butwe also donnot want to forget these outstanding works.

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