Conspiracy of the Red Mansions

Liu Xinwu and Zhou Ruchang
Redology is back in the public eye as two scholars take on the establishment.

Liu Xinwu, the author of several popular books on Dream of the Red Mansions, has teamed up with the venerable Zhou Ruchang to promote Zhou's new critical edition of the first 80 chapters of the novel. The new edition, to be published later this month, purports to excise all of Gao E's contributions and restore Cao Xueqin's original, intricate narrative design.

Zhou Ruchang has had it in for Gao E for close to three decades now, since a paper published in 1980 in which he fingered Gao for a palace scholar embroiled in a literary conspiracy. Evil courtier Heshen masterminded a scheme to have Gao compose an uplifting ending for the novel, in the process shredding to bits the first eighty chapters of Cao's masterpiece by turning it into a harmless love story.

Liu Xinwu has his own book coming out this month, too - the story of the earliest edition of Dream of the Red Mansions that he says can be viewed as a commentary to Zhou's critical edition. Drawing from Zhou's research, Liu believes that the last forty chapters of the current 120-chapter version of the novel are forged, and that Cao's original plan called for a 108-chapter novel (12 sections of 9 chapters each). The unfortunate decision to circulate the Chengyi printed version in the 1950s and to couple Gao E's conclusion to Cao's original text in the 1980s has misled several generations of readers.

The next step, of course, is to complete Dream of the Red Mansions according to Cao's original outline. But who will take on this sacred task? Liu is non-committal, saying only that he's thinking about it - tens of thousand of fans online have nominated him for the job, and he's received numerous requests from publishers. If he accepts, his version will join the nearly 100 different conclusions to Dream of the Red Mansions that were written from the publication of the original through the Republican period, as well as more recent efforts like Zhou Yuqing's thirty-chapter conclusion from 1997. And when Liu's version is finally published, who's to say it won't be identified as the product of some literary conspiracy as well?

In the meantime there's plenty to squabble over, and many questions left to answer. What did Cao Xueqin look like, for example?

The many faces of Cao Xueqin.

The Liaoning Cao Xueqin Memorial Hall in Liaoyang announced this week that it had decided on a standardized image of the author. Like the recent Confucius model, Cao's statue is being marketed as necessary for international cultural communication. Says director Ma of the Liaoyang memorial hall:

"If there is a universal image for Cao Xueqin's appearance, it will be beneficial to the spread of the novel Dream of the Red Mansions and associated culture, and there will no longer be multiple versions of Cao Xueqin." She believes that the different images of Cao Xueqin cause problems for foreigners trying to understand exactly what the author of Dream of the Red Mansions was like.

It's not just foreigners, though. No one knows what old Cao looked like. The chronicles record that he had "a fat body, a big head, and dark skin," but this isn't an eyewitness account. And it's quite a far cry from the classical intellectual type represented in most modern artistic renderings, from sculpture to TV - who wants the sketch at left to be an ambassador for Chinese culture?

Another unresolved issue concerns who, exactly, gets to decide on the standard. The author's descendents might have some opinions, and in addition to the Liaoyang museum, Cao Xueqin memorial halls in both Beijing and Nanjing might want a say in any Cao-related standards. In fact, more cynical observers have suggested that the whole episode was an attempt by the Liaoyang museum to raise its profile.

In light of the controversy stirred up online, the Liaoyang museum acquiesced. It said that it would no longer be doing a standard Cao image, and has asked the media to drop the subject.

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