This course is discontinued

The main protagonist

Qíng and the striving for narcissistic fulfilment


In the last chapter, we saw how Jiǎ Bǎoyù and Wáng Xīfèng constitute two more or less symmetrical pillars around which the narrative of The Red Chamber Dream revolves and evolves. We also saw, however, how the symmetry between the two is constantly tilted in Bǎoyù’s direction. There is no doubt, therefore, that Bǎoyù is the main protagonist of the novel.


In the novel’s opening chapter, the Taoist Kōngkōng 空空道人 concludes upon reading the novel that “its main theme is love” 大旨談情. In Milan Kundera’s terms, love — or rather qíng , which is not quite the same — is one of the “great themes of existence” that this novel thoroughly explores. Being the prime representative of this theme, Bǎoyù, along with other characters in the Róngguó and Níngguó mansions, is an “experimental self” by means of which this theme is explored. [1]


Bǎoyù clearly belongs to the group of characters for which the reader feels sympathy, even admiration. In the previous chapter, however, we saw how he is constantly linked to much less sympathetic characters. In this chapter, we shall see how the theme of love is linked to self-centredness in a way that at times breaks down the sympathy and admiration the reader tends to feel towards Bǎoyù.

Conflicting impulses

Before the influx of Western thought, the novel as a literary genre was never allowed a secure place in the Chinese literary canon. This peripheral position, however, gave it a freedom to explore themes that more orthodox modes of writing seldom touched upon. One of these themes was love.


In its treatment of love and emotions, The Red Chamber Dream continues a discourse on themes that had long been addressed in Chinese drama and fiction. It makes numerous references to China’s most famous love dramas, The Story of the Western Wing 西廂記 and The Peony Pavilion 牡丹亭, and scholars and critics have long pointed out its debt to the erotic novel The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅.[2] One might read The Red Chamber Dream as just another literary expression of the “cult of qíng” originating in the late Ming.


The way in which The Red Chamber Dream approaches its theme, however, is original. It is concerned with love and emotions as a complex psychological theme, not just a subject of entertainment or a focus of moral concern. As we shall see, although the novel has often been hailed as a defense of qíng, its treatment of the sphere of love and emotions is in fact highly ambivalent. On one reading, it is a psychological novel built around a core of conflicting inner impulses. This chapter attempts to provide a preliminary and partial exploration of this psychological core. Bǎoyù’s personality is one important element in the complex psychological web that underlies the novel.

From expression to exploration

Simply speaking, one might view a novel as having one or more of the following four functions:


          1. Entertainment

          2. Education

          3. Emotional expression

          4. Existential exploration


Among these four e’s, The Red Chamber Dream, in various self-referential passages in chapter 1, explicitly relates to the first three:


          1.  The novel has been written, we are told, in order to entertain, to “please the reader and divert him from his cares” (悅世之目破人愁悶, my translation).


          2.  The novel is morally educating, we are told (albeit with a tint of irony), because it consistently “commends great achievements and praises moral power” (稱功頌德, my translation).


          3.  The novel also claims to be emotionally expressive, to have been penned “with hot and bitter tears” (一把辛酸淚).


But what about the fourth e? Does the novel ever claim to explore the great themes of existence? Hardly. If The Red Chamber Dream is exploratory in Kundera’s sense, this is in spite of the fact that no such claim has been made by its author, nor, for that matter, by traditional critics.


The closest the novel gets to asserting that it is exploratory in this sense is in writing that the Taoist Kōngkōng upon copying the text of the novel finally “awoke to the Void” (悟空), suggesting that the novel contains clues to an insight into the deepest existential truths, as exposed by Buddhism. In this context, however, awaking to the Void seems to imply a realisation of given religious tenets rather than an exploration of new aspects of the human existence.


I will suggest that the key to the exploratory nature of The Red Chamber Dream does not primarily lie in its ideas of “awaking to the Void”, but in its intense emotional expressiveness. In The Red Chamber Dream, therefore, the last two e’s merge into one.


Many cultural factors provide the basis for the emotional expressiveness of this novel. First, it is written in the semi-autobiographical mode typical of its time.[3] Second, the novel had become a mode of communication and a channel for the feelings of frustration of unsuccessful (“displaced”) literati.[4] Third, the “cult of qíng”, of which it may be seen as an example, idealises authenticity and individual expression.[5] Fourth, the focus on qíng implies a focus on emotions and sensibility in general and love and longing in particular. Fifth, the increasing realism and quotidian focus of fiction gives more room for psychological description. Sixth, the higher acceptance of fictionality in a novel also allows for more thorough psychological description, since it is no longer necessary to confine oneself to external description in order to appear “historical”.[6] Seventh, the novelistic tradition has by now come to value subtlety in the description of characters over black-and-white distinctions between “good” and “bad” characters, allowing for ambivalence and ambiguity.[7]


In one sense, therefore, The Red Chamber Dream merely brings further ideals that were already part of the culture in which it emerged. In comparison to most earlier novels, it has more autobiographical elements, a more consistent focus on qíng, more psychological description, more subtlety in the description of characters, and it is more consciously fictional. The result, however, is a psychological complexity beyond anything seen in earlier fiction and drama.


The Red Chamber Dream is not the first piece of fiction or drama to problematise the sentimental self-indulgence of its main protagonist. Within drama, Tāng Xiǎnzǔ’s The Story of Hándān 邯鄲記 and The Story of Nánkē 南柯記, as well as Kǒng Shàngrèn’s The Peach Blossom Fan 桃花扇, all use Buddhist, Daoist and to some extent even Confucian thought to put in question the value of qíng. The same can be said of many novels.[8] It is primarily the psychological subtlety of The Red Chamber Dream that brings its descriptions of both qíng and the forces in opposition to qíng so clearly beyond the works preceding it.

Meanings of qíng

Already in classical times, the term qíng was highly ambiguous, and this is no less true by the time of The Red Chamber Dream, after two thousand years of historical development.[9] Though this is not the place to provide a full analysis of its multitude of meanings and submeanings, a general outline is necessary to identify what kind of qíng we are discussing. In the The Red Chamber Dream, the term qíng is used in at least three completely different meanings (1-3):


          1. Real event (as in shìqíng 事情)

          2. Personality, character (as in xìngqíng 性情)

          3. Positive emotion towards others (as in ēnqíng 恩情)


The qíng that acts as a main theme in The Red Chamber Dream is of the third meaning, denoting positive emotions between human beings. This kind of qíng may be subdivided into three usages (a-c) with closely related meanings:


       a.  Normal (and morally acceptable) feelings towards others (as in zǐ mèi zhī qíng 姊妹之情 ‘the feelings [or love] between sisters’)

       b.  Interpersonal relations used to achieve a certain goal (as in qíngmiàn 情面)

       c.  Spontaneous, free-flowing and often incontrollable feelings towards and desire for others (as in qíngyù 情欲)


The qíng that constitutes a main theme in The Red Chamber Dream belongs to the third usage. This kind of qíng lies at the heart of a dilemma between the genuine and the proper. Being genuine, qíng is sometimes strongly idealised, especially among liberal intellectuals from the late Ming onwards. However, since its incontrollable nature often brings it at odds with moral order () or ritual propriety (), its idealisation is never unambiguous. Unlike the first and second usage, the mere existence of qíng in this third usage often implies a contrast to and a conflict with or .


This third usage of qíng may be further subdivided into two variants (i-ii):


       i.   A strongly eroticised qíng, like the qíng Jiǎ Ruì nourishes for Wáng Xīfèng in chapter 12, often translatable as ‘desire’.


       ii.  A less strongly eroticised qíng, like the qíng Jiǎ Bǎoyù nourishes for the young girls of the family, explained by the Red Inkstone commentary as tǐtiē 體貼 ‘sensitivity, empathy, caring’.


Both variants are aspects of the main theme of The Red Chamber Dream, though they dominate different parts of the novel. Basically, the first variant of qíng dominates the parts of the novel considered by the Chinese scholar Yú Píngbó 俞平伯 to reflect the original manuscript of Precious Mirror for the Romantic《風月寶鑒》, an early and now lost piece of fiction by Cáo Xuěqín mentioned in the Red Inkstone commentary. These parts roughly comprise chapters 9-16 and a section beginning in the second half of chapter 63 and running to the end of chapter 69.[10] The second variant of qíng dominates in the chapters describing details of everyday life in the Prospect Garden 大觀園. While the description of the first variant of qíng is common in traditional Chinese novels, the second variant seems to be Cáo Xuěqín’s original creation.


Though the first variant of qíng is most strongly eroticised, there is also an erotic element in the second variant. In chapter 5, the fairy Jǐnghuàn 警幻仙子 emphasises that “love, meeting with its like, breeds lust” 情既相逢必主淫. There is, according to her, no such thing as “love untainted by lust” 情而不淫 (translations modified by me). Although Jiǎ Bǎoyù seldom acts out his own sexual desire, his sensitivity and empathy towards the girls (and a handful of boys) still has an erotic undertone, to be further discussed below.


To sum up, when the Taoist Kōngkōng discovers that the main theme of The Red Chamber Dream is qíng, he is referring to the word in meaning 3, usage c, variants i and ii. In this sense, qíng is conceived to be at odds with both ’cosmic and moral order’ and ’ritual propriety’ and lies at the heart of psychological conflicts running through the entire novel. Together the two variants of qíng constitute one of the “great themes of existence” explored by this novel.

Qíng and narcissism

Bǎoyù is the most important of the “experimental selves” employed by the novel to explore the great existential theme of qíng. The Red Inkstone commentary says: “Bǎoyù favours qíng over lǐ” 寶玉重情不重禮.[11] In the following, we shall look into some of the psychological traits underlying this attitude.


Consider first Bǎoyù’s idea in chapter 36 of what would constitute a glorious death:


Now if I were fortunate, I would die now, while you [the girls] are all around me; then your tears could combine to make a great river that my corpse could float away on, far, far away to some remote place that no bird has ever flown to, and gently decompose there with the wind, after that never, never to be reborn again as a human being—that would be a really good death. (translation modified)



In this passage, Bǎoyù has positive fantasies about a state in which his person seems to dissolve into nothing, leaving no trace of individuality. The source of this idealised state, however, lies in the girls, and especially in their tears for him. What seems to be a state of egolessness, therefore, turns out to be a state where Bǎoyù’s ego is the object of  considerable aggrandisement, and where the girls and their sorrow for him is his primary source of pleasure. It is a narcissistic frame of mind.


The egolessness of Bǎoyù’s fantasy is psychologically reminiscent of what Sigmund Freud once called an “oceanic feeling” of “something unlimited, unbounded”.[12] According to Freud, “[a]n infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him”. In another context, he uses the term “primary narcissism” to designate this first state of life, prior to the formation of the ego, epitomised by life in the womb, an objectless, undifferentiated state, with no split between the subject and the external world.[13] Although the existence of such a completely undifferentiated state has been called into question by later psychoanalysts,[14] the important point in our context is the relative lack of differentiation associated with Bǎoyù’s idealised state.


The aggrandisement of Bǎoyù’s ego through the girls and their tears for him, as well as the pleasure he derives therefrom, does involve a relation, and hence a distinction, between Bǎoyù’s ego and the “objects” around him, especially the girls. In Freudian terms, it is an expression of secondary narcissism. At the same time, Bǎoyù and the girls – or rather his body and their tears – almost merge into one, and it is literally their tears that bring him to the ultimate destination of his journey, the place (and the state) where his individuality dissolves. In Bǎoyù’s fantasy, the girls and their tears exist in order to instil Bǎoyù with a sense of well-being, and to bring him to his goal of egolessness.


Bǎoyù’s fantasy, therefore, brings together the egolessness of primary narcissism and the ego-aggrandisement of secondary narcissism, the latter somehow leading to the former. Since the ultimate goal seems to be a non-differentiated state, I shall refer to this and similar fantasies as expressing a longing for a state of primary narcissism. This, however, is a simplification, since in Bǎoyù’s case egolessness and ego-aggrandisement always seem to go hand in hand.


As we shall see, Bǎoyù’s fantasy is archetypical of much that happens in the novel, and the relation between Bǎoyù and the girls lies at the heart of the novel’s treatment of qíng. Bǎoyù’s qíng for the girls repeatedly involves his tears for them or their tears for him or both, and these tears are consistently a source of pleasure to Bǎoyù, since they create a special bond between him and them. Just as in his fantasy their tears bring his body to a “remote place that no bird has ever flown to”, beyond the realm of human beings, so he and the girls are close to creating a cocoon-like existence in the Prospect Garden, based on their mutual bond of tears. In his fantasy, the world outside the cocoon is blissfully absent, while in the garden, the external world is often perceived as a threat and looked upon with fear and contempt. Bǎoyù’s fantasy, therefore, is not just an isolated case, but represents a psychological structure that underlies much of the narrative.


Both in the fantasy and in the garden, Bǎoyù is the unchallenged centre towards whom everybody’s attention is directed. As a boy in a world of girls, he is unique. Compared to the boys and men outside the garden, most of whom are either coarse or pedantic, he is particularly refined. His consideration for and understanding of the girls sets him apart from everybody else. Moreover, since he is doted on by the head of the family, Grandmother Jiǎ, and since he is the future inheritor of the family fortune, his centrality extends far beyond the garden world. In the design of the novel, the girls are basically satellites circling around Bǎoyù, and their relative centrality in the novel varies with their emotional intimacy and locational proximity to him. The girls seldom bring the narrative forward of their own accord.


For Bǎoyù, qíng is primarily an inner state of unity and pleasure. In the cases where the unity is shattered, as when the girls turn away from Bǎoyù, or when external influences threaten to disrupt their cocoon-like existence, Bǎoyù becomes extremely distressed. Thus, while it is true that Bǎoyù’s qíng implies positive feelings for the girls, and even a sensitivity to their needs, it is also true that the girls are often reduced to an ancillary existence as providers of narcissistic fulfilment for Bǎoyù. His self-centredness is far less crude than that of the novel’s many lechers, but even for him, the girls are surprisingly often primarily important as a source of personal well-being.

Qíng and the aversion against boundaries

Bǎoyù’s favouring of qíng over implies a strong dislike for any sort of boundaries. As soon as there are boundaries, there will be restrictions, and ‘ritual propriety’ is the most direct expression of such boundaries and restrictions. Bǎoyù’s dislike of boundaries is closely related to his longing for the undifferentiated state of primary narcissism.


In the Prospect Garden, and even before the garden was built, Bǎoyù is most of the time allowed to do whatever he pleases. His grandmother dotes on him, and hence the other people of the family do not dare to restrict or restrain him. The only threat to his free and unrestrained life is his father Jiǎ Zhèng 賈政, who tries to force him to study and who once swears that he will beat his son to death and actually tries to do so. Jiǎ Zhèng favours over qíng and represents the boundaries and restrictions that Bǎoyù detests.


Bǎoyù’s dislike of boundaries is expressed in quite a few peculiar ways. His lack of regard for the boundary between animate and inanimate beings is a recurring theme in the novel. According to the Red Inkstone commentary, the “Roster of Love” 情榜 in the unfinished part of the novel contains the following description of Bǎoyù:


Bǎoyù qíng bù qíng



On its most plausible interpretation, the first qíng is a transitive verb meaning ‘to treat with qíng’, with the phrase bù qíng as its object. In other words, Bǎoyù treats with qíng even objects without qíng. In Buddhist terminology, the distinction between that which has qíng and that which lacks it corresponds to the distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings.[16] As early as in chapter 1, in his former existence as the Divine Luminescent Stone-in-Waiting in the Court of Sunset Glow 赤瑕宮神瑛侍者, he treats with qíng the Crimson Pearl Flower 絳珠草, thus enabling her (it?) to “shed her vegetable shape and assume the form of a girl” 遂得脫卻草胎木質得換人形僅修成個女體, who is ultimately reborn on earth as Bǎoyù’s female cousin and main object of affection Lín Dàiyù 林黛玉. Later, Bǎoyù treats with qíng peach blossoms falling down in the wind (chapter 23) and a fan that one of his maidservants inadvertently treads on (chapter 31). The Red Inkstone commentary concludes:


He cares about and is full of infatuation for all witless objects of this world.



On one occasion, Bǎoyù denies that plants and trees are devoid of qíng:


Not only plants and trees, but all things have feelings and reason. And like people, they are most responsive to those who most appreciate them.


(chapter 77, translation modified)


Bǎoyù does not fully make the usual distinctions between sentient and non-sentient, between people and objects. This may be seen as an expression of extreme sensitivity, but it may also be seen as narcissistic self-indulgence, as a projection of his own state of mind to his surroundings.


Bǎoyù is also sometimes unclear about the boundaries between different groups or kinds of people. First of all, “brothers and sisters [including cousins] were all one to him, and he made no distinction between close and distant relationships” 視姊妹弟兄皆出一意並無親疏遠近之別 (chapter 5, my translation). Even though his first object of affection is Lín Dàiyù, this does not prevent him from feeling both affection and desire towards his other sisters (including female cousins) and maidservants. Second, as hinted by the same quotation, he sometimes seems to ignore the boundary between male and female, and his affection for some boys (like Qín Zhōng 秦鐘 and Jiǎng Yùhàn 琪官) is very close to his affection for the girls. Third, he sometimes overlooks the distinction between master and servant, as when he waits on his maidservant Xírén 襲人 in chapter 31. Fourth, he does not always distinguish real and imaginary persons and treats imaginary persons as if they were real, as when he wants to go and comfort a beautiful woman in a painting, lest she feels lonely (chapter 19); or when he believes in Grannie Liú’s story about a girl stealing wood and wants to go and look for her (chapter 39); or when he believes in and even makes a poem in honour of the Hibiscus goddess 芙蓉之神 invented by one of the maidservants (chapter 78). Fifth, he sometimes does not even distinguish clearly between himself and others, so that he worries about Língguān 齡官 getting wet while he himself is in fact also standing in the rain (chapter 30); he worries that Yùchuàn 玉釧 might have been burnt when it is in fact he himself who has (chapter 35); and he also takes it for granted that when he feels affection for Língguān, she will nourish the same feelings for him (chapter 36). This last case most clearly thematises Bǎoyù’s self-indulgent traits, since Língguān does not in fact nourish romantic feelings for Bǎoyù.


Some of these traits are not unique to Bǎoyù, but are based on cultural clichés. For instance, the phrase “(even) plants and trees have feelings” 草木()有情 is a standard way of emotionalising nature, such as in the Song poet Lù Yóu’s 陸游 (1125-1210) couplet “if they had feelings, plants and trees would shed tears; and though they have no heart, iron and stone will be heartbroken” 草木有情皆落淚、鐵石無心也斷腸.[18] The image of someone relating to a portrait as if the person in the portrait were a living being is another such cliché. To treat cultural clichés as psychological symptoms is not unproblematic, but in the case of Bǎoyù, these features are clearly expressions of his eccentric character (性情乖僻, translated by Hawkes as “his character [was] strange and incomprehensible”, chapter 3).


In a few cases, Bǎoyù’s eccentric traits develop into mental illness, as when he suffers “a delirium caused by a phlegmatic occlusion of the cardiac orifices” 急痛迷心 in chapter 57 and enters “a state of mental collapse” 怔忡之疾 in chapter 70. In most of the first 80 chapters of the novel, however, Bǎoyù is not mentally ill, though his sense of self and of boundaries is not fully developed, and his longing for the unity of primary narcissism is a dominant feature. As we shall see, even his much-lauded empathy with the girls is founded on self-love, on the pursuit of narcissistic fulfilment.

Qíng and the lack of responsibility

A narcissistic frame of mind is basically a self-centred attitude, a kind of self-love. Superficially, Bǎoyù does not immediately strike one as a self-centred person. On the contrary, nobody seems to be more concerned with and understanding towards the girls (and a few boys) than he. He is “humble and accomodating in spite of his social position, always willing to defer to others in the interest of harmony [and he has an] affectionate disposition and familiar manner of speech” 能作小服低賠身下氣情性體貼話語綿纏 (chapter 9). I have already mentioned the way he cares about Língguān even when he himself is in fact getting wet in the rain, and the way he cares about Yùchuàn even when he himself is burnt by hot water. A similar example occurs in chapter 34, after Bǎoyù has been beaten by his father, and Xírén starts putting the blame on Bǎoyù’s cousin Xuē Pán 薛蟠, whereupon Bǎoyù fears that Xuē Pán’s sister Bǎochāi 寶釵, who is present, will feel embarrassed. Noticing his concern, Bǎochāi thinks by herself:


What a delicacy of feeling! ...—after so terrible a beating and in spite of all the pain, to be still able to worry about the possibility of someone else’s being offended!



Many examples could be cited of descriptions of Bǎoyù’s caring and understanding for the girls. It seems slightly paradoxical to call such a person self-centred.


Bǎoyù’s attitude towards the girls, however, is highly complex and does indeed contain an element of self-centredness. Basically, he is concerned with the tragic lives of the girls because their tragedy reflects his own tragedy and the shattering of the ideals of primary narcissism. That is exactly why their tears create such a strong bond between them. In a sense, the girls may be seen as objects of Bǎoyù’s projected self-love. Everything that hurts the girls indirectly also hurts Bǎoyù, and his caring for and protection of the girls are in fact ways of caring for and protecting himself. Most notably, his caring attitude is very limited, being almost exclusively reserved for young and (with few exceptions) unmarried girls, whose apparent innocence make them more suitable objects of projection.


Bǎoyù’s immaturity is reflected in his attitude towards responsibility. Although he is the person who will, in the future, inherit the responsibility for the fortunes of the whole family, he does nothing to prepare for this. On the contrary, he is “exceptionally wild and naughty, … hate[s] study and like[s] to spend all his time in the women’s apartments with the girls” 頑劣異常極惡讀書最喜在內幃廝混 (chapter 3). As long as he is a child, such behaviour may still be seen as natural. But when he gradually grows into biological maturity, this looks more and more like plain irresponsibility.


One might argue that this aspect of Bǎoyù’s personality is a charming trait that shows him as a much more genuine person than the inauthentic ”career worms” that he so thoroughly loathes. One might even insist that Bǎoyù is revolting against Confucian ideals and a (in modern terms) “feudal” system that are contrary to human nature. If so, his seeming irresponsibility is in fact a higher kind of responsibility. This line of reasoning, however, is less easy to accept when he behaves irresponsibly in ways that directly hurt the girls and boys he loves. The novel describes at least two clear cases of such behaviour.


The first case occurs in chapter 30, when Bǎoyù’s mother Lady Wáng 王夫人 strikes her maidservant Jīnchuàn 金釧 in her face and calls her a “shameless little harlot” 下作小娼婦 for having uttered a few arguably flirtatious remarks to Bǎoyù — on his instigation. Instead of trying to protect her, Bǎoyù immediately slips away 早一溜煙去了, and feeling upset, he rushes into the Prospect Garden 自己沒趣忙進大觀園來, where he seems to forget about Jīnchuàn immediately. Lady Wáng dismisses Jīnchuàn from her service, and Jīnchuàn ends up committing suicide.


The second case occurs in chapter 33, when the Prince of Zhōngshùn’s chamberlain arrives to enquire about the young actor Jiǎng Yùhàn 蔣玉菡, who has gone missing from the palace. Bǎoyù initially claims to know nothing about the actor, but when the chamberlain provides evidence for a close relation between the two, Bǎoyù immediately reveals Jiǎng Yùhàn’s hiding place:


From what I’ve heard, he recently acquired a little villa and an acre or so of land at Fort Redwood, seven miles east of the walls. I suppose he could be there.



With Bǎoyù’s help, the Prince of Zhōngshùn gets his favorite actor back.


Bǎoyù betrays the people he loves, in order to avoid trouble for himself. Maybe his way of behaviour is understandable if one considers the kind of pressure he was under. However, even in his own dreams, Bǎoyù does not feel guilt for the fact that his behaviour made Jīnchuàn commit suicide and resulted in Jiǎng Yùhàn being caught:


He had dozed off. The shadowy form of Jiǎng Yùhàn had come in to tell him of his capture by the Prince of Zhōngshùn’s men, followed, shortly after, by Jīnchuàn, who gave him a tearful account of how she had drowned herself. Bǎoyù was half dreaming, half awake and paid no attention.


(chapter 34, translation modified)


There is no doubt that Jīnchuàn’s suicide leaves Bǎoyù “in a state of shock” 心中早又五內摧傷 (chapter 33), and “grief for Jīnchuàn so occupied his mind that he would have preferred to immediately sacrifice his own life and follow her in death” 一心總為金釧兒感傷恨不得此時也身亡命殞跟了金釧兒去 (chapter 33, my translation). At no point, however, does he seem to be concerned with his own responsibility for her death. Although Jīnchuàn’s suicide was primarily prompted by Lady Wáng’s reaction, it would never have happened if Bǎoyù had not started to flirt with her, and might perhaps have been avoided if he had supported her instead of running away. The fact that Bǎoyù in his dream “paid no attention” 都不在意 contrasts sharply with the strong self-reproach of Lady Wáng:


… in a moment of anger I struck her a couple of times and sent her back to her mother’s. I had only been meaning to leave her there a day or two to punish her. After that I would have had her back again. I never dreamed that she would be so angry with me as to drown herself. Now that she has, I feel that it is all my fault.


(chapter 32)


Although Lady Wáng has already “given [Jīnchuàn’s] mother fifty taels” 賞了他娘五十兩銀子 and is comforted by Bǎochāi, she still “feel[s] very uneasy in [her] mind” 心不安. Bǎoyù never says anything like this.


Throughout the whole novel, Bǎoyù hardly ever expresses a sense of guilt or self-reproach. On a few occasions, he does express feelings of inferiority, especially in comparison to girls and effeminate boys (see below), but these feelings are not motivated by guilt, but rather by admiration for the other and shame at his own decrepit state. He also sometimes “regrets having spoken too roughly” 自悔言語冒撞 (chapter 5, my translation), but this feeling is motivated by a wish to avoid other people’s anger rather than by his own sense of remorse. The only instance in which he seems to blame himself for the unfortunate turn of events is in his brief self-reproach after the maidservant Number Four 四兒 is dismissed from the family (see chapter 3). Most of the time, Bǎoyù simply seems to “feel superior to ordinary people” 自為高過世人 (chapter 16, my translation), as his friend Qín Zhōng says on his deathbed.


Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s qíng does involve empathy for the girls (and a few boys) and sorrow for their sad fate. It hardly contains, however, any sort of long-term responsibility or commitment. Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s main concern is with his own feeling of well-being and aesthetic pleasure. His empathy is restricted to the people and the situations that provide him with this sense of well-being and pleasure. Rather than reflecting selfless care it is, in a sense, instrumental in his own attempts to achieve a state of primary narcissism.


Beautiful girls and handsome boys (especially those who are also intelligent and sensitive) are mostly capable of providing him with the sense of well-being he seeks. When these girls and boys are ill or depressed, he has ample opportunity to express his empathy, and this somehow intensifies his feeling of well-being, even as he suffers with them.


As we have seen a number of times, one of the things that disturb his sense of well-being most strongly is other people’s anger. As soon as somebody turns angry, Bǎoyù starts “feeling distressed” 自己沒趣 and runs away. This is especially true when the girls, especially Lín Dàiyù, are angry with him, shattering the sense of mutual sympathy that is a precondition for qíng.


Chapter 21 is especially telling in this respect. Here the girls with whom Bǎoyù usually empathises are angry with him. At first, Bǎoyù “feels gloomy” 好沒興趣 (my translation). Later, he finds a method of regaining his sense of well-being. He pretends for the moment that they are all dead 權當他們死了, and he finds comfort in the thought: “He was able to stop worrying. He even began to feel quite cheerful” 毫無牽掛反能怡然自悅. In this case, it is the death of the girls rather than the girls themselves that is instrumental in bringing about Bǎoyù’s sense of well-being, his state of primary narcissism. The quest for this feeling lies at the heart of Bǎoyù’s — and the novel’s — idealisation of qíng.


Equally telling is his opposite reaction when the rejection comes from his father Jiǎ Zhèng. Though Bǎoyù does what he can to avoid such rejections, the actual psychological effect on him is moderate. Jiǎ Zhèng is neither an object nor a source of qíng. Even when his father has virtually beaten him to death, Bǎoyù does not, as soon as he regains consciousness, seem to be psychologically distressed. On the contrary, his maltreatment at the hands of his father intensifies the sympathy between him and the girls, intensifies his qíng, and thereby indirectly increases his sense of psychological well-being instead of reducing it.

Qíng and the sense of guilt

Bǎoyù’s lack of guilt contrasts sharply with the theme of guilt as it occurs elsewhere in the novel. In crucial parts of the novel, the sense of guilt and remorse is highly thematised.


Most notably, in the preface-like introduction to the novel’s chapter 1, the author describes himself as having reached “the unbearable day of unbridled embarrassment and useless remorse” 實愧則有餘悔又無益之大無可如何之日 (my translation), his remorse being at least partly due to “the sin of having defied the attempts by my elders to give me a proper upbringing, and of having turned my back on warnings and advice from my teachers and friends, so that today I have acquired no skill by which to make a living, and have idled away half my lifetime” 背父兄教育之恩負師友規談之德以至今日一技無成半生潦倒之罪. This lead Yú Píngbó 俞平伯 to conclude that the novel is “borne out of repentance for a life of qíng”.[19]


Admittedly, the autobiographical passage at the beginning of chapter 1 leaves us with quite a few unresolved questions. Although the passage in which it occurs claims to quote the author (“the author says himself” 作者自云), this seems to imply that it is not written by the author. In one of the earliest manuscripts we have, it is not a part of the novel at all, but is included as a preface or a pre-chapter commentary. Some scholars believe it to be the preface to Cáo Xuěqín’s early work Precious Mirror for the Romantic mentioned in the Red Inkstone commentary, written by the author’s younger brother (or cousin ) Tángcūn 棠村. Tángcūn is sometimes identified with Kǒng Méixī from Eastern Lǔ 東魯孔梅溪, who, according to chapter 1, added the title Precious Mirror for the Romantic to the whole novel. By giving him the same family name (Kǒng) and homeland (Eastern Lǔ) as Confucius, the author might be teasing him for Confucian pedantery. May it be that the remorse expressed is a feeling Tángcūn thought the author ought to have felt rather than one he actually felt?


Even if this passage does represent the author’s own words, however, does it also represent his heartfelt feelings? Or is it just a conventional expression of polite modesty? Or perhaps just playful words that were never intended to be taken seriously? An indication of the playfulness of the passage lies in the collocation of Confucian vocabulary (even a sentence modelled on a famous sentence pattern from the Analects: “Is it not indeed suitable!” 不亦宜乎) and wildly unconventional (and un-Confucian) values, such as the worship of young girls, the contempt for men, and the idea of writing a book to preserve the glorious memory of young girls 使閨閣昭傳.


Since we are less concerned with the actual author than with the author as embodied in the text, it does not really matter whether the real-life Cáo Xuěqín actually felt guilt or not. What matters is the way the theme of guilt is represented in the novel itself. Whether or not this passage was written by Cáo Xuěqín, it was included in the novel during his lifetime. And even if it is playful and humorous, it still brings guilt to the forefront as a central theme in the novel.


Furthermore, expressions of self-reproach and remorse with an often slightly Confucian tinge are not restricted to this opening passage. They occur in other passages as well. For instance, a little further into chapter 1, the uncarved stone 頑石 that is left unused when Nǚwā 女媧 repairs the sky also expresses dissatisfaction with itself:


Observing that the other blocks had been used for celestial repairs and that it was the only one to have been rejected as unworthy, it became filled with shame and resentment and passed its days in sorrow and embarrassment.


(translation modified)


The expression “repair the sky” 補天 is often used to express the idea of recovering one’s fortunes.[20] The useless stone lies at the foot of Qīnggěngfēng 青埂峰, which is near-homophonous with qínggēn 情根 ‘the root of qíng’, and the Red Inkstone commentary indicates that this is the reason for the stone’s uselessness:


It says it has fallen to the roots of qíng, and hence is of no use in repairing the sky.



Since Bǎoyù may be seen as the stone’s incarnation in the world of mortal beings, this seems to indicate that he, too, is useless due to his favouring of qíng over . Although Bǎoyù does not reach this conclusion himself in the course of the novel’s first 80 chapters, the “sorrow and embarrassment” felt by the stone is a clear parallel to the author’s “unbridled embarrassment and useless remorse”.


Note again, however, that even this passage may be more playful than serious. Beside the passage about the melting of stone to repair the sky 練石補天, the Red Inkstone commentary adds:


“Repairing the sky to benefit the world” is a common expression used in a playful way.



The way the Red Inkstone commentary sees it, the self-reproach of the stone also has its humorous aspect, just like the passage at the beginning of the chapter.


The commentators often emphasise what they conceive as feelings of embarrassment and remorse lying behind the novel. In chapter 12, in which Jiǎ Ruì eventually dies from his infatuation with Wáng Xīfèng, the 1760 edition 庚辰本 has the following two comments:


Naīve parents and disobedient offspring are pointed out everywhere—this book has grown out of [the author’s] embarrassment with himself.



“The sea of bitterness is endless, turn back and you will find the shore.” But who is able to turn back? Alas! Alas!



As we have seen, the story of Jiǎ Ruì is only one of numerous stories of people dying because of blind infatuation, of qíng, and one reading of the novel is as a warning against the excesses of romance, as indicated in the Reader’s Guide 凡例 of the 1754 edition 甲戌本.


Such warnings are given to Jiǎ Bǎoyù in the mythical dream of chapter 5. The fairy Jǐnghuàn has been asked by the dead souls of the Duke of Níngguó and the Duke of Róngguó 寧榮二公 to make Jiǎ Bǎoyù “devote himself single-mindedly to the serious things of life” 入於正路, by “initiat[ing] him in the pleasures of the flesh and all that sort of thing in such a way as to shock the silliness out of him” 以情欲聲色等事警其癡頑. When, towards the end of the chapter, Jiǎ Bǎoyù is about to fall into the Ford of Error 迷津, the fairy Jǐnghuàn shouts to him:


Stop! Stop! … Turn back at once! Turn back!



According to the Red Inkstone commentary, this passage is meant to awaken ordinary people 點醒世人.[25] The fairy Jǐnghuàn warns:


If you had gone on walking just now and had fallen in, all the good advice I was at such pains to give you would have been wasted.



The Red Inkstone commentary adds: “When you see how [the author] turns the pen and writes these words, you know that from here it is all about repentance” 看他忽轉筆作此語則知此後皆是自悔.[26] Another commentary in the same chapter says: “Scolding Bǎoyù, he is actually expressing his own repentance” 罵死寶玉卻是自悔.


Again, however, passages like the ones cited from chapter 5 also have humorous elements, and some of them may be read as charicatures of Confucian moralism. When teaching Bǎoyù the mysteries of sexuality, the fairy Jǐnghuàn admonishes him saying: “It is my earnest hope that … you will henceforth be able to shake yourself free of [love’s] entanglements and change your previous way of thinking, devoting your mind seriously to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius and your person wholeheartedly to the betterment of society” 而今後萬萬解釋改悟前情留意於孔孟之間委身於經濟之道. Even the Red Inkstone commentary, which generally tends much more strongly towards moralism than the novel itself, is ambivalent to this overly explicit Confucian statement: “Saying this, Jǐnghuàn also becomes pedantic, but she has no other way” 說出此二句警幻亦腐矣然亦不得不然耳.[27]


Two characters who, while alive, represent the glorification of qíng tend towards a more conventional and moralistic view towards the end of their lives: Qín Kěqīng and her brother Qín Zhōng.


In chapter 13, Qín Kěqīng, while dying, appears in a dream to Wáng Xīfèng and tells her to purchase property that, once the family’s fortunes decline, may act as “a place where the young people can go to farm and study, as well as a means of maintaining the ancestral sacrifices in unbroken succession” 子孫回家讀書務農也有個退步祭祀又可永繼. She adds:


… if you fail to take precautions in good time, you will live to regret it bitterly when it is already too late.



This must have been written at “the unbearable day of unbridled embarrassment and useless remorse” 愧則有餘悔又無益之大無可如何之日 (see above).


In chapter 16, when already half-dead, Qín Zhōng exhorts his closest friend Bǎoyù saying:


You and I used to think we were above ordinary people, but today I know I was wrong. In the future you should set your ambition on your career seeking honour and illustrious achievements.



Wai-yee Li argues that this passage is purely humorous, since the immediately preceding passage on the ghosts fetching Qín Zhōng is indeed jocular.[28] All the Red Inkstone commentaries, however, take Qín Zhōng’s words seriously. The 1760 edition 庚辰本 contains both an interlinear commentary and a marginal commentary:


If at this moment he hadn’t made these two statements, he wouldn’t have been Bǎoyù’s understanding friend.



Reading this we realise that all is about belated regret.



Many editions add the following comment after Qín Zhōng’s first sentence:


Who doesn’t regret it’s too late!



The word regret is a translation of the same Chinese word, huǐ , as the one translated as “repent(ance)” and “(feeling) remorse” in other quotations.


To sum up, The Red Chamber Dream again and again emphasises that a life devoted to qíng is likely to bring about regret, remorse, and repentance. The novel usually does so in a humorous way full of irony, but this does not seem to indicate a lack of serious concern with the problem. Although the main protagonist Jiǎ Bǎoyù appears during the first 80 chapters as an unrepentant representative of the glorification of qíng, he also receives early warnings, and the novel itself is indeed much more complex. In Kundera’s terms, Bǎoyù as a fictional character is an experimental self used to explore an attitude to life that has qíng as its core value. On many points Bǎoyù resembles the author as represented in the first paragraph of chapter 1, but he differs in virtually never repenting, never reproaching himself for his own actions, never feeling remorse.


It would be overly simplistic, however, to see The Red Chamber Dream simply as a book of repentance. The basic attitude underlying this novel is one of ambivalence and irony rather than unequivocal truth. The Red Chamber Dream does not promote any specific argument either in favour of qíng or against it. It contains, in the words of Kundera, “not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths”. It plunges into the great existential theme of qíng with an exploratory attitude based on the “wisdom of uncertainty”.[29]


The Red Chamber Dream vacillates between a strong idealisation of qíng on the one hand and feelings of regret and remorse on the other, never coming fully to terms with either. This conflict not only represents a contradiction between two ways of thinking, as Kundera indicates, it also reflects a complex psychological struggle between inner forces that are basically emotional and instinctual rather than purely intellectual.


Since qíng represents spontaneous impulses, while huǐ ‘regret, remorse, repentance’ is often associated with moralism, this conflict is easily associated with Freud’s opposition between the id and the super-ego, the id including all spontaneous impulses, instincts, and inner drives, and the super-ego including the moral forces that want to control, suppress or eliminate all these impulses, instincts and drives. Qíng, however, by no means represents just any impulse belonging to the id. On the contrary, the excessive sexual promiscuity displayed by many of the male (and a few of the female) characters in the novel is clearly conceived of as being vulgar and in strong opposition to the sublime sensibilities of qíng.


In chapter 5, the fairy Jǐnghuàn distinguishes between “a shallow, promiscuous kind of lust” 皮膚淫濫 and a “lust of the mind” 意淫. Though both of them are “lustful” , the former is of the flesh (literally, of the skin) and the latter of the mind. This dichotomy is a new and highly original version of the traditional distinction between (the morally and aesthetically more acceptable) qíng ‘love, emotions’ and (the morally and aesthetically less acceptable) (or ) ‘desire, lust’.[30] From a psychoanalytic point of view, it is a more advanced version, since it acknowledges sexual desire or “lustfulness” as an integral part of both, there being no such thing as “love untainted by lust” 情而不淫. Using psychoanalytic terms, qíng is a highly sublimated, emotionalised form of desire, one that is more acceptable to a strict super-ego than ordinary carnal lust.[31] Even so, however, the conflict between an impulsive id and a repressive super-ego still persists, and this conflict lies at the heart of The Red Chamber Dream.


This conflict, however, is not an explicit part of Bǎoyù’s character, which represents the cultivation of a purified qíng. Bǎoyù has, as we have seen, almost no real sense of guilt. According to Freud, the development of a sense of guilt represents a partial farewell to the self-centredness of the narcissism of the younger child. Bǎoyù seems hardly even to have started to bid farewell to this part of himself.

Qíng and the sense of fear

In addition to the sense of guilt, The Red Chamber Dream also describes other psychological forces that threaten the sense of well-being and aesthetic pleasure associated with qíng. One of them is the sense of deadly fear of the dangers invoked by the strong link between qíng and sexual desire. And just as Bǎoyù was immune to the sense of guilt, he also seems to be immune to this danger, though it may not seem so at the beginning of the novel.


When Bǎoyù has just entered the Land of Illusion 太虛幻境 in his dream in chapter 5, he catches sight of an inscription that makes him ponder:


I wonder what the meaning of “passion that outlasts all time” can be. And what are “love’s debts”? From now on I must make an effort to understand these things.



After he has decided to make an effort to understand passion and love, he immediately runs into problems:


… merely by thinking this he had invited poisonous demons into the innermost recesses of his heart.


(translation modified)


For the moment, he seems to escape danger, only to reencounter it towards the end of the chapter, when he and Kěqīng, after having made love, walk playfully together holding hands:


Their walk seemed to take them quite suddenly to a place where only thorn-trees grew and wolves and tigers prowled around in pairs. Ahead of them the road ended at the edge of a dark ravine. No bridge connected it with the other side.



The fairy Jǐnghuàn explains to Bǎoyù that this is the Ford of Error 迷津. Fortunately, at the very moment when “a multitude of demons and water monsters reached up and clutched at Bǎoyù to drag him down into its depths” 許多夜叉海鬼將寶玉拖將下去, he wakes up to discover it was all a dream.


But if Bǎoyù is saved from calamity, the deadly dangers of love have more grave consequences for a number of other characters in the novel. As we have seen in previous chapters, Jiǎ Ruì, Qín Kěqīng, Qín Zhōng, Jīnchuàn, Bāo Èr’s wife, Yóu sānjiě, Yóu èrjiě, and Qíngwén all die because of the fatal combination of genuine, but illicit love and uncontrollable lust. The same may be true of Lín Dàiyù in the original design of the novel.[32]


A Red Inkstone commentary found at the end of chapter 35 in the Royal Household edition 王府本 and the Yǒuzhèng edition 有正本 concludes:


The depths of the river of love are bottomless, how can you keep afloat? Once you start sinking, only death can stop you.



This and other comments see the novel as being forged on a mould of warnings against karmic retribution for sexual sins known from a variety of pieces of traditional Chinese fiction, most notably The Plum in the Golden Vase. As we have seen, however, the stories in The Red Chamber Dream differ from the standard stories of karmic retribution in not seeing the danger in question as primarily arising from sexual excesses, but rather from desire generated by genuine feelings of love. In this novel, real love is more dangerous than loveless sex. The novel’s numerous lechers do not seem to have a problem, only the ones who fall helplessly in love are in danger. This indicates that the main point of these stories does not lie in the by Cáo Xuěqín’s time already well-worn idea of karmic retribution, but rather in a psychological fear of the vulnerability accompanying genuine feelings of love.


The vulnerability of love is made all the more frightening by the presence, in the novel, of the punitive and merciless forces represented by harbingers of Confucian values like Bǎoyù’s father Jiǎ Zhèng and Jiǎ Ruì’s grandfather Jiǎ Dàirú 賈代儒. Jiǎ Zhèng tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to beat his son to death, while Jiǎ Dàirú’s fierce punishment of his grandson contributes to the latter’s illness and subsequent death. Psychologically, the state of primary narcissism associated with qíng is under constant threat from cruel forces aimed at destroying it. In this perspective, the resistance against giving up primary narcissism becomes understandable, since the alternative is associated with callous and emotionally destructive forces.


The power of qíng, according to the idealised view that originated in late Ming literary and aesthetic discourse, lies in its ability to transcend (or, in The Red Chamber Dream, ), and this is exactly the reason why qíng can also be so dangerous. It is impossible to control and easily leads to transgression. As we have seen, love that is not in conflict with or carries no danger, as in the love relation between Bǎoyù and his maidservant Xírén, which is consummated in chapter 6 (see ??). All the love relations that end in death somehow violate a taboo. Even the feelings between Jiǎ Bǎoyù and Lín Dàiyù, which might have been perfectly acceptable, since they are maternal and not paternal cousins, the sheer fact that their relation is built on love and not on family consent makes it at least semi-illicit.[33]


As mentioned, Jiǎ Bǎoyù differs from all of the characters in the standard stories of karmic retribution by seeming to be constitutionally immune to its dangers. In chapter 5, the fairy Jǐnghuàn says about the Ford of Error:


No boat can ever cross it; only a raft manned by a lay-brother called Numb and an acolyte called Dumb. Numb holds the steering-paddle and Dumb wields the pole. They won’t ferry anyone across for money, but only take those who are fated to cross over.



Bǎoyù’s desire brings him to the verge of catastrophe, but because he belongs to “those who are fated” 有緣者, he does not in the end fall into the Ford of Error. In other words, he avoids, for the moment at least, the forces of karmic retribution. He is uniquely protected, as behoves a literary representative of a narcissistic frame of mind.


That Bǎoyù belongs to “those who are fated” can be seen from the jade he carried in his mouth when he was born. The reverse side of the jade is inscribed with three lines describing its powers, the second of which is to “cure lovesickness” 療冤疾 (chapter 8, my translation).[34] The contrast to Jiǎ Ruì is instructive. The Taoist who gives Jiǎ Ruì the Precious Mirror for the Romantic “claims to specialise in curing lovesickness” 口稱專治冤業之症 (chapter 12, my translation) and tells him only to look into the reverse side of the mirror. Jiǎ Ruì is clearly not fated to avoid disaster and insists on looking into the front side of the mirror as well, leading to his death in a pool of semen. The numerous people who die from love in The Red Chamber Dream do not belong to “those who are fated” either, and are therefore unable to cross the Ford of Error successfully. They are not, in the end, cured of their lovesickness.

Qíng and the sense of shame

There is, however, one threat to the harmony of primary narcissism to which Jiǎ Bǎoyù is not immune: his sense of shame at being male, at being what the novel repeatedly calls “a bearded filthy creature” 鬚眉濁物 (my translation). A narcissistic mind often hovers between admiration and idealisation (of self and others) on the one hand and a painful sense of shame and worthlessness on the other. In this case, Bǎoyù is no exception.


As mentioned above, The Red Chamber Dream is famous for its highly unconventional idealisation of femininity and contempt for masculinity. It is not the only Qing dynasty novel emphasising women’s reactions,[35] and it may be seen as reflecting the traditional Taoist preference for yin over yang, but The Red Chamber Dream is unique in linking this way of thinking to a deep-seated psychological sense of shame.


In the novel, the contempt for masculinity and the idealisation of femininity are primarily associated with Jiǎ Bǎoyù, as in the following quotation from chapter 2:


Girls are made of water and boys are made of mud. When I am with girls I feel fresh and clean, but when I am with boys I feel filthy and stinking.


(translation modified)


In the novel, masculinity is repeatedly associated with impurity. It contaminates the “fresh and clean” realm of femininity and thereby threatens the well-being associated with qíng, the state of primary narcissism, the primary source of which is, as we have seen, the presence of the girls.


A similar attitude is found in Jiǎ Boayu’s mirror reflection Zhēn Bǎoyù 甄寶玉, also in chapter 2:


The word ‘girl’ is very precious and very pure. It is much more rare and precious than all the rarest beasts and birds and plants in the world. So it is most extremely important that you should never, never violate it with your coarse mouths and stinking breath. Whenever you need to say it, you should first rinse your mouths out with clean water and scented tea. And if ever I catch you slipping up, I shall have holes drilled through your teeth and lace them up together.



According to the explicitly autobiographical passage at the beginning of the novel, the idealisation of femininity and the contempt for masculinity is not restricted to fictional characters, but also reflects the attitude of the author:


Now living in misery without a single achievement, I suddenly came to think of all the girls from bygone days. Weighing them carefully one by one, I found all of them superior to myself both morally and intellectually. Though a bearded man of no mean aspiration, I really cannot compare with those slips of girls!


(my translation)


As opposed to the statements of Jiǎ Bǎoyù and Zhēn Bǎoyù above, the author’s words clearly express a self-deprecatory sense of shame, not just a general contempt for the male gender. In the cases of Jiǎ Bǎoyù and Zhēn Bǎoyù, it is not always clear that their contempt for masculinity leads to a sense of shame on their own behalf. On the contrary, it sometimes imbues them with a sense of superiority, since it seems to show that they have a much better understanding of the qualities of the female gender than other men have. Sometimes, however, Jiǎ Bǎoyù does use the terms “filthy creature” 濁物 and “bearded filthy creature” 鬚眉濁物 to include himself:


I only said she is a nice girl, suited to live in a big and wealthy household, instead of filthy creatures like us who actually live here.


(chapter 19, my translation)


When nature has produced a great person like her, what’s the use of bearded filthy creatures like me coming here to contaminate the world.


(chapter 58, my translation)


In these two cases, Bǎoyù looks down upon himself after having met with beautiful and admirable girls. In chapter 5, when some fairies in the Land of Illusion complain that the fairy Jǐnghuàn has “brought this disgusting creature to pollute our pure, maidenly precincts”, Bǎoyù seems to agree entirely:


At these words Bǎoyù was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of the uncleanness and impurity of his own body and sought in vain for somewhere to escape to …



Clearly, Jiǎ Bǎoyù, like the author, does feel shame at his own filthiness, not only that of other males.


However, Bǎoyù does not idealise all female beings, nor does he feel contempt for all males. First of all, his idealisation of the female gender is basically restricted to girls that have not yet been tainted by male sexuality and, by association, male repressive conventionality. Most married women fall outside:


Strange, the way they get like this when they marry! It must be something in the male that infects them. If anything they end up even worse than the men!


(chapter 77)


Bǎoyù does have a close and affectionate relation to several married women, including Qín Kěqīng and Wáng Xīfèng, but except for Jiǎ Liǎn’s concubine Píng’ér 平兒 and Xuē Pán’s concubine Xiānglíng 香菱, who even moves into the garden, they do not belong to the highly idealised world of unmarried girls. Sometimes even unmarried girls have problems. When Xuē Bǎochāi or other girls try to admonish Bǎoyù, he complains:


Why should a pure, sweet girl like you want to go imitating that ghastly crew of thievish, place-hunting career worms, … bothering her head about “fame” and “reputation” and all that sort of rubbish? All these notions you are parroting were dreamed up by meddlesome old men in days gone by for the express purpose of leading astray the whiskered idiots [bearded filthy creatures] who come after them. I really think it’s too bad that I should have to live in an age when the minds of nice, sensible girls are contaminated by such idiocies. It’s a rank abuse of the intellectual gifts that you were born with!


(chapter 36)


Second, objects of idealisation also include some males. Bǎoyù’s reaction on his first meeting with Qín Zhōng in chapter 7 is similar to his reaction towards girls—he idealises the other while feeling contempt for himself:


How perfect he is! Who would have believed there could be such perfection? Now that I have seen him I know that I am just a pig wallowing in the mud, a mangy dog! … Though I am so much richer and more nobly born than he, what use are my fine clothes but to cover up the dead and rotten wood beneath? What use the luxuries I eat and drink but to fill the cesspit and swell the stinking sewer of my inside?



Qín Zhōng is a highly effeminate boy, probably with a bisexual tendency. Hints of similar feelings are found in Bǎoyù’s relation to Jiǎng Yùhàn, the Prince of Běijìng 北靜王, and Liǔ Xiānglián. Bǎoyù’s strong feelings towards the masculine gender are consistently aroused by unconventional boys or men of outstanding beauty, and usually with highly effeminate traits. His admiration for them is an extension of his admiration for the girls.


In fact, Bǎoyù himself fits quite neatly with the description of boys or men he would usually admire. He is highly unconventional and extremely beautiful, he clearly has effeminate traits and probably a bisexual tendency. But while on some occasions he certainly leans towards self-admiration, on other occasions, as we have seen, he feels shame at his own maleness, which he sees as filthy and highly unaesthetic. In his own case, he seems to be aware of the lurking presence of some shameful element within himself that is at odds with his idealised picture of unmarried girls and admirable boys. But what is this element? What is this most fearsome threat to Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s state of well-being and aesthetic pleasure?

Qíng and male desire

One possible answer lies in Wáng Guówéi’s analysis of the term ‘jade’.[36] According to him, the term stands for the homophonous term written with the character (or ) and referring to ‘desire’ or ‘carnal lust’. Bǎoyù was born carrying a jade in his mouth, a fact for which he is not always happy. When meeting Lín Dàiyù for the first time in chapter 3, upon hearing that she does not have a jade like his, he throws his own jade to the ground, calling it a “beastly thing” 勞什子 which “can’t even tell which people are better than others” 連人之高低不擇:


None of the girls has got one. … Only I have got one. It always upsets me. And now this new cousin comes here who is as beautiful as an angel and she hasn’t got one either, so I know it can’t be any good.



Bǎoyù obviously feels that he is inferior to the girls, and that things that he has and the girls do not are somehow inherently bad. Bǎoyù’s aversion towards his jade (), then, may reflect an aversion towards male desire ( or ). David Hawkes comments on the passage above saying that “Xueqin’s eighteenth century insights can be quite startling”, and adds that “I do not think the fact that he is actually referring to his jade talisman makes this passage psychologically any the less interesting”,[37] clearly suggesting that Bǎoyù’s behaviour is a kind of Freudian self-castration. If Bǎoyù were able to get rid of the lust and desires that are associated with maleness, he might become immune to his sense of shame and other threats to his state of well-being and aesthetic pleasure, his primary narcissism.


While the notion of qíng appears very frequently in The Red Chamber Dream and is explicitly said to be one of the novel’s main themes, the notion of ‘desire, carnal lust’ only occurs a few times (except as a modal verb ‘to be about to; to want to’) and is never highlighted. In Wáng Guówéi’s analysis, however, ‘desire, carnal lust’ is still one of the novel’s main themes, though it does not appear directly, but is instead hidden behind the homophonous word meaning ‘jade’, which is indeed a frequently recurring motif in the novel. Wáng Guówéi’s analysis may seem speculative and is not based on much concrete evidence, apart from the general fact that many words and names in the novel clearly have a double meaning based on homophony. Even if we do not accept his suggestion that ’jade’ is a representation of ’desire’, however, there is plenty of evidence that a fear of male desire underlies much of the novel.


I mentioned above that the fairy Jǐnghuàn’s distinction between “a shallow, promiscuous kind of lust” 皮膚淫濫 and a “lust of the mind” 意淫 more or less corresponds to the traditional distinction between qíng ‘love, emotions’ and ‘desire, carnal lust’. Jǐnghuàn’s version acknowledges “lustfulness” as an integral part of both, and this actually makes the delineation between the two much more tricky. The problem is not so much to distinguish Bǎoyù’s qíng from the of the novel’s numerous lechers, since they tend to be selfishly concerned with fulfilment of sexual desire without much consideration for the girls or women (or, in some cases, boys) involved, in stark contrast to Bǎoyù. The tricky problem is the distinction between the more or less purified qíng that Bǎoyù represents and the qíng with a strong admixture of represented by, for instance, his good friend Qín Zhōng. Qín Zhōng starts out as a paragon of qíng, but ends his life because of his lustful association with the young nun Zhìnéng.[38]


Bǎoyù’s “lust of the mind” clearly includes an erotic component. Whether the object of his love is Lín Dàiyù, Xuē Bǎochāi, Jīnchuàn, Píng’ér, or Qíngwén on the female side, or Qín Zhōng or Jiǎng Yùhàn on the male side, his feelings for them are partly erotic.[39] For instance, in chapter 28 when Bǎoyù sees Bǎochāi’s arm...


…a feeling rather warmer than admiration was kindled inside him. ‘If that arm were growing on Cousin Lín’s body,’ he speculated, ‘I might hope one day to touch it. What a pity it’s hers! Now I shall never have that good fortune.’ Suddenly he thought of the curious coincidence of the gold and jade talismans … He looked again at Bǎochāi -

that face like the full moon’s argent bowl;

those eyes like sloes;

those lips whose carmine hue no Art contrived;

and brows by none but Nature’s pencil lined.

Fascinated by it, he continued to stare at her with a somewhat dazed expression, so that when she handed him the chaplet, which she had now succeeded in getting off her wrist, he failed to take it from her.



But though the sight of a beautiful girl may kindle inside him “a feeling rather warmer than admiration”, his “lust of the mind” does not seem to lead to any clearly sexual behaviour after his dream initiation into sexuality in chapter 5 and his first sexual intercourse with Xírén (which was officially sanctioned) in chapter 6. In chapter 77, Qíngwén’s cousin’s wife makes the following observation concerning the relationship between Bǎoyù and Qíngwén:


I was listening to you two for quite a while outside the window. You two were alone in the room, and if you had been secret lovers, I am sure you would have talked about it. But it turns out you and she have nothing between you.


(my translation)


The relationship between Bǎoyù and Qíngwén is extremely close and affectionate, and before Qíngwén was driven out of the household, they often slept in the same room. Still their relationship clearly did not include sexual intercourse, indicating that Bǎoyù’s relation to the girls, apart from the single incident with Xírén, is not a sexual one. After his first intercourse in chapter 6, he simply stops his own explorations of sexual desire.


Perhaps the most astonishing thing is not Bǎoyù’s lack of sexual behaviour, which we might understand as a conscious choice to show consideration towards the girls he loves. The most surprising thing is his apparent lack of clearly sexual impulses and fantasies beyond the aesthetic pleasure described in scenes like the one where he is admiring Bǎochāi’s arm. After chapter 6, there is hardly a trace of such impulses, nor of the inner struggle that would normally accompany, consciously or unconsciously, the decision to abstain from sexual behaviour or fantasising.[40] From this point, Bǎoyù appears as an idealised character, far less realistic than many other characters in the novel.


This cannot be ascribed to a general avoidance of such themes in the novel, since elsewhere The Red Chamber Dream does not shun concrete descriptions of sexual fantasies and behaviour. It seems, rather, to stem from a need to keep Bǎoyù pure from a kind of desire that the novel conceives of as both dangerous and shameful. A person as full of qíng as Bǎoyù is in constant danger of ending up like Jiǎ Ruì, Qín Kěqīng, Qín Zhōng, and all the other characters who die for love. He is also in constant danger of being reduced to a more vulgar and therefore shameful type of male lover than the ideals of “lust of the mind” would allow. In a sense, he is in constant danger of having his spill over and merge too strongly with his qíng, transforming his purified qíng (meaning variant ii) into the more strongly eroticised qíng (meaning variant i) discussed in the section on “Meanings of Qíng” above. In order to make him immune to these dangers, the author has to give him special treatment. This treatment consists in a kind of purification that rids Bǎoyù of much of his . The story of how Bǎoyù throws his jade (his , which “only I have got” and “none of the girls has got”) to the ground in chapter 3 is an anticipation of this attempted eradication of male desire.


Ironically, both the fierce repression of impulses in Confucians like Jiǎ Zhèng and Jiǎ Dàirú on the one hand and the novel’s attempt to purify qíng in Jiǎ Bǎoyù on the other hand consider the impulses associated with , with desires and carnal lust, as their principal foes. Jiǎ Zhèng and Jiǎ Dàirú represent the repression of unwanted impulses by means of cruel, punitive action, in fact much like the typical images of the Freudian castrator, a super-ego in its early development, primitive and threatening. Jiǎ Bǎoyù, on the other hand, meets the same impulses not with repression, but with denial. With the possible exception of his throwing to the ground of the jade in chapter 3, Bǎoyù’s solution to the problem of male desire is self-inflicted blindness rather than aggressive self-castration. Denial and avoidance are deeply rooted features in Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s psychology (as seen in his many attempts to run away from unpleasant situations), and the denial of his sexuality after chapter 6 seems to reflect a blind spot in the novel as a whole, as it is never openly thematised. The idealisation of qíng is based on a willingness to close one’s eyes to the lack of a clear demarcation line between carnal lust and a “lust of the mind”.


Wáng Guówéi’s idea that ‘jade’ stands for (or ) ‘desire’ may be speculative, but ties in neatly with Bǎoyù’s denial of male desire. In fact, the almost complete absence of the term ‘desire’ in the novel may be seen to reflect Bǎoyù’s blindness to his own lustfulness. Desire is always disguised as something else. While the ultimate destination of Bǎoyù’s qíng is a state of primary narcissism, his special relationship with the girls is the most important means to reach that state, and it should come as no surprise that male desire lies at the root of this relationship. Such desire, however, constantly threatens to contaminate qíng and break the spell that makes Bǎoyù’s relation to the girls so unique and must, therefore, never be given its proper name.

Qíng and non-attachment

One reading of The Red Chamber Dream is as a novel describing Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s journey across the Ford of Error (see above), where he gradually discovers the emptiness of his attachment to qíng. The two characters aboard the raft crossing the ford, called by Hawkes Numb and Dumb, but more literally translatable as the Lay-Buddhist Wood 木居士 and the Attendant Ash 灰侍者, are sometimes seen as representing Bǎoyù’s main objects of infatuation, Dàiyù and Qíngwén, who both die for their love for Bǎoyù. Bǎoyù’s awakening from his dream at the end of chapter 5 may be seen as an anticipation of his eventual awakening from the illusory dream of the world of desires, when he leaves home to become a monk. If this awakening ever takes place, however, it belongs in the lost or unfinished final chapters for which our only source is a few scattered remarks in the Red Inkstone commentary.


The theme of awakening is tightly linked to the novel’s many stories from a mythical realm that lies beyond, but is in constant interaction with this world. The main events narrated in the The Red Chamber Dream are framed by and occasionally interspersed with such otherworldly stories.[41] The most important inhabitants of this realm are a Buddhist monk and a Taoist sage, who both choose to enter this world for a while to save a few souls, and the fairy Jǐnghuàn, who guards the Land of Illusion and its not inconsiderable bureaucracy of souls. The mythical realm is also the place of origin of the stone left unused by the goddess Nǚwā 女媧 when she repaired Heaven, transformed into an inscribed jade and brought into this world as Bǎoyù’s jade talisman (and, some would say, as Bǎoyù himself). It is the realm of the Divine Luminescent Stone-in-Waiting in the Court of Sunset Glow and the Crimson Pearl Flower, who enter this world as Jiǎ Bǎoyù and Lín Dàiyù. It is the realm of the Taoist Kōngkōng, who — apparently still in the otherworldly realm — becomes the first reader, critic and publisher of The Red Chamber Dream, and who eventually attains enlightenment and changes his name into the Qíng Monk 情僧. And it is the realm of guardians fetching the souls of those who are about to die, such as Jiǎ Ruì and Qín Zhōng, and probably also the abode of dead souls like those of Qín Kěqīng, Jīnchuàn, Yóu sānjiě, and Qíngwén, who are able to enter into the dreams and thereby communicate with mortals while they are on their way to the other side, but who then seem to lose contact (only in the anonymous sequel do some thoroughly dead souls return as ghosts).


The philosophy underlying these parts of the novel is a synchretist mixture of Buddhism and Taoism, with emphasis on the transcendence of worldly desires.[42] According to this way of thinking, both qíng and are basically illusory (Buddhism), and they are parts of a never-ending cycle of change that makes human striving futile (Taoism). It is only because we have not yet reached enlightenment that we still set such store by them. Thus, while Bǎoyù favours qíng over and his father favours over qíng, the mythopoetical parts of the novel go for a third alternative: the transcendence of both qíng and lǐ. Wáng Guówéi concluded that this is a novel about “the path to liberation” 解脫之道, and this path “lies in renouncing the world” 存於出世.[43]


The Red Chamber Dream gives two alternative paths to liberation. The first path is the traditional one, represented in the mythical realm by the Buddhist monk and the Taoist sage and in the more or less realistic parts of the novel by the retired official Zhēn Shìyǐn 甄士隱, who attains enlightenment towards the end of chapter 1, after his daughter has been kidnapped, his house burnt down, and he has been completely ripped off by his greedy father-in-law. After losing everything he feels attached to, he is able to look through the vanity of his own attachments.


The second path, which originates in late Ming literature and thought (with philosophical ties to the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of non-dualism[44]), is one in which qíng in its narrow meaning of ‘love, desire, passion’ (meaning 3, usage c, variants i and ii above) plays a much more central role. It helps a person to transcend the narrow confines of , though it is just a station along the way to final liberation. In the mythical realm, this is the path of the Taoist Kōngkōng, who in chapter 1, upon reading The Red Chamber Dream, “start[ed] off in the Void (which is Truth)[,] came to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth)” 因空見色由色生情傳情入色自色悟空. It is also the path outlined in chapter 5, where the fairy Jǐnghuàn tries to “initiate [Jiǎ Bǎoyù] in the pleasures of the flesh and all that sort of thing in such a way as to shock the silliness out of him” 以情欲聲色等事警其痴頑, in the hope that this may “succeed in bringing about an awakening in him some time in the future” 或冀將來一悟, and, in the words of the 1754 甲戌 edition, help him “attain enlightenment through qíng以情悟道. In the semi-realistic parts of the novel, then, the qíng-based path to liberation is the path of Jiǎ Bǎoyù. Note, by the way, that in late Ming authors like Tāng Xiǎnzǔ 湯顯祖, the that qíng helps us to transcend is ‘reason, moral order’, while in The Red Chamber Dream it is primarily ‘ritual propriety’.


Transcending qíng is not the same as ridding oneself of qíng. For instance, although the fairy Jǐnghuàn stands for ideals of transcendence, she does not object to holding Bǎoyù by the hand, prompting the following comment from a Red Inkstone commentator: “Great! Even Jǐnghuàn herself is a loveful creature!” 警幻自是個多情種子. And she says to Bǎoyù: “The reason I like you so much is because you are full of lust. You are the most lustful person I have ever known in the whole world!” 吾所愛汝者乃天下古今第一淫人也.


Nor is transcending the same as ridding oneself of lǐ. Jǐnghuàn makes, as we have seen, exhortations about “the teachings of Confucius and Mencius” and “the betterment of society”. And the Buddhist monk and the Taoist sage seem to support the -based relation between Bǎoyù and Bǎochāi rather than the qíng-based relation between Bǎoyù and Dàiyù, to judge from the fact that Bǎoyù wakes up from his dream crying:


Why should I believe what those old monks and Taoists say? I don’t believe in the marriage of gold and jade [Bǎochāi and Bǎoyù]. I believe in the marriage of stone and flower [Bǎoyù and Dàiyù].


(chapter 36).


Clearly, the monk and the Taoist had suggested that “the marriage of gold and jade”, which would be based on rather than qíng, might be preferable (or, perhaps, unavoidable).


Rather than getting rid of qíng and , the core issue in the ideals of transcendence seems to lie in avoiding the attachment they easily bring with them. Both the search for emotional fulfilment by means of qíng and the quest for order by means of are, in the end, futile attempts to change the natural flow of things. But so is the attempt to get rid of qíng and , which are, in the end, simply just parts of this flow. Qíng and and the conflict between the two need to be accepted as facts, but not to be taken for important goals in life. “The path to liberation” seems to lie in accepting them without getting attached to them. Or so, at least, goes the theory.


It is hard to read The Red Chamber Dream, however, without noticing the immense sense of attachment running through the whole novel, a nostalgic bond to the past, to its beautiful girls and even some boys and married women, to its extravagant clothing and its delicious food, to its poetry and art, its imposing buildings and magnificent garden, its games and its playfulness, its freedom and its more or less well-protected innocence. We know, of course, that the actual author came from one of Nanjing’s richest and most powerful families at the time, whose entire property, unfortunately, was confiscated by the emperor when the author was probably around 13 (though some scholars insist he was 5), so that, when we meet him almost 30 years later trying to finish his novel in the outskirts of Beijing, he has become a poor drunkard trying to feed his family (and get more money to buy wine) by doing rock painting. But even without this knowledge, just by reading the novel, we can sense the massive feeling of loss underlying the whole narrative, the nostalgia for days that will never return, and the horror and desperation felt at the inevitability of the terrible destiny of the family. According to its first chapter, Cáo Xuěqín worked on the novel for ten years in what David Hawkes has translated as Nostalgia Studio 悼紅軒, but which is literally the studio for the mourning of everything that used to be red: the mansions (only very rich families have red mansions), the girls (red mansions is a conventional way of referring to the dwellings of the young girls of rich families, or the young girls themselves), the flowers (symbols of girls and of desire), and desire itself (red is the colour of desire). In the attempt to recapture bygone wealth and beauty there is a strong element of sentimental exaggeration and lyrical idealisation. For instance, the amount of beauty, talent, intelligence, sensitivity, and skilfulness amassed in the girls of the novel is impressive beyond any probability. All the equally impressive details of imposing buildings, delicate furniture, elegant clothing, precious jewellery, lovely make-up, exquisite food, and delightful drink — not to mention the vastness of the mansions and the garden — also bear witness to a nostalgic mind dreaming up a lost world far beyond any realistic measures. The underlying feeling, then, is by no means one of non-attachment, and if there is at all an attempt at accepting the flow of life, it is done with “hot and bitter tears” 辛酸淚 (chapter 1), simply because there is no other way, as indicated by the ubiquity of the phrase wú nài 無奈 (or one of its many variants: nài , nài hé 奈何, zěn nài 怎奈 or 爭奈, qǐ nài 豈奈), referring to a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness, an unwilling acceptance of a reality that is forced upon one. If The Red Chamber Dream is suggesting that non-attachment and acceptance of the flow of life are a good cure to the losses brought upon one by life itself, it is prescribing a medicine which does not seem to have helped its author a lot.


The two characters who are described as being able to overcome their own attachment in the course of the narrative, Zhēn Shìyǐn and Liǔ Xiānglián, simply just leave the scene along with the Taoist sage as soon as they have come to their realisation. The only intimation of the actual psychology behind the idea of non-attachment comes in Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s pseudo-enlightenment in chapter 21, where he is able to regain his state of well-being by pretending that the girls who have hurt him are dead. One might see this as an aggressive reaction, a revenge against those who have hurt him. The main point in our context, however, is the fact that Bǎoyù’s pseudo-enlightenment is built on denial, a pretense that the objects of his own qíng and the conflicts surrounding them no longer exist. To the extent that the novel gives us any clue at all to the psychology behind the ideals of transcendence, it seems to be very close to the psychology of denial, especially the denial of male desire, a reaction the basic aim of which is to recapture the state of primary narcissism. If this is correct, the attempt to transcend qíng is little more than a more advanced step in the endeavour to retain or regain this childlike state of undisturbed well-being and unity.

The presence and absence of irony

To what extent does The Red Chamber Dream seriously suggest that the ideology of non-attachment and acceptance of the mythical realm is a valid approach to life? A closer look at the role this view plays within the novel as a whole suggests that the transcendence of qíng and does not necessarily have prominence over the views favouring qíng over or over qíng.


First, transcendental wisdom belongs exclusively to the mythical realm and is not in this novel a part of real life. The Buddhist monk, the Taoist sage, the fairy Jǐnghuàn, and the Taoist Kōngkōng, who are all portrayed as bearers of transcendental wisdom, belong to the mythical realm, though they do pay visits to the world of mortal beings. In chapter 1, Zhēn Shìyǐn is originally a thisworldly character, but after he has reached enlightenment, we hear no more of him. In chapter 66, Liǔ Xiānglián “slashe[s] through the unnumbered strands that bind us to the world and its annoys” 將萬根煩惱絲一揮而盡, and after that we see or hear no more of him. In addition, some of the dead or dying characters of the novel also arguably represent a kind of transcendental wisdom, such as Qín Kěqīng in her admonitions to Wáng Xīfèng in chapter 13, Qín Zhōng in his admonitions to Jiǎ Bǎoyù in chapter 16, and Yóu sānjiě in her parting words to Liǔ Xiānglián in chapter 66 and in her little dream visit to Yóu èrjiě in chapter 69. But Qín Kěqīng’s and Qín Zhōng’s deathbed messages are actually more in favour of than transcendence, and when Yóu sānjiě visits her sister in a dream, she sounds much more vengeful than one would expect of a person of transcendental wisdom. Whatever wisdom they might have, however, is acquired at the very moment of leaving this world, presumably to enter the mythical realm.


Second, although stories from the mythical realm frame the whole novel, their way of thinking only occurs in an exceedingly small portion of the whole narrative. In other parts of the novel, there may be reminders of their existence, but most of the time they are simply quietly forgotten. For instance, to judge by the descriptions in chapter 1, the stone that was left unused by Nǚwā has a central role in the narration, the whole narrative being first inscribed on it (before being copied by the Taoist Kōngkōng), and we are reminded of this role in small passages in chapters 4, 8, and 17-18. Most of the time, however, the role of the stone as a quasi-narrator is not even hinted at, and the stone’s only presence in other chapters are in the form of Bǎoyù’s jade talisman. As for the Buddhist monk and the Taoist sage, they mainly appear in chapters 1 and 25, the Taoist sage also towards the end of chapters 12 and 66 (continuing into the beginning of chapter 67); in other chapters they are only mentioned a few times by other characters and do not appear in person. The fairy Jǐnghuàn mainly appears in chapter 5, and the Taoist Kōngkōng only occurs in chapter 1. Even if Zhēn Shìyǐn in chapter 1, Qín Kěqīng in chapter 13, Qín Zhōng in chapter 16, Yóu sānjiě in chapter 66 and 69, and Liǔ Xiānglián in chapter 66-67 are counted, there is in the vast majority of chapters no direct use of mythopoetical elements or reference to transcendental wisdom at all.


Third, the mythopoetical passages are full of humour and irony, of what the Chinese critical tradition calls “a playful pen” 遊戲筆墨. The first chapter, which has several mythopoetical passages, uses the term “absurd” 荒唐 three times—in addition to calling the mythical mountains from where the stone originates and to which it eventually returns “the Mountains of Great Absurdity” (my translation) 大荒山. The stories of the goddess Nǚwā repairing Heaven, the block of stone left unused and therefore howling and wailing in shame and lamentation, the “scabby” 癩頭 Buddhist monk and the “limping” 跛足 Taoist sage behaving like madmen, and the Taoist Kōngkōng engaging in overly serious conversation with the stone on the nature of good literature, are all witty and jocular, as is the folksy tone of the “Won-Done Song” 好了歌 and its poetic commentary. Even the story of the Divine Luminescent Stone-in-Waiting in the Court of Sunset Glow and the Crimson Pearl Flower, though markedly more lyrical in sentiment, has a humorous side. In chapter 5, Bǎoyù’s dream visit to the Land of Illusion is also full of playful elements, and the obvious lustfulness of the fairy Jǐnghuàn has more than a touch of comedy. In chapter 12, the whole story of Jiǎ Ruì is almost farcical, including the parts where he is visited by the limping Taoist. In chapter 16, the leader of the demons fetching the dying Qín Zhōng to the other side is quite comical in his fear of the name Bǎoyù. Etcetera, etcetera. It is as if the novel is telling us all along not to take the wisdom of these passages too seriously.


Fourth, transcendental wisdom often occurs in stylistically marked passages, such as:


-    the rhymed verse of the “Won-Done Song” and its poetic commentary (chapter 1)

-    the rhymed verse of the registers of the beauties of Jinling 金陵十二釵正冊、副冊、又副冊, the song suite “A Dream of Golden Days” 紅樓夢, and other poetry in chapter 5

-    couplets of parallel lines, like the one marking the entrance to the Land of Illusion in chapters 1 and 5 (Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real 假作真時真亦假有為無處無還有) and the one marking the entrance to the Temple of Perfect Knowledge 智通寺 in chapter 2 (As long as there is a sufficiency behind you, you press greedily forward. It is only when there is no road in front of you that you think of turning back 身後有餘忘縮手眼前無路想回頭)

-    lines from chapter headings, such as “shock leads a cold-hearted young gentleman to renounce the world” 冷二郎一冷入空門 (chapter 66) and “beautiful actors sever all bonds and enter nirvana” 美優伶斬情歸水月 (chapter 77, my translation).


Passages written in these styles often contain exaggerations and do not imply mimetic realism. For instance, the heading of chapter 22 contains the line “Bǎoyù finds Zen enlightenment in an operatic aria” 聽曲文寶玉悟禪機, which seems to imply that Jiǎ Bǎoyù reaches enlightenment in the course of the chapter, while it is quite clear, even to Bǎoyù himself, that his “enlightenment” was just a drunken stupor after his having been rejected by the girls. Furthermore, semi-poetic language also gives ample room for ambiguity and alternative interpretations. For instance, the line from the heading of chapter 77 that I have translated as “beautiful actors sever all bonds and enter nirvana” is translated by Hawkes as “three young actresses seek to escape matrimony in the cloister”. While my translation takes zhǎn qíng 斬情 to refer to a renouncement of all attachment, of all qíng, Hawkes’s translation makes it refer quite concretely to the actresses’ refusal to marry; and while my translation takes guī shuǐyuè 歸水月 in its conventional meaning ‘to enter nirvana’, Hawkes’s translation takes it, again quite concretely, to refer to the Buddhist temple called Water-moon Priory 水月庵, where the young actresses actually end up. The Chinese chapter heading plays on this ambiguity between a lofty philosophical interpretation and a concrete down-to-earth one. The same type of ambiguity is found in the following line in chapter 1 of the 1754 edition 甲戌本:



Translation A: Basically it is all a dream [i.e. illusory], and the world in its myriad manifestations is nothing but emptiness.

Translation B: In the end, it will all be like a dream [i.e. a distant memory], and nothing will be left of this myriad of things.[45]


Translation A is a general philosophical statement about the illusory nature of everything, while translation B is a specific profecy about the future disappearance of present prosperity. The first reading adds to the novel’s philosophical depth, while the second reading provides a prophesy of the concrete events that are about to be narrated. Both translations are equally valid.


The exaggerations and intended ambiguities of semi-poetic passages sometimes makes it hard to know their concrete implications. For instance, the Red Inkstone commentary mentions how a now lost chapter describes Jiǎ Bǎoyù “letting go of his hold onto the precipice” 懸崖撒手 (see the commentaries to chapters 21 and 25[46]). This phrase is usually understood to imply that Bǎoyù renounces the world, and the commentary uses the same phrase about Zhēn Shìyǐn’s enlightenment in chapter 1 (p. 33). The commentary to chapter 21 does contain concrete statements about Bǎoyù leaving his wife and concubine to become a monk, but the phrase itself tells us very little about the concrete circumstances of his decision. Although “letting go” seems to imply some kind of deeper spiritual insight or enlightenment, it is impossible to know whether this is meant to reflect Bǎoyù’s actual state of mind or is just a part of poetic language use.


One possible, though in my opinion improbable, conclusion would be to read the mythopoetical elements framing and interspersing the narrative of The Red Chamber Dream as nothing more than a literary device of a type not unknown from earlier Chinese fiction. In this perspective, the philosophical ideas of these passages are just literary ornamentation and should not be taken seriously at all.


More plausibly, I will suggest that the irony of the mythopoetical passages serves to relativise the transcendental wisdom they express. Although theoretically the idea of transcending both qíng and should lie on a “higher” level than the ideas of favouring qíng or of favouring lǐ, its actual position within the novel is weakened by the various factors mentioned above, and the mythopoetical passages should be read with a considerable amount of ironic distance. They represent, to return to Kundera’s terms, “not a single absolute truth”, but one among “a welter of contradictory truths”.


The playfulness of the mythopoetical passages is quite similar in tone to that of the passages expressing regret, remorse and repentance (see the section on “Qíng and the Sense of Guilt” above). In both cases, humour creates an ironic distance to ideas that might otherwise appear as overly serious and trite.


In comparison, the humour of other parts of the novel does not usually create ironic distance at all. For instance, the humour found here and there in the long stretches of narrative describing life in the Prospect Garden and Bǎoyù’s qíng for the girls is an integrated part of a huge lyrical and arguably quite sentimental web spun around a qíng-laden core of wonder and amazement, praise and admiration, longing and lamentation. As for the slapstick humour in some of the chapters describing the dangers of qíng, while allowing the reader to lean back and be amused by Jiǎ Ruì’s blind and helpless love for Wáng Xīfèng in chapter 12 and Wáng Xīfèng’s outrageous and uncontrollable jealousy in chapters 43 and 68-69, still does not tend to undermine the utter seriousness of the sense of fear and danger involved. Many of Bǎoyù’s eccentric traits, especially his love for the girls and his contempt for everything masculine, are certainly described with humour, but again a humour that contributes to the impression of what an extraordinary boy he is rather than one creating ironic distance.

The psychology of qíng

If The Red Chamber Dream is a psychological novel built around a core of conflicting inner impulses, as indicated at the beginning of this chapter, we now begin to see the contours of some of the emotional conflicts involved. Whether the novel represents a defense of qíng, a warning against it, or an attempt to transcend it, there is no doubt that qíng is one of its main obsessions. This obsession has, I have indicated, its root in a psychological resistance against boundaries and responsibility, an unwillingness to let go of the sense of well-being and unity associated with the child’s early state of primary narcissism and with its privileged relation with a number of girls.


The attempt to retain or regain this state is encouraged by the lack of restrictions represented in the novel by Grandmother Jiǎ’s doting for Bǎoyù, by the carefree life in the Prospect Garden, and by the extreme freedom with which Bǎoyù moves among girls who are virtually always delighted with him. The resistance against boundaries is also stimulated by the association between restrictions and the cruel and punitive strictness represented in the novel by Jiǎ Zhèng in relation to his son, Jiǎ Dàirú in relation to his grandson, Lady Wáng in relation to goodlooking maidservants and actresses, and by the terrible forces punishing genuine but illicit love with death as soon as it becomes too strongly eroticised or sexualised. The attempt to hold on to the state of primary narcissism also aims at retaining a kind of purity and aesthetic pleasure untainted by the ugliness and shame associated with male sexual desire (and, by extension, with career-oriented masculine values). The main sources of this idealised state of mind are a flock of young and mostly unmarried, and hence pure, girls (and a few effeminate boys), who combine purity and intelligence with beauty and erotic attractiveness.


When facing the various threats to the state of primary narcissism, The Red Chamber Dream seems to reflect a basic psychological tendency towards avoidance or denial. These are Jiǎ Bǎoyù’s instinctual reactions whenever trouble looms, usually in the form of other people’s anger or accusations, whether they come from his father, his mother, the Prince of Zhōngshùn’s chamberlain, Jiǎng Yùhàn and Jīnchuàn in his dreams, or the girls. This article has argued that a similar form of denial underlies the strange lack of sexual behaviour and fantasies in Jiǎ Bǎoyù, which within the perspective underlying the novel is the only way to enable him to avoid the deadly dangers of love and (less successfully) the shame associated with male desire.


As indicated above, the passages of The Red Chamber Dream most directly describing qíng and the fear and shame surrounding it have little of the irony that is so typical of the passages expressing self-reproach on the one hand and non-attachment on the other. The lack of ironic distance reflects a lack of psychological distance. These parts of the novel, which actually constitute the bulk of the narrative, are much more expressive than reflective. The conflicts relating to qíng dominate the mental universe of the novel to such an extent that there is little room for the smiling afterthought that is typical of irony. This may be seen as a weakness, since it contributes to the novel’s tendency to uncritical and sentimental idealisation. But it may also be seen as a strength, making the novel more directly psychologically expressive than any previous work of Chinese fiction, and giving us an intimate view of the emotional battlefield underlying the narrative.


The irony of the passages expressing self-reproach or non-attachment seems to represent an attempt at stepping out of this self-enclosed universe. Some (though not all) of these passages are more reflective than expressive, thereby creating some cracks in the closed and self-contained lyrical world that dominates long stretches of the novel.


Admittedly, some of the passages that can be read as expressions of remorse or self-reproach have their own form of regretful sentimentality. Still, they are consistently humorous and ironic in a way the bulk of the narrative is not.


With regard to the mythopoetical passages, I have already voiced the suspicion that the philosophical idea of non-attachment, as expressed in the novel, in part represents psychologically little more than an elevated variant of the basic tendency towards avoidance and denial of the inner conflicts threatening the state of primary narcissism. It is as if the same psychological impulses that dominate the self-contained universe of qíng pop up again even within the attempts to overcome it.


Let us return, finally, to Milan Kundera’s characterisation of the novel as “the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence”. There is no doubt that Kundera, both in his own novels and his literary thinking, prefers a reflective form to a directly emotional one. One might argue that the self-contained lyricism that dominates most of the narrative of The Red Chamber Dream is not really exploratory in Kundera’s sense, since its lack of ironic distance leaves so little room for reflection. One might also argue, however, that the very lack of a self-conscious reflective voice in large parts of The Red Chamber Dream allows us more direct access to the psychological impulses involved and brings them up in a more naked, unmodified form. Just as the direct expression of free associations with a minimum of self-criticism provides the basis for insight in psychoanalysis, the non-reflective form of these parts of The Red Chamber Dream brings us right into the middle of the emotional conflicts surrounding the great theme of existence called qíng.

[1] Kundera defines the novel as “the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence”. Milan Kundera: The Art of the Novel, Faber and Faber, London 1988, p. 142.

[2] See, for instance, Mary Elizabeth Scott: “Azure from Indigo: ‘Hong lou meng’s debt to ‘Jin Ping Mei’”, Ph. D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1989; Wáng Nǎijì 王乃驥: Jīn Píng Méi yǔ Hónglóu mèng 金瓶梅與紅樓夢, Liren shuju, Taipei 2001; Xú Jūnhuì 徐君慧: Cóng Jīn Píng Méi dào Hónglóu mèng 從金瓶梅到紅樓夢, Guangxi renmin chubanshe, Nanning 1987; Shěn Tiānyòu 沈天佑: Jīn Píng Méi Hónglóu mèng zònghéng tán 金瓶梅紅樓夢縱橫談, Beijing daxue chubanshe, Beijing 1990.

[3] The standard account of The Story of the Stone as autobiography is Hú Shì’s 胡適 groundbreaking article from 1921, “Hónglóumèng kǎozhèng” 《紅樓夢》考證, see Hú Shì Hónglóu mèng yánjiū lùnshù quánbiān 胡適紅樓夢研究論述全編, Shanghai guji chubanshe, Shanghai 1988, p. 75-120. See Martin W. Huang’s discussion of how autobiographical sensibilities of the late Ming were carried over into the novel of the early Qing (Literati and Self-Re/Presentation: Autobiographical Sensibility in the Eighteenth-century Chinese Novel, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1995).

[4] See Martin W. Huang Literati and Self-Re/Presentation, Stephen J. Roddy: Literati Identity and Its Fictional Representations in Late Imperial China, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1998, and Xiao Chi: ??.

[5] See Maram Epstein’s discussion of the complex interplay of orthodoxy and authenticity in late imperial Chinese fiction, including The Story of the Stone (Competing Discourses: Orthodoxy, Authenticity, and Engendered Meaning in Late Imperial Chinese Fiction, Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge 2001).

[6] See Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu: From Historicity to Fictionality: The Chinese Poetics of Narrative, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1994, p. 129ff., and, for the fictionality of The Story of the Stone, Anthony C. Yu: Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1997.

[7] See David L. Rolston: Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing Between the Lines, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1997, p. 209ff.

[8] See Maram Epstein Competing Discourses and Waiyee Li: Enchantment and Jǐnghuàn: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1993.

[9] For a thorough analysis of its meanings in classical times, see Christoph Harbsmeier: ??. For an analysis of its further historical development, see Halvor Eifring: ??.

[10] See Yú Píngbó 俞平伯: “Yǐngyìn ‘Zhīyànzhāi chóngpíng Shítoujì’ shíliù huí hòujì” 影印《脂硯齋重評石頭記》十六回後記, reprinted in Yú Píngbó lùn Hónglóumèng 俞平伯論紅樓夢, Shanghai guji chubanshe, Shanghai 1988, p. 957-961 and 975 note 8; see also Wai-yee Li Enchantment and Jǐnghuàn p. 232-233, Epstein Competing Discourses p. 173ff., Martin Huang: Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China, Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge 2001, p. 280ff.

[11] See Chan Hing-ho (Chén Qìnghào) 陳慶浩: Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào zēngdìngběn 新編石頭記脂硯齋評語輯校增訂本, Lianjing chuban shiye gongsi, Taipei 1986, p. 394.

[12] “Civilization and Its Discontents”, in vol. 12 of the Pelican Freud Library, Civilization, Society and Religion, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1985, p. 251ff.

[13] Cf. J. Laplanche & J.-B. Pontalis: The Language of Psychoanalysis, Norton, New York 1973, p. 337f.

[14] Especially by Melanie Klein, who insists that object-relations are present from the very beginning.

[15] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 192 and 349. The description of Jiǎ Bǎoyù contrasts with that of Lín Dàiyù: Dàiyù qíng qíng 黛玉情情, translatable as ‘Dàiyù treats with qíng those who have qíng [for her?]’.

[16] See Christoph Anderl’s contribution to the present volume.

[17] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 119. This comment, however, follows a passage in which Bǎoyù himself cracks a cup in anger.

[18] Cf. the Chán idea of “plants and trees becoming Buddhas” 草木成佛 discussed by Christoph Anderl in this volume.

[19] 《紅樓夢》是情場懺悔而作的. See his “Hónglóumèng biàn” 紅樓夢辨, reprinted in Yú Píngbó lùn Hónglóumèng p. 182.

[20] Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典, Hanyu da cidian chubanshe, Shanghai 1986-94, vol. 9, p. 87.

[21] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 5.

[22] The negator is most often used in exhortations, and an alternative translation might be: “As for ‘repairing the sky to benefit the world’, don’t read [use?] this common expression in a serious sense.”

[23] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 228.

[24] ibid.

[25] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 136.

[26] ibid.

[27] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 135.

[28] Enchantment and Jǐnghuàn p. 240.

[29] The Art of the Novel p. 6-7.

[30] The moral and the aesthetic aspects of the distinction are not clearly distinguished. See Bǔ Jiàn 卜鍵: “Měi chǒu dōu zài qíng hé yù zhījiān” 美醜都在情和欲之間, in his Jiàng shù liǎng gē—Zhōngguó xiǎoshuō wéntǐ yǔ wénxué jīngshén 絳樹兩歌——中國小說文體與文學精神, Zhōngguó guǎngbō diànshì chūbǎnshè, Beijing 2000, p. 28-42. In the anonymous sequel to The Story of the Stone, the more traditional distinction between qíng and returns, as when the ghost of Qín Kěqīng speaks to the ghost of Faithful 鴛鴦 in chapter 111.

[31] For a similar conclusion, see Hé Bǐngdì “Cóng ài de qǐyuán” p. 23.

[32] In the anonymous sequel, the suicides of the cousin lovers Sīqí 司棋 and Pān Yòu’ān 潘又安 in chapter 9? also belong to the same thematics.

[33] To what extent marriage between maternal cousins has been sanctioned in traditional China has varied with time and place. On incestuous relations in The Story of the Stone, see Andrew H. Plaks: “The Problem of Incest in Jin Ping Mei and Honglou meng”, in Eva Hung (ed.): Paradoxes of Traditional Chinese Literature, Chinese University Press, Hong Kong 1994, p. 123-45; Andrew H. Plaks: “Self-enclosure and Self-absorption in the Classic Chinese Novel”, in Halvor Eifring (ed.): Minds and Mentalities in Traditional Chinese Literature, Culture and Art Publishing House, Beijing 1999, p. 30-45.

[34] Hawkes translates liáo yuānjí 療冤疾 as “cures melancholy distempers”. However, though the word yuān is basically a negative term referring to enmity, it is also often used for love relations, especially in the collocations yuānjiā 冤家, yuānyè 冤業, and yuānniè 冤孽, all of which may refer either to enemies or, playfully, to lovers (which is the usage most prevalent in The Story of the Stone). Love and desire are seen as the results of karmic retribution for sins in earlier lives. The more elaborate term for yuānjí 冤疾, then, is yuānyè zhī zhèng 冤業之症 as used in chapter 12, where Hawkes translates “retributory illnesses”. I have chosen to translate both yuānjí 冤疾 and yuānyè zhī zhèng 冤業之症 as “lovesickness”, in order to make the connection between the two clear.

[35] See Keith McMahon: Misers, Shrews and Polygamists: Sexuality and Male-Female Relations in Eighteenth-century Chinese Fiction, Duke University Press, Durham 1995.

[36] See his famous “Hónglóumèng pínglùn” 紅樓夢評論, reprinted in Xú Bànchī 徐半痴 (ed.): Hónglóumèng yìshùlùn 紅樓夢藝術論, Lǐrén shūjú, Taipei 1984.

[37] The Story of the Stone, vol. 1, p. 32, footnote 8.

[38] Martin W. Huang (Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China, Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge 2001, p. 271ff.) shows convincingly how hidden sexual desire consistently threatens to emerge not only in Jiǎ Bǎoyù, but also in Lín Dàiyù and, in sometimes surprising ways, Xuē Bǎochāi.

[39] Cf. Hé Bǐngdì “Cóng ài de qǐyuán” p. 21ff.

[40] In chapter 31, which untypically shows Bǎoyù’s anger with Qíngwén as well as his unsuccessful attempt to make her lie down beside him, Qíngwén hints at Bǎoyù’s sexual relation with Xírén and also mentions a long-lasting and most suspicious bathing scene with Bǎoyù and Emerald 碧痕. Nowhere else in the novel, however, is there any indication that the sexual relation between Bǎoyù and Xírén continued beyond their first intercourse, or that Bǎoyù had a sexual relation to any of the other girls.

[41] See the distinction between the allegoric, realistic and narrative modes in Lucien Miller: Masks of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber: Myth, Mimesis, and Persona, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson 1975.

[42] For an investigation of this aspect of the novel, see Lene Sønderby Bech: “Images of Wisdom and Foolishness: Stages in the Progression from Ignorance to Enlightenment in the Honglou meng”, Ph.D. dissertation, Aarhus University n.d.

[43] “Hónglóumèng pínglùn” p. 10.

[44] See Bernard Faure: The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998.

[45] Both translations are mine, since Hawkes’s translation is not based on this edition.

[46] Xīnbiān Shítoujì Zhīyànzhāi píngyǔ jíjiào p. 416 and p. 494.