The mid-18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng 紅樓夢) has been the object of so much scholarly attention that its study is often considered a separate field within or even outside the general study of Chinese literature. Since the 1870s, this field has been called hongxue 紅學, awkwardly translated as “redology.” The novel has two main Chinese titles, Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 and Shitouji 石頭記, reflected in its two major English translations: A Dream of Red Mansions and The Story of the Stone (see section on Translations). In the scholarly literature, it is most often referred to as (A) Dream of (the) Red Chamber(s), or just Red Chamber Dream. Alternative transcriptions of the Chinese titles include Hung-lou-meng and Shih-tou-chi. Most scholarly studies of the novel are written in Chinese. Since the 1970s, there have also been many studies in English and other Western languages. In China, critical comments in the pingdian 評點 “marginal commentary” style began to appear even while the novel was being written, often mixing interpretive comments with personal reactions to the text. From the beginning of the 20th century, various approaches have been adopted, beginning with the philosophical approach of Wang Guowei in 1904 (see section on Religion and Philosophy) and the suoyin 索隱 (hidden meaning) approach from 1915 onwards, the latter arguing that the novel is a veiled attack on the political powers of the day (see section on Society and History). From 1921, Chinese studies of the novel were dominated by the kaozheng 考證 (textual criticism) approach, which argues on the basis of early manuscripts and commentaries that the novel is largely autobiographical (see sections on Editions and Textual History, Commentaries and Early Material, Autobiography, and Author and Authorship). Such studies have produced an immense amount of useful reference material (see section on Reference Works). In the Mao period, a revolutionary class-struggle analysis dominated in mainland China. In the 1970s, outside mainland China, both Chinese and English-language studies formed the basis for trends focusing on the novel’s literary achievements, mostly based on current literary theory. From the 1990s, the novel has often been seen as an example of larger issues within Chinese literary and cultural history (see sections on Comparative Issues, Religion and Philosophy, Desire and Sexuality, Gender, and Literary Structure). Few Chinese literary works have inspired a wider range of scholarly interest than Dream of the Red Chamber, and the dominating trends presented above have never ruled unchallenged.
For Dream of the Red Chamber, as for most works of traditional Chinese literature, the first place to go for a general overview is Nienhauser 1986–1998. It also makes sense to read Idema and Haft 1997, or the much older but more detailed presentation of the novel in Hsia 1968, or else the translator’s introduction to the most readable English version of the novel, Hawkes 1973. The most recent, and by far the most instructive, book-size introduction to the novel is Schonebaum and Lu 2012. In Chinese, some very good book-size introductions to the novel also exist, such as Luo 2007, which builds on one scholar’s interpretation and follows the novel’s development section by section, and Zhu 2003, which collects essays by a number of scholars.
Hawkes, David. “Introduction.” In The Story of the Stone. Vol. 1. By Cao Xueqin. Translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, 15–46. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973.
A fascinating introduction to the novel itself, and to the study of the novel, based largely on ideas inspired by Chinese scholarship.
Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
Contains an introduction to the novel’s plot, its possible autobiographical elements, and the interplay of realistic and allegorical features.
Idema, Wilt, and Lloyd Haft. A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997.
Contains a brief but instructive introduction to the novel and a good bibliography.
Luo Shuhua 罗书华. Honglou xixi du (红楼细细读). Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe, 2007.
A great combination of a guide taking the reader through the novel section by section and an original interpretation of the novel.
Nienhauser, William H., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986–1998.
The main entry on the novel is under “Hung-lou meng” in Volume 1, while Volume 2 updates the very useful bibliography.
Schonebaum, Andrew, and Tina Lu, eds. Approaches to Teaching The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber). New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2012.
A splendid introduction to various aspects of the novel, by some of the most prominent scholars in the field.
Zhu Jiawen 朱嘉雯, ed. Honglou meng daodu (紅樓夢導讀). Yilan: Foguang Renwen Shehui Xueyuan, 2003.
A well-organized collection of introductory essays by some of the foremost scholars on the novel, including material from mainland China and Taiwan.
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