Story of the Stone (石頭記, also known by its alternate title A Dream of Red Mansions, 紅樓夢) is the most accessible of China’s pre-modern novels for a variety of reasons we will explore during the semester.
ASIA441B Masterworks of Chinese Fiction and Drama in Translation - CHIN FIC&DRAM TR Sections
Reading of a classic novel or play, with attention to intellectual, social, and political subtexts as well as aesthetic dimensions and problems of interpretation.
We will read the eighty chapters written by Cao Xueqin (1715-63), plus selected chapters from the forty-chapter sequel that was authored by a close relative or friend. In addition to lectures and class discussions based on assigned chapters, I will schedule debates on selected topics throughout the semester, because this is an open novel that can be understood from many contending perspectives.
Other facets of this multidimensional narrative that will receive attention are its mythical superstructure, rich symbolism, and detailed depictions of daily life in a wealthy household in eighteenth-century China. We will also discuss Cao Xueqin’s provocative depiction of the novel’s female characters, who frequently outshine the men, and consider the paradoxical status of the novel’s central male, an adolescent boy who longs to be a girl.
Cao Xueqin considered writing The Story of the Stone as a play, and references to drama, and performances of drama, run through the novel. We will discuss how these references enrich the narrative, and also consider the “afterlives” of the novel, including a TV serialization produced in 1987 and an opera that will have its world premiere in San Francisco in September of 2016.
Story of the Stone feels modern to many readers because its author interrogates many aspects of his society, especially the rigid status hierarchies and gender norms of orthodox Confucian discourse. Yet Cao Xueqin was very much a product of his historical moment and not a proto-feminist and iconoclast, as is often said of him. By the time this course is over, students will have a more accurate idea of his achievement, and why this novel ranks among the great works of world literature. Depending on class size, I may schedule an optional extra meeting for students interested in reading portions of the novel in Chinese
Who will be teaching this course
Catherine Swatek has taught courses on pre-modern vernacular fiction and drama of China’s late imperial period (c. 1400-c. 1850). She is the author of Peony Pavilion Onstage: Four Centuries in the Career of a Chinese Drama (2002) and is currently working on a playwright from Suzhou named Li Yu (李玉. 1612-c. 1681), whose career spanned the Ming-Qing divide.