Set in Stone

Oct 28 2016

The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is considered China's greatest novel -- but it remains largely unknown to Western readers.

Written in the mid-eighteenth century by Cao Xueqin, the epic story runs to 120 chapters and features hundreds of different characters.

Dore J. Levy, Professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Studies at Brown University and visiting scholar at NYU Shanghai, is an expert on the classic tale.

During her visit, she gave several talks to NYU Shanghai students and faculty about her 30-year exploration of the Garden of Total Vision - the setting for much of the novel and the inspiration for numerous Chinese paintings and real-life replicas.

We sat down with Professor Levy to find out more about her career-long fascination with the story, and her time at NYU Shanghai.

What is The Story of the Stone about?

In reductive terms The Story of the Stone follows the career of a most unusual artifact - a stone. This stone goes through 120 chapters in quest for spiritual enlightenment and emancipation through the experience of a human life.

Like other long books, when you start to talk about the plot you either have to keep it very short or else we would be here all night if I tried to explain it. Let me put it another way: when I was in graduate school, my colleagues and I were enamored with Monty Python, and of course as graduate students in a Comparative Literature department, our number one favorite skit was the Summarize Proust Contest, in which participants would compete for who would do the best summary of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in 15 seconds or less. If I had summarize The Stone this way, it’s a very very long Chinese book about a rock that falls in love with a flower!

Despite The Stone’s classic status in China, it is still largely unknown in the West. How did you come to read it for the first time?

I started reading The Story of the Stone as an undergraduate studying Chinese Language and Literature at Yale in the 1970s, leaning on the first volume of Hawkes’ translation which had just been published.

The story has no counterpart in western fiction. To appreciate its position in Chinese culture you must imagine a work with the critical cachet of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the popular appeal of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind - and twice as long as the two combined. It is regarded as a work which embodies the Qing dynasty at its zenith, especially under the reign of the emperor QianLong, and as a cultural compendium of Chinese culture as a whole.

Was Hawkes’ and Minford’s translation the first English version of The Stone?  

No, but it’s the best one. There had been several partial translations, including one in the late 1800s by a man named Henry Bencraft Joly. He was a diplomat in Macau, he did a partial translation but it’s a Victorian translation, so all the dirty stuff, all the crude stuff, it’s not there. It’s not just a ‘no sex please, we’re British’ version, it’s ‘no one lower than a Chief Secretary, please’, because it excludes the lower echelons of society that use vulgar language.

It is not until the 70s that we get full translations. You had Hawkes beginning his translation as a fellow of All Souls at Oxford, and Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang working for the great Chinese translation machine, but if you are part of a translation organ starting in the 1970s before Mao has died, you have certain restrictions on how you express yourself, and of course your English academic in his ivory tower, does not.

So you first entered the Garden as an undergraduate. Over the course of your exploration, what new discoveries have you made?

I began by teaching a comparative literature class on The Stone at Brown, and then somebody asked me to do a paper for a conference and I fell into the Ford of Error - this is what happens to one of the characters at the end of Chapter Five - and I have never gotten out of it! I’m still in the Garden. I published a first book in 1999 exploring traditional family dynamics, the function of illness and medicine and the role of poetry in the novel. I then started studying the garden itself and garden culture, and how the story is told through Chinese narrative paintings.

I’m here at NYU Shanghai on sabbatical working on a second book, which basically has all the stuff that didn’t get into the first, but it has got a lot more complicated! It’s a book about the art objects in The Story of the Stone, because if the story is a cultural compendium, then the art objects that are in The Story of the Stone are representative of the kinds of things that would be in collections of gentry family like the Jias.

How does studying The Story of The Stone help us appreciate Chinese gardens and art forms?

This book adheres to a very important principle throughout Chinese literature from earliest times, called ‘to embrace the universe’. The idea is that somehow the work of art is supposed to evoke the world, and this can be done in a four-line poem, or in a painting, or in calligraphy, or in a garden - the garden is the easiest to see, because it is clearly a microcosm of the world.

Late Qing artist Sun Wen and his associates painted over 100 views of the fictional garden, which not only reflects that a large part of the narrative took place in this space, but also underlines the painter’s deep understanding that there can be no single objective view of the garden, or indeed any garden, because all gardens contain space, time and individual experiences.

You have taught The Story of the Stone in Comparative Literature classes for many years in the U.S., what was it like giving a class on it at NYU Shanghai?

I gave a Perspectives on Humanities lecture on The Story of the Stone and was impressed with the students’ engagement. Because, like at Brown, they are responsible for their own learning, they are very curious and enquiring. Of course, most of the Chinese students have previously read at least some of the book; several came to see me afterwards and we had a good discussion. I would very gladly come back next year and contribute what I could. This is an amazing enterprise - I have now seen what a 21st century university looks like.