The novel is believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring the fortunes of Cao's own family. As the author details in the first chapter, it is intended to be a memorial to the women he knew in his youth: friends, relatives and servants.
The novel is remarkable not only for its huge cast of characters and psychological scope, but also for its precise and detailed observation of the life and social structures typical of 18th-century Chinese aristocracy.
This novel was published anonymous . This is because of the prevalent in the and Dynasties.
The novel, written in Vernacular Chinese and not Classical Chinese, is one of the works that established the legitimacy of the vernacular idiom. Its author is well versed in Classical Chinese – with tracts written in erudite semi-''wenyan'' – and in Chinese poetry. The novel's conversations were written in a vivid which was to become the basis of modern spoken Chinese, with influences from Nanjing Mandarin .
The novel is normally called Hung Lou Meng or Hong Lou Meng , literally "Red Chamber Dream". "Red Chamber" was an idiom for the sheltered chambers where the daughters of wealthy families lived. It refers to a dream that Baoyu has, set in a "Red Chamber", where the fates of many of the female characters are foreshadowed.
The name of the main family, "賈", is a homonym with another Chinese character "假", which means false, fake, fictitious, deceitful or sham. Thus, Cao Xueqin suggests that the novel's family is both a realistic reflection and a fictional or "dream" version of his own family.
Buddhist idea is that the whole world is "red dust" , merely illusory and to be shunned. Buddhist and Taoist beliefs that to find , one must realize that the world is but a dream from which we must awake; and one should retire from the world, withdraw from society . But this novel don't think so. It lay stress on reality, especially on social reality; and its purport is questing truth and good in life. This thought was regarded as a religion by some Qing people.. The main character, Jia Baoyu, is the adolescent heir of the family, possibly a reincarnation of the Shenying Servant. The Crimson Pearl Flower is incarnated now as Baoyu's sickly cousin, the emotional Lin Daiyu. Baoyu is predestined in this life to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai. This love triangle against the backdrop of the family's declining fortunes forms the most well-known plot line in the novel.
Dream of the Red Chamber contains an extraordinarily large number of characters. Nearly thirty of them are considered major, and there are six hundreds of minor ones besides. Jia Baoyu is the male protagonist. Females take center stage and are frequently shown to be more capable than their male counterparts. The names of the maids and bondservants are given in the original pinyin pronunciations and in David Hawkes' translation.
Baoyu and Jinling Twelve Women
*Jia Baoyu - the main protagonist. The adolescent son of Jia Zheng and his wife, Lady Wang . Born with a piece of luminescent jade in his mouth , Baoyu is the heir apparent to the Rongguo line . Frowned on by his strict Confucian father, Baoyu prefers reading ''Zhuangzi'' and Chinese opera novels to the Four Books basic to a classical Chinese education. Baoyu is highly intelligent, but hates the fawning bureaucrats that frequent his father's house. He shuns usual men, considering them morally and spiritually inferior to women. Sensitive and compassionate, Baoyu holds the view that "girls are in essence pure as water, and men are in essence muddled as mud."
*Lin Daiyu - Jia Baoyu's first cousin and love interest. She is the daughter of Lin Ruhai , a Yangzhou scholar-official, and Lady Jia Min , Baoyu's paternal aunt. The novel proper starts in Chapter 3 with Daiyu's arrival at the Rong-guo House shortly after the death of her mother. Beautiful but fragile emotionally, prone to fits of jealousy, Daiyu is nevertheless an extremely accomplished poet and musician. The novel designates her one of the Jinling Twelve Women, and describes her as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure. Daiyu is the reincarnation of the Crimson Pearl Flower, and the purpose of her mortal birth is to repay the water that Baoyu watered as her tears to Baoyu. She is one of the four most important women in Jia Baoyu's life and shares the first place of Jinling Twelve Women with Xue Baochai.
*Xue Baochai - Jia Baoyu's other first cousin. The only daughter of Aunt Xue , sister to Baoyu's mother, Baochai is a foil to Daiyu. Where Daiyu is unconventional and hypersensitive, Baochai is sensible and tactful; a model Chinese feudal maiden. The novel describes her as a beautiful and intelligent girl like snow, but also very reserved. Although reluctant to show the extent of her knowledge, Baochai seems to be quite learned about everything, from Buddhist teachings to how not to make a paint plate crack. Also one of the Jinling Twelve Women, Baochai has a round face, fair skin, and, some would say, a voluptuous figure in contrast to Daiyu's willowy daintiness. Baochai carries a golden locket with her which contains words given to her in childhood by a Buddhist monk. Baochai's golden locket and Baoyu's jade contain inscriptions that appear to complement one another perfectly. Their marriage is seen in the book as predestined. She is also one of the four most important women in Jia Baoyu's life.
*Jia Yuanchun - Baoyu's elder sister by about a decade. Originally one of the in the imperial palace, Yuanchun later becomes an Imperial Consort, having impressed the Emperor with her virtue and learning. Her illustrious position as a favorite of the Emperor marks the height of the Jia family's powers. Despite her prestigious position, Yuanchun feels imprisoned within the four walls of the imperial palace. Redologies think that in original lost work, eventually Yuanchun's sudden death precipitates the fall of the Jia family, included in Jinling Twelve Women.
*Jia Tanchun - Baoyu's younger half-sister, by Concubine Zhao, bondwoman to Jia Zheng. Brash and extremely outspoken, she is almost as capable as Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng herself compliments her privately, but laments that she was "born in the wrong womb," since concubine children are not respected as much as those by first wives. Tanchun is nicknamed "Rose" for her beauty and her prickly personality.
*Shi Xiangyun - Jia Baoyu's second cousin, Grandmother Jia's grand-niece. Orphaned in infancy, she grows up under her wealthy maternal uncle and aunt who use her unkindly. In spite of this Xiangyun is openhearted and cheerful. A comparatively androgynous beauty, Xiangyun looks good in men's clothes, and loves to drink and barbecue meat by herself . She is forthright without tact, but her forgiving nature takes the sting from her casually truthful remarks. She is learned and as talented a poet as Daiyu or Baochai. Also one of the four most important women in Jia Baoyu's life.
*Miaoyu - a young nun from Buddhist cloisters of the Rong-guo house. Extremely beautiful and learned, while also extremely disdainful and not gregarious; loves clean too much. The novel says she was compelled by her illness to become a nun, and shelters herself under the nunnery in Grandview Garden to dodge political affairs. She likes Zhuangzi's article. Also one of the four most important women in Jia Baoyu's life.
*Jia Yingchun - Second female in the generation of the Jia household after Yuanchun, Yingchun is the daughter of Jia She, Baoyu's uncle and therefore his eldest female cousin. A kind-hearted, weak-willed person, Yingchun is said to have a "wooden" personality and seems rather apathetic toward all worldly affairs. Although very pretty and well-read, she does not compare in intelligence and wit to any of her cousins. Yingchun's most famous trait, it seems, is her unwillingness to meddle in the affairs of her family. Eventually Yingchun marries a new favorite of the imperial court, her marriage merely one her father's desperate attempts to raise the declining fortunes of the Jia family. The newly married Yingchun becomes a victim of domestic abuse and constant violence at the hands of her cruel, abusive husband.
*Jia Xichun - Baoyu's younger second cousin from the Ningguo House, but brought up in the Rongguo House. A gifted painter, she is also a devout Buddhist. She is also the sister of Jia Zhen, head of the Ningguo House. At the end of the novel, after the fall of the house of Jia, she gives up her worldly concerns and becomes a Buddhist nun. She is the second youngest of Jinling Twelve Women, described as a pre-teen in most part of the novel.
*Wang Xifeng , alias Sister Feng - Baoyu's elder cousin-in-law, young wife to Jia Lian , niece to Lady Wang. Xifeng is hence related to Baoyu both by blood and marriage. An extremely handsome woman, Xifeng is capable, clever, amusing and at times, vicious and cruel. Undeniably the most worldly of the women in the novel, Xifeng is in charge of the daily running of the Rongguo household and wields remarkable economic as well as political power within the family. Being a favorite niece of Lady Wang, Xifeng keeps both Lady Wang and Grandmother Jia entertained with her constant jokes and amusing chatter, plays the role of the perfect filial daughter-in-law, and by pleasing Grandmother Jia, rules the entire household with an iron fist. One of the most remarkable multi-faceted personalities in the novel, Xifeng can be kind-hearted toward the poor and helpless. On the other hand, however, Xifeng can be cruel enough to kill. Her feisty personality, her loud laugh and her great beauty formed refreshing contrasts to the many frail, weak-willed beauties that plagued the literature of 18th-century China. Xifeng's name translates to "Prosperous ".
*Jia Qiaojie - Wang Xifeng's and Jia Lian's daughter. The youngest of the Jinling Twelve Women, she was a child through much of the novel. After the fall of the house of Jia, she married the son of Granny Liu's landowner neighbour and lead an uneventful life in the countryside.
*Li Wan - Baoyu's elder sister-in-law, widow of Baoyu's deceased elder brother, Jia Zhu . Her primary task is to bring up her son Lan and watch over her female cousins. The novel portrays Li Wan, a young widow in her late twenties, as a mild-mannered woman with no wants or desires, the perfect Confucian ideal of a proper mourning widow. She eventually attains high social status due to the success of her son at the Imperial Exams, but the novel sees her as a tragic figure because she wasted her youth upholding the strict standards of behavior.
*Qin Keqing - daughter-in-law to Jia Zhen. Of all the characters in the novel the circumstances of her life and early death are amongst the most mysterious. The author has clearly edited the present edition. Apparently a very beautiful and flirtatious woman, she carried on an affair with her father-in-law and died before the second quarter of the novel. The present text hint at death by suicide.
Other main characters
*Grandmother Jia , née Shi. Also called the Matriarch or the Dowager. The daughter of Marquis Shi of Jinling. Grandmother to both Baoyu and Daiyu, she is the highest living authority in the Rongguo house and the oldest and most respected of the entire Clan, yet doting. She has two sons, Jia She and Jia Zheng, and a daughter, Min, Daiyu's mother. Daiyu is brought to the house of the Jias at the insistence of Grandmother Jia, and she helps Daiyu and Baoyu bond as childhood playmates and, later, kindred spirits.
*Jia Zheng - Baoyu's father, a stern disciplinarian and Confucian scholar. Afraid his one surviving son would turn bad, he imposed strict rules and occasional corporal punishment for his son. He has a wife, Lady Wang, and two concubines.
*Lady Wang - Baoyu's mother, a Buddhist, primary wife of Jia Zheng. Because of her purported ill-health, she hands over the running of the household to her niece, Xifeng, as soon as the latter marries into the Jia household, although she retains overall control over Xifeng's affairs so that the latter always has to report to her. Although Lady Wang appears to be a kind mistress and a doting mother, she can be in fact cruel and ruthless when her authority is challenged.
*Jia Lian - Xifeng's husband and Baoyu's paternal elder cousin, a notorious womanizer whose numerous affairs cause much trouble with his jealous wife. His pregnant concubine eventually died by his wife's engineering. He and his wife are in charge of most hiring and monetary allocation decisions, and often fight over this power.
*Xiangling - the Xues' maid, born Zhen Yinglian , the kidnapped and lost daughter to Zhen Shiyin , the country gentleman in Chapter 1. Her name is changed to Qiuling by Xue Pan's spoiled wife, Xia Jin'gui .
*Ping'er - Xifeng's chief maid and personal confidante; also concubine to Xifeng's husband, Jia Lian. The consensus among the novel's characters seem to be that Ping'er is beautiful enough to rival the mistresses in the house. Originally Xifeng's maid in the Wang household, she follows Xifeng as part of her "dowry" when Xifeng marries into the Jia household. She handles her troubles with grace, assists Xifeng capably and appears to have the respect of most of the household servants. She is also one of the very few people who can get close to Xifeng. She wields considerable power in the house as Xifeng's most trusted assistant, but uses her power sparingly and justly.
*Xue Pan - Baochai's older brother, a dissolute, idling rake who was a local bully in Jinling. Not particularly well studied, he once killed a man over a servant-girl and had the manslaughter case done over with money.
*Granny Liu - a country rustic and distant relation to the Wang family, who provides a comic contrast to the ladies of the Rongguo House during two visits. She eventually rescued Qiaojie away from her maternal uncle who wanted to sell her.
*Aunt Xue , née Wang - Baoyu's maternal aunt, mother to Pan and Baochai, sister to Lady Wang. She is kindly and affable for the most part, but finds it hard to control her unruly son.
*Qingwen - Baoyu's handmaiden. Brash, haughty and the most beautiful maid in the household, Qingwen is said to resemble Daiyu very strongly. Of all of Baoyu's maids, she is the only one who dares to argue with Baoyu when reprimanded, but is also extremely devoted to him. She was disdainful of Xiren's attempt to use her sexual relation with Baoyu to raise her status in the family. Lady Wang later suspected her of having an affair with Baoyu and publicly dismissed her on that account; angry at the unfair treatment and of the indignities and slanders that attended her as a result, Qingwen died shortly of an illness after leaving the Jia household.
*Xiren - Baoyu's principle maid and his . Originally the maid of the Dowager, Xiren was given to Baoyu because of her extreme loyalty toward the master she serves. Considerate and forever worrisome over Baoyu, she is the partner of his first adolescent sexual encounter during the early chapters of the novel.
*Zijuan - Daiyu's chief maid, ceded by the Dowager to her granddaughter. She is a very faithful companion to Dai-yu.
*Yuanyang - the Dowager's chief maid. She rejected a marriage proposal to the lecherous Jia She, Grandmother Jia's eldest son. After Grandmother Jia's death during the clan's declining days, she possibly commits suicide.
*Mingyan - Baoyu's young, male servant-attendant. Knows his master like the back of his hand.
*Xueyan - Daiyu's other maid. She came with Daiyu from Yangzhou, and comes across as a young but sweet girl.
*Jia She - elder son of the Dowager. He is the father of Jia Lian and Jia Yingchun. He is a treacherous and greedy man, and is an extreme womanizer.
*Lady Xing - Jia She's wife. She is Jia Lian's mother.
*Concubine Zhao - concubine of Jia Zheng. She is the mother of Jia Tanchun and Jia Huan. She longs to be the mother of the head of the household, which she fails to do. She plots to murder Baoyu with black magic, and it is believed that her plot cost her her life.
*Jia Huan - son of Concubine Zhao.
Notable minor characters
*Qin Zhong - Qin Keqing's younger brother. He is a good friend and classmate to Baoyu.
*Jia Zhen - head of the Ningguo House. He has a wife, Lady Yu, a younger sister, Jia Xichun, and many concubines. He is greedy.
*Lady Yu - wife of Jia Zhen. She is the sole mistress of the Ningguo House, and a loving, caring woman.
*Jia Rong - Jia Zhen's son. He is the husband of Qin Keqing. He is an exact copy of his father. He is the Cavaliar of the Imperial Guards.
*Third Sister Yu - fiancee to Liu Xianglian. Very beautiful. Because of Jia Baoyu's carelessness and Liu Xianglian's misunderstanding, She finally suicided with the gift for marriage given by Xianglian.
*Second Sister Yu - concubine to Jia Lian. She is a beautiful and modest young lady. She was the concubine who Wang Xifeng affected so badly that she committed suicide by swallowing gold. She is the elder sister of Third Sister Yu.
*Sheyue - Baoyu's main maid after Xiren and Qingwen. She is very beautiful and caring, a perfect complement to Xiren.
*Qiutong - Jia Lian's other concubine. Originally a maid of Jia She, she was given to Jia Lian as a concubine. She is a very proud and arrogant woman.
*Sister Silly - a maid who does rough work for the Dowager. She is guileless but amusing and caring. She unintentionally informs Daiyu of Baoyu's secret marriage plans.
The homonyms are one of the features of this book. In this book, many characters' and places' names have their special meanings. Some are satire, some are sigh. This is one of Red Chamber Dream's arts. Rouge Inkstone's note pointed out some hidden meanings inside them.
* Huzhou — Groundless speaking
* Zhen Shiyin — True things were hidden under
* Zhen Yinglian — Really should be pitied
* Feng Su — Costum
* Huo Qi — Disaster starts / Fire is on
* Jia - False, fake, fictitious, deceitful or sham .
* Zhen - Real, true
* Jia Yucun — Unreal words; In fact is not ; Unreal words exists
* Qing Keqing — Sensation should be belittled / Sensation can topple
* ''Yuan''chun, ''Ying''chun, ''Tan''chun, ''Xi''chun — Originally, Should be sighed
* Dian'er — Scapegoat
* Zhang ''Youshi'' — Something is going to be on
* Jia Mei — Suppose disappear
* Wei Ruolan — Smell is like orchid
The textual problems of the novel are extremely complex and have been the subject of much critical scrutiny, debate and conjecture in modern times. Cao did not live to publish his novel, and only hand-copied manuscripts survived after his death until 1791, when the first printed version was published. This printed version, known as the Chenggao edition, contains edits and revisions not authorised by the author.
The novel, published up till the 20th century, was anonymous. Since the twentieth century, after Hu Shi's analyses, it is generally agreed Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters of the novel.
Up until 1791, the novel circulated merely in scribal transcripts. These early hand-copied versions end abruptly at the latest at the 80th chapter. The earlier ones furthermore contain transcribed comments and annotations from unknown commentators in red ink. These commentators' remarks reveal much about the author in person, and it is now believed some may even be members of Cao Xueqin's own family. The most prominent commentator is Rouge Inkstone , who revealed much of the interior structuring of the work and the original MS ending, now lost. These MS are the most textually reliable versions, known amongst scholars as "Rouge versions" . Even amongst the some 11 independent surviving manuscripts, small differences in some characters used, rearrangements and possible rewritings made the texts vary a little from another.
The early 80 chapters brim with prophecies and dramatic foreshadowings which also give hints as to how the book would continue. For example, it is obvious that Lin Daiyu will eventually die in the course of the novel; that Baoyu and Baochai will marry; that Baoyu will become a monk; various characters will suffer in the snow; and that the whole estate will finally be consumed by flames.
Most modern editions have the first 80 chapters based on the Rouge versions.
In 1791 and Cheng Weiyuan brought together the novel's first movable type edition. This was also the first "complete" edition of ''The Story of the Stone'', which they printed as ''Dream of the Red Chamber''. While the original Rouge manuscripts have eighty chapters, ending roughly three-quarters into the plot and clearly incomplete, the 1791 edition completed the novel in one hundred and twenty chapters. The first eighty chapters were edited from the Rouge versions, but the last forty were newly published.
In 1792, Chen and Gao published a second edition correcting many "typographical and editorial" errors of the 1791 version with a now-famous preface. In the 1792 preface, the two editors claimed to have put together an ending based on the author's working manuscripts, which they bought from a street vendor.
The debate over the last forty chapters and the 1792 preface continues. Most modern scholars believe these chapters were a later addition, with inferior plotting and prose to the first eighty chapters. Hu Shih argued that the ending was simply forged by Gao E, citing the foreshadowing of the main characters' fates in Chapter 5, which does not agree with the ending of the 1791 Chenggao version.
Other critics suggest Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan were duped into taking someone else's forgery as an original work. A minority believe the last forty chapters contain Cao's work.
The book is normally published and read in Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E's one hundred and twenty chapter version. Some editions move the last forty chapters to an appendix. Also some modern editions did not include the last forty chapters.
The complete, published English translations are:
* ''The Story of the Stone'', David Hawkes and John Minford, Penguin Classics or Bloomington: Indiana University Press, five volumes, 1973-1980 . David Hawkes translated the first eighty chapters and John Minford translated the last forty.
* ''The Dream of the Red Chamber'', New York, U.S.A.: Penguin Group 1996. ISBN 0146001761
* ''A Dream of Red Mansions'', Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi, Beijing: Foreign Language Press, three volumes, 1978-1980.
The typescript of a complete, unpublished translation, by BS Bonsall, is .
Previous incomplete translations include:
* Florence and Isabel McHugh's 1958 translation, which follows the German translation of Franz Kuhn.
* H. Bencraft Joly's translation, Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, 1892-1893, which translated the first fifty-six chapters, now available on Project Gutenberg.
* Native Wang Chi-Chen's abridged translation, largely translated in 1929, then augmented for publication in 1958.
*, by H. Bencraft Joly from the Gutenberg Project
* a complete Typewriter-edition translation by Dr. B.S. Bonsall
* - China Daily. Raymond Zhou. November 12, 2005.