Vistas of thoughts
Raymond ZhouChina Daily Updated: 2005-11-12 06:47
There is a piece of news that may even puzzle Dan Brown.
A 250-year-old novel is making waves in China's publishing world. Of course,
it is not just any old tome, but the perennial favourite, "A Dream of Red
Mansions (Hong Lou Meng)," written by Cao Xueqin in the Qianlong years
(1735-1796) of the Qing Dynasty.
Hong Lou Meng is universally considered to be the pinnacle of Chinese
fiction. Enthusiasm in it has never waned over the centuries. The problem, if it
can be so called, is more and more people have plunged into the study of the
novel, or Redology (hong xue), and dug up findings so minute and preposterous
that the public deem them hair-splitters.
The recent storm was started by Liu Xinwu, an eminent author in his own
right, who gave a series of lectures on CCTV 10, the education channel. Liu does
not belong to any Redology society or club, but he, like some other writers who
see Redology as the holy grail of literary enlightenment, has devoted more than
a decade to it. His discovery, which is also chronicled in two books, is a plot
of political contrivance hidden beneath layers of family connections.
To those who are familiar with the novel, it concerns Qin Keqing, a minor
character who was brought into the Jia family as an orphan and later married one
of the Jia brothers. She died young and vanished from the book early on. Notable
things about her is her possible affair with her father-in-law and her death-bed
dream that shed light on the fate of Wang Xifeng, a major character.
Liu, the author, has come to the conclusion that Qin's prototype was a
daughter of a deposed prince and the Jias knowingly took her in to bide their
time for recovering family fortunes in case that prince gained another chance to
take the throne. However, Yuanchun, the eldest daughter of Jia Zheng who married
into the palace, sold Qin out and caused her early demise.
Traditional Redologists are not amused. One scholar, Hu Wenbin, said in an
interview: "You can play with riddles at home, or even pen books about them. But
you should not take them to CCTV."
They emphasize that Hong Lou Meng can be popular but Redology has to be in
the hands of a few academics. "Not every reader who loves it can be an expert,
and there have to be rules that all researchers have to abide by," they said,
referring to Liu's obvious lack of proper credentials.
The way I see it, these are reminders of Chinese-style elitism: How can an
amateur gain more fame by selling a cheaper version of serious code-deciphering?
How can a mass media organization choose an "impostor" over true-blue scholars?
In doing so, they have blurred the line between news and views. News, whether
presented by CCTV or a small local paper, should be factual, period; but views,
like Liu's interpretation of the novel, can be personal. It is not uncommon when
we hear people demanding "correct" opinions on an event or even a movie. This
line of logic, when carried to extremes, would eliminate unorthodox ideas that
may open up new vistas for thinking.
That said, Liu's take on the novel indeed borders on a conspiracy theory.
But, hey, "Shakespeare in Love" is a delightful restructuring of the bard's
romance, based more on figments of imagination than solid scrutinizing of
historical records. (He left even fewer clues about his life than Cao Xueqin.)
Whether Liu's research is a novelist's spin-off or academic theorizing is up
to each person. You can certainly disagree with him. But, by offering an
intriguing way of plot decoding, he has fired up an inquisitive zeal in this
greatest of Chinese novels, just as Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame has done for
(China Daily 11/12/2005 page4)