left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Between the lines

Updated: 2012-09-03 09:01
By Kelly Chung Dawson ( China Daily)

Cao's depiction of women in the 18th century was unusual, Youd says: "The original novel exploded the myth of the completely passive Chinese female."

Related: Captivating characters

"It was a very interesting take on the role of women at the time, but the problem with Xifeng was that she was demonized for asserting control. In many ways, that's still an open question for women in modern society both in China and the US. I can understand how women reading this story would feel a certain kinship to the female characters.

"Pauline's version is an optimistic take, in that despite all these barriers, one can imagine these women making happy lives for themselves."

In the original, the members of that infamous love triangle accepted their fates, as decreed by their elders. For Chen, this was deeply unsatisfying, she says.

"It really frustrated me as a Western reader," she says. "Romeo and Juliet did not say 'Oh, OK, fine.' They fought. I wanted to show these characters fighting for their love."

Chen was inspired by the American classic, Gone with the Wind. The two female characters are rivals for the male lead's love, but when one of the women dies the other realizes how much she has depended on her.

"I was fascinated by women who are rivals but ultimately share more with each other in that bond," she says. "I am interested in that conflict between friendship and romantic love."

She also drew inspiration in how Scarlett O'Hara is portrayed both sympathetically and unsympathetically, she says.

"So often female characters in literature are represented quite blandly. I wanted to show females who are strong, and not necessarily always likable. I didn't want to be afraid of people not liking my characters."

Qiushi Ma, an associate professor of Chinese at Oberlin College, says that readers should approach Chen's effort with an open mind.

"I consider Pauline's book to be a totally independent, literary creation inspired by the original," Ma says. "She is writing from a female perspective, and gives a more sophisticated explanation of the female characters. It's a bold creation inspired by the three women's stories."

Youd agrees: "Pauline does things that are different and new, but at the same time it's like meeting old friends who live in a parallel alternate universe, where they do things that seem typical and expected, but are genuinely revelatory, in a new way."

Although Lin Daiyu is the obvious frontrunner for Jia Baoyu's love, Chen learned to root for the less popular Xue Baochai, she says.

"When I first started working on this, I thought, 'Go Daiyu.' and then as I wrote, I started feeling that each character made her own choices," she says.

"Every woman adopted a strategy for survival. The take away for me, is to not envy other women. Each woman pays the price for what she gets - you might gain stability, but then you lose emotional freedom. If you want passion, then you might not have it forever.

"No woman is able to find the choice that gives her everything. It's a lesson that any modern female can take away."

Contact the writer at

Previous Page 1 2 Next Page

Hot Topics
Photos that capture the beauty of China.