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Red-hot passion
Updated: 2004-05-20 08:52

In suburban Songjiang District, Shanghai, a group of collectors have joined forces to share their passion for an 18th-century novel. The depth with which "A Dream of Red Mansions" has penetrated Chinese society is evidenced by the fact that Yang Xingen and his friends find images from the novel on everything from bird feeders to match books.

Yang Xingen lives alone. His apartment, in suburban Songjiang District, is shabby -- but his company is rich.

The 64-year-old retired teacher lives with a treasured collection of 59 books on the Chinese classic novel "A Dream of Red Mansions," including, of course, the three volumes of the novel. His wall is graced with a calendar and a traditional Chinese fan, both decorated with 12 beauties, the main female characters in the novel. An old-fashioned TV set drones in the background, playing a Yueju Opera adapted from the story.

Elsewhere, there is a pottery statue of the novel's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) author, Cao Xueqin, and a silk figurine in apricot-hued skirt -- one of the novel's heroines, Xue Baochai. Look closely: there's more -- plenty more. The desk is dotted with two pink Shaoxing wine jugs, a set of 12 tiny gilded bowls, a tooth-pick container, a vase, a glass ball and a mini screen, all of which bear depictions from the novel. In fact, Yang's small world is crammed with more than 2,000 objects related to the novel. Last December, he founded a society for like-minded fans of ``A Dream of Red Mansions'' in Songjiang.

Every month, the 40 members gather to enjoy each other's collection and eagerly discuss their passion. ``A Dream of Red Mansions,'' along with ``The Romance of Three Kingdoms,'' ``Journey to the West'' and ``Outlaws of the Marsh,'' are considered the four greatest novels in classic Chinese literature. The story revolves around the wealthy, but declining, Jia family: Jia Baoyu and his two female cousins, the socially graceful Xue Baochai and the temperamental Lin Daiyu.

Through the family's many members, their servants and their mutual contradictions, Cao reveals the reality of life for both peasant and elite in 18th-century China. ``It's more realistic than the other three classics,'' says 47-year-old Zhang Birui, another member of the society and also a member of Songjiang Research Society of ``A Dream of Red Mansions.'' ``People of different classes are represented here; and the spirit of rebellion that is depicted here is also attractive. But for me, the biggest charm is the novel's many myths and dreams, which leave a lingering aftertaste.''

``It's a real encyclopedia of cultures, encompassing even management knowledge,'' Yang says. ``I have been enamored of it since childhood.

I have read it six times, and yet every time it seems as fresh as if it were the first time.'' After the turbulent period of the mid-1960s, Yang had to give up reading such novels, as he was sent to work in the countryside in Jiangxi Province. But there, fate intervened. ``When I visited an imprisoned landlord's home, I was surprised to find an old version of `A Dream of the Red Mansions,' in the rubbish pile,'' Yang recalls.

``That treasure reignited my deceased passion for the book, and cemented my connection with the novel. From then on, I've been collecting everything that has anything to do with this magical book, from whatever means I can find.'' Yang has collected two types of memorabilia.

One collection is made up of appliances or artworks that are featured in the novel: oil lamps, a special kettle with charcoal burning within, used for warming wine, a toy in the shape of nine rings, a golden spoon and a silver spoon.

The other collection, which is easier to come by, are products or handicrafts, including a menu from a recreation of the Jia family banquet; lottery tickets, candy papers, battery pictures, even small pictures in melon seeds packages -- as long as they depict the characters from the novel. Zhang Daohua, 64, another society member, has collected nearly 158 different types of admission tickets from Shanghai Grandview Garden, a recreation of the novel's famous garden. On May 28 he will take part in the China Admission Ticket Exhibition in Kunming, Yunnan Province. ``I began collecting stamps, badges and matchbox pictures when I was 9 years old,'' he says. ``Ten years ago, I noticed that most of my collections were related with `A Dream of Red Mansions.' So it was only natural to give my collection some focus. I am a widower, and my children no longer live with me, so I have plenty of space for my collection of more than 4,000 items in my one-and-a-half-room apartment.'' Yang says that although their collections may not be worth as much as antique vases, finding these treasures is still difficult. To secure a complete set of the rare publication, ``Dairy of Lin Daiyu,'' Zhang Birui had to make three separate trips, on bicycle, to Shanghai's suburbs.

``There are delicate containers for bird feed, each patterned with one of the 12 beauties,'' says Zhang.

``But I've been unable to find a complete set.'' Zhang adds that he has found many wrong patterns, including ones that arbitrarily add other female characters to the original beauties. Yang firmly believes that collecting without knowledge is like flowers without fruits. Accordingly, he has listed a series of interesting study subjects for society members, such as ``the good and bad designs of red mansion pokers'' and ``judging wealth from a handwarmer.''

He himself has designed a set of pokers and a few memorial coins, which will be mass-produced soon. Late this month, the society will hold an exhibition of their collections at an agriculture institution in Songjiang. Other recent plans are to publish a book, hold a large-scale exhibition, construct a Chinese-English Website and even open a museum. ``Our collections indicate the depth that the novel penetrated into Chinese life. Our goal is to promote and pass down this cultural relic,'' says Yang. ``When I was a middle school Chinese teacher, my classes about the novel were always the favorite among students.

''Just inside Yang's apartment is a calligraphy scroll, written by him during a windy, rainy spring night this year. It's a long, ancient poem in handsome, passionate calligraphy, which ends thus: ``My eyes are drunk with so many dreams as if I am in the red mansions.''

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