Dream Of the Red Chamber and the Reverse Opium War

From the Nobel Lecture of Gao Xingjian on the occasion of his acceptance of the 2000 Literature Prize:

Literature transcends national boundaries — through translations it transcends languages and then specific social customs and inter-human relationships created by geographical location and history — to make profound revelations about the universality of human nature.

Oh, really?  Let us see how this suggestion might work in one famous example.

In Chinese literature, four novels rise tall above all others in popularity -- The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey To The West and Dream Of The Red Chamber.  In terms of pure literary merit, the first three would actually rank quite low because those books are read more because of their central positions in the socio-cultural sphere.  For example, the first novel provides the material for video game titles such as Dynasty Warriors; as another example, triad traditions lean heavily on the first two novels listed.  That fourth book, Dream Of The Red Chamber, is different in that engendered an entire cultural industry for textual exegeses as well as biographical studies of the author and analyses of the cultural mores and practices of his time.

Some years ago, my father described himself to me as one of the top seven experts in the study of Dream Of The Red Chamber.  Being a statistician, I have no idea how such 'experts' can be classified but I did not ask any further.  Still, I do know that he has written a number of books and articles on the book.  This post is based upon his article titled "Dream Of The Red Chamber and opium."

My father's article began with a quotation from a Qing dynasty critique of Dream Of The Red Chamber.  By that time, the book had already become the most popular book ever in China, being loved by high officials as well as common folks.  This was enough for the academic scholars to write their usual scrolls to condemn the moral corruption of society by this evil book.  Nevertheless, the quoted scholar recognized that it was hopeless to attempt to ban the book by then, but he had a brilliant idea:


[translation]  And yet how can the dissemination of this book be stopped?  But there is nothing better than to take this immoral book and ship it overseas, in response to the foreigners' introduction of opium to us.

That is to say, this book is so evil and corrupt that it can be made into the tool of an opium war in reverse.

My father pointed out that this Qing dynasty scholar's fantasy failed to take into account of some obvious facts:

  1. Most foreigners do not read Chinese, so it would be futile to hand them a copy of the book in Chinese.
  2. Therefore, Dream Of The Red Chamber must be translated into foreign languages first (and specifically into English, since it was the British who forced China to take the opium that they were growing in India).
  3. And not just any translation, because a poor translation will not deliver the message properly.
  4. And even if the translation is done well (in the sense of being both faithful and beautiful), that still doesn't mean the foreign readers will receive the message in the intended manner. 

By now, there are several reasonable translations of Dream Of The Red Chamber in English.  But my father pointed out that the biggest barrier lies in the naming system for a book that has so many characters.  Chinese people have names that can be rendered either by sound or by meaning.  As illustration, I refer to John Minford's translation, which used both systems.  

In the Jia family, the names of the characters are rendered by sound: Jia Bao-yu, Jia Dai-ru, Jia Huan, Jia Lan, Jia Qiao-jie, Jia Qin, Jia Rong, Jia She, Jia Tan-chun, Jia Xi-chun, Jia Ying-chun, Jia Yu-cun, Jia Yuan-Chun, Jia Yun, Jia Zheng and Jia Zhu.  

The names of the family maids are rendered by meaning: Amber, Aroma, Autumn, Candida, Casta, Crimson, Ebony, Faithful, Felicity, Musk, Nightingdale, Oriole, Patience, Pearl, Prosper, Simple, Skybright, Snowgoose, Suncloud and Sunset.  

It is easy to see that most English readers will be begging for mercy after reading just a few chapters.

My father has this taxonomy of the readers of the English translations of Dream Of The Red Chamber (and it is no fault of their translators).  Most readers will say insincerely that the book is good only because they are aware of its standing inside China.  In truth, they didn't have any idea about how to enjoy or appreciate the book.  A few readers will be more honest.  A typical reaction might be this: "Dream Of The Red Chamber is incomprehensible.  We just see the male and female characters get into spats; sometimes they quarrel, then they get back together, all over trivial matters.  I don't understand how the Chinese people could have so much patience for such a boring book!"

Perhaps the best illustration of the problem is my father's simple phrase used to describe the English reader of the translated Dream Of The Red Chamber  -- 豬八戒吞人蔘果.  Again, this is a simple phrase that is understood by almost all Chinese people on account of their cultural heritage and knowledge.  Literally translated into English, it says: "Zhu Bajie eats a ginseng fruit."  What is going on?  Zhu Bajie is a half-human/half-pig character in Journey To The West who is known for being crass, greedy and lusty and the ginseng fruit is a medical herb with refined properties.  Offering a ginseng fruit to Zhu Jajie is like offering fine French wine to a hillbilly -- he'll just gulp it down without any appreciation or enjoyment and then make some inane comments about how it is not as good as moonshine.

Getting back to the opening quotation from Gao Xingjian, I don't think translations work all of the time.  There will be some works that are inextricably tied to a specific language/culture such that it will not translate well.  There are easy reverse examples to Dream Of The Red Chamber.  On my bookshelf, there are Chinese translations of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens, Honoré Balzac, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Romain Rolland, Don Quixote, The Tale of Genji and others.  But I don't think anyone of their illustrious translators would ever think of doing James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.  They would know the impossiblity of the task as soon as they read the first three paragraphs: 

  riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle and Environs.
    Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor
had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse
to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a
peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
    The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.

For example, the single sentence: "Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wiedergith his penisolate war" requires a thorough familiarity with the Tristan and Isolde legend, including the Richard Wagner opera, and this single paragraph has generated an industry for commentary and exegesis.

Of course, there is still an outstanding question after all this -- Is it worth the investment to learn the Chinese language and culture properly in order to read Dream Of The Red Chamber?  Sorry, I can't decide for you.  That is strictly your personal decision.  I can only say that I'm sure glad that I read the book (and I have read it many times).