Date of Submission

Spring 2011

Academic Program

Foreign Languages, Cultures, and Literature


Andrew Schonebaum

Abstract/Artist's Statement

As one Chinese classics scholar put it, such was the ubiquity of Cao Xueqin’s novel in Qing dynasty literary culture that: “On every family’s writing desk, one would surely find a copy of The Dream of the Red Chamber.” As this record would suggest, the Dream of the Red Chamber was tremendously influential in the era of its first publication and continues to generate bountiful literary scholarship since the advent of Redology (hongxue, 红学), an academic branch of Chinese literary studies entirely devoted to the formal analysis of Cao Xueqin’s masterpiece. Because it has been so often been stated by centuries of scholars and casual devotees of the novel alike, I feel no reservation in professing an individual reader’s appreciation as though it were unequivocal fact: quite simply, The Dream of the Red Chamber is a rich work of monumental attainment both in terms of its aesthetic execution and its insight into the history of Chinese society and – one might venture – into the human condition. Because of the scale of its narrative – which encompasses 120 chapters and which is ripe with naturalistic detail and structural complexity – the novel inherently lends itself to a myriad of divergent readings and interpretations. Themes change and symbols alter; ambiguities and apparent contradictions inevitably emerge. In short, I do not presume to offer a comprehensive resolution of the novel’s innumerable intricacies, but defer, instead, to a specific reading of the text that may nevertheless contribute usefully to previous scholarship on gender and the narrative’s structural dualities in spite of the limitations of its scope.

Contemporary scholarship in China and abroad has attended specifically to the unique signification of gender in Cao Xueqin’s character portrayal and thematic structuring of the novel. This recent endeavor to integrate the literary history of The Dream of the Red Chamber with the analytical conventions of gender studies has engendered a new discourse, which may reflexively influence both scholars’ hermeneutic approach to the novel and current socio-historical perspectives on late-imperial Chinese conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Because of the novel’s capacity for interpretive multiplicity, were one inclined to view the extreme idolization of feminine purity and enforced seclusion of The Dream of the Red Chamber’s Twelve Beauties of Jin-ling in the Prospect Garden as a continuation of culturally ritualized gender separation; or the virtuous portrayals of female martyrdom as promoting traditional themes of passive femininity; or even Baoyu’s feminized gender expression as a romp of childish escapism, a fallacious fantasy that is dispelled by the end of the narrative, one might find ample evidence in the text to justify all of these perspectives. This paper, however, argues otherwise. Contrary to the perspective that Cao Xueqin’s novel primarily enforces – whether intentionally or witlessly – a conception of gender that defines masculinity and femininity as essentially discrete and intrinsically stratified social categories, I will focus on the ways in which the author confuses and collapses the gender classes of Neo-Confucian patriarchy. This hermeneutic approach will differ from conservative readings of the novel and also from feminist readings that limit their discussion of the novel’s progressive gender formulation to gender inversion. I argue that Cao Xueqin’s treatment of gender does not merely upend the Chinese socio-cosmic organization of gender, such qualities of male ascendancy are attributed to women and men are portrayed as passive, immoral and incompetent. This reading would imply a gender narrative that does not erode the exclusivity and stratification of masculinity and femininity, but preserves the same system of classification and disarranges only in so far as conventional class characteristics are applied to individuals of the converse sex.

The impetus for adopting this perspective of disarranged or merged gender is not to cavalierly prove the novel socially and politically progressive (or, in response to current feminist readings, more progressive). In and of itself, such a motivation would likely yield a discourse with little utility beyond prematurely ennobling the author as a pre-modern exemplar of Chinese proto-feminism. Rather, I wish to offer this more radical reading of gender in the novel with the purpose of better integrating Cao Xueqin’s portrayal of femininity and masculinity into the greater metaphysical, socio-critical, and thematic armature of the novel. To accomplish this I have separated my argument into two parts: Part I: Gender aims to contextualize gender mergence and confusion with the social climate and literary climate of Qing culture and to argue the advantages of this perspective over interpretations that emphasize gender inversion; Part II: Mirrors examines how gender disarrangement reflects structural and thematic characteristics of the novel, which are related to reflection, illusion, inter-penetration, and emptiness, and which are foremost not only in The Dream of the Red Chamber, but also in the philosophical and theological traditions of Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. In supporting this two-part argument, I refer passingly to psychoanalysis, feminist theory, and Western philosophy. These schools are used not for analytic purposes, but rather to analogize concepts and perspective that presumably arose independently within the Chinese cultural context. Accordingly, greater evidential emphasis is placed on literary criticism, historical documentation, and philosophical texts that were primarily generated in or in response to social change and cultural climate of late-imperial China. Ostensibly, constructing the basis for this argument upon the particular climate and tradition to which Cao Xueqin was responding (or rebelling) will make its perspective most sensitive to the author’s objective in subverting conventional gender formation and in creating a fictive world in which social reality and the otherworldly are inexorably combined.

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