The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen The Red Chamber
Pauline A. Chen

Vintage Books
April 9, 2013
Softcover/400 pages
ISBN: 978-0-130794656-0
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". . .offering insight into Chinese women's strength and courage . . ."

 Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber is a romantic tragedy loosely based on Cao Xuequin’s 18th-century Chinese masterpiece novel, “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Chen readily admits she strayed from the original complex plot and instead imagines the lives of three women destined to dwell within the confines of a concubine.

Family tradition, coupled with political realities and justified with superstition, weaves through the Jin and Wang families who reside in the Ronggue Mansion. Lin Daiyu, after her mother’s death, is sent to the Mansion to become acquainted with her family, especially her grandmother, Lady Jia, who is the household’s ruthless power. Daiyu’s mother had been disowned by Jia for violating custom and marrying a man she loved. Educated by her literary parents, the outspoken Daiyu brings a sense of excitement to the rather dull palace environment. Heir-apparent Jia Baoy meanwhile falls in love with Daiyu, his cousin. However Baoyu is promised to Xue Baochai, a match that would increase the wealth of both families.

Life in the Palace collapses when the emperor dies and the princesses battle for power. The men from the Jin and Wang family, accused of alignment with an unsuccessful prince, are arrested by “The Embroidered Jackets” and imprisoned for treason, while the Palace is ransacked and the women forced to move into a small apartment.

Chen aesthetically recreates the solitary atmosphere of concubine women forced into marriage and living under constant pressure to birth a son. Yet it is not only the wealthy in sole focus, as she also dwells on the lives of servants bought and sold. During a picnic in the garden, the concubine women are saddened when they learn a maid, forced to return to her family by Lady Jia for allegedly flirting with Baoyu, has committed suicide. Xifeng, the daughter-in-law, who is having an affair, applauds the decision, saying the servant saved herself from a “worse fate.” A girl has no choice, over anything in life, Xifeng says, except a decision to die.

Keeping track of and understanding the characters in the novel is a bit of a challenge for non-Chinese, but also rewarding, offering insight into Chinese women's strength and courage to rebel.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla