Reading Notes for The Story of the Stone
Chapters 1 and 12

The Story of the Stone (also known under the title The Dream of the Red Chamber), written by Cao Xueqin (Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in) is universally considered the greatest classical Chinese novel.  It was written during, and is set in, the 18th century.  The complicated story, with many subplots, chronicles the gradual decline of the huge, wealthy and important Jia family.  The fundamental storyline is about Jia Bao-yu, the charming but decadent eldest son of an important and wealthy man, and Lin Daiyu, his virtuous but prim female cousin.  In Chapter 1, from which you will read an excerpt, we learn that Bao-yu is the incarnation of a supernatural stone, while Daiyu is the incarnation of a magical flower, and that the two must learn a lesson through "the tears shed during the whole of a mortal lifetime" (53).  The lesson is  the danger of "attachment" (even a seemingly good attachment like romantic love).  Try to see in these excerpts illustrations of this Buddhist and Daoist (Taoist) theme.

In addition to Chapter 1, I have given you two pages from Chapter 11 and all of Chapter 12, which contain a minor subplot involving Jia Rui and Wang Xi-fengJia Rui is a teacher in the Jia family's private school.  (Like most adult males who have not passed the civil service examinations, he is also a student himself.)  He is described in an earlier chapter as "a spineless, unprincipled character who, as a means of obliging the boys to treat him, always displayed the most shameless favouritism in his settlement of classroom disputes.  In return for money, drinks, and dinners, he had lately" allowed one of his male cousins to use the school to find boys for sex  (209). Wang Xi-feng is the beautiful, clever and formidable wife of Jia Lian.  Because Xi-feng is a member of the Jia family by marriage, she is a very distant "cousin" of Jia Rui.  However, since they are only distantly related (and only by marriage), Xi-feng's strong distaste for Jia Rui's flirtation is not based on it being incestuous, but on it being adulterous (and probably also on him being "beneath" her).

A few more characters are mentioned in the story:  Lady Wang is the official "lady of the household" (but she is old and frail, so Xi-feng is the de facto head of the household).  Sir Zheng is Lady Wang's wife.  (They are Xi-feng's aunt-in-law and uncle-in-law.)  Jia Qiang and Jia Rong are nephews-in-law of Xi-feng (and also distant nephews of Jia Rui).  Grandmother Jia (or Lady Jia) is Sir Zheng's mother.  If you find this all confusing, all you really need to know is this list of generations of the family:

Finally, here are some terms and names used in the story that you may not understand: