Reading Chinese Classics: ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ by Cao Xueqin

In my first post of this series, I talked about reading Six Records of a Floating Life. My next pick was a recommendation from my father, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. It’s what I (and no doubt, many others) would call the Chinese classic.

The copy that I decided to go for is translated by H. Bencraft Joly. It took me a while to realise that this version only has the first 56 chapters on this massive saga, and I had to pick up three volumes from Penguin to finish it off.

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I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one. This took me ages to get through. I was reading 100-150 pages a day and even though that’s not usually too much for me, I really struggled.

And so, I found myself breaking this book up a lot with graphic novels and comics. I guess I just needed a break. Seriously, no matter how much I read, for a while there it seriously felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

this was just a hard read for me. I found it hard to get involved in the story, I found it hard to keep up with all of the characters (trust me, there are a lot)… And I’ll be honest. I found it hard to keep up with the story and may have opened a CliffNotes tab or two to make sure I was on the right track.

But I was dedicated. I wanted to read it. I wanted to make sure I was understanding the story. I made sure to pick it up at least once a day and to just give it a go.

By the time I’d made my way through Tuttle’s publication and picked up Penguin’s, I was well and truly exhausted by this story. But Penguin’s edition really surprised me. The translation was just so much better.

I just loved it. I loved the characters. After 900 pages of feeling… well, not a lot,  I was finally able to totally fall in love with the romance. I was able to appreciate the characters and what they were going through. I began to see just how far these incredible families were falling. How they were struggling with less cash than they were used to, but had no desire to give up on the high class customs they had grown up with.

Honestly, I just began to recognise it as a damn good story. Who doesn’t love the story of a fall from grace? Who doesn’t love a forbidden romance? Who doesn’t love reading about some poetry, drinking games, and a good old devious plot or two?

This book ended up surprising me in all the best ways. I only wish that I’d started with the Penguin translation!


Have you read this Chinese classic? How did you fare juggling all the characters? Let me know your thoughts!

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Reading Chinese Classics: ‘Six Records of a Floating Life’ by Shen Fu

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known that I’d slowly make my way through those books that people consider Classics. Yet, somehow I found myself falling into the trap of only ever reading Western ones. In fact, the majority I’d read and planned to read were originally written in English.

My mother is Chinese, and I really wanted to be able to connect with the literature that she grew up reading in school (I later found out that she actually read an abridged version of War and Peace, but that’s hardly the point). And so, I’m going to write up a series of posts all about the Chinese classics that I’ve decided to tackle.

Of course, I have to do a wee disclaimer. I’m reading translations. Translating is darn hard work to do well, and I have to recognise that translations, no matter how good, always lose a little bit of magic.

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On to the first book! I didn’t want to jump into the deep end, and was recommended a short one that I might enjoy. And so, I bought a copy of Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu. More specifically, I picked up the Penguin Classics edition which was translated by Leonard Pratt.

It’s a lyrical autobiography. Told in four chapters, it is also incomplete. Although it begins with Shen Fu apologising for his inability to write well, the rest of the novel proves that this is far from true.

I most enjoyed the first half of the novel. It details the relationship between the author and his wife, Chen Yun. His love for her is apparent, and the way he writes about it is heart-warming.

The second half of the book, I found a bit slower. Lacking the romance of the first half, it was a little less poetic and not as interesting. Nonetheless, it was still beautifully written and a joy to read.

As my first foray into Chinese classics, I’m so very happy with my decision. Six Records of a Floating Life was a wonderful book and a great way to dip my toes into this rather intimidating genre. For those of you interested in doing the same, I definitely think this is a good place to start!