Cáo Xuěqín (c. 1715–c. 1763) was the greatest writer of vernacular fiction in the history of Chinese literature. He wrote the central part of The Story of the Stone, also known as A Dream of Red Mansions, one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.
Not much is known about Cao’s life. He lived during the reign of the Qing dynasty. He was born into an important and affluent family whose spectacular collapse provides the principal premise of The Story of the Stone.
When Cao was 13, the new emperor, Yongzheng, sacked his father from his post and confiscated the family’s property. Cao moved to Beijing, where he lived most of his life in acute poverty, and made meager money through the sale of his paintings.
Cao left The Story of the Stone incomplete. The novel was published 30 years after his death, with only 80 of the novel’s 120 chapters established as Cao’s original work. His manuscript circulated among his friends during his lifetime, and the version that exists today includes clarifications and modifications by another person with the pseudonym Red Inkstone, possibly a close associate of Cao. In addition, writer Gao E completed the story by appending its last 40 chapters, claiming to have worked from unfinished manuscripts. The extent of Gao E’s reliance on Cao’s primary sources is the topic ofmuch scholarly controversy.
Cao used his memories of growing up in one of China’s prominent families to construct a magnum opus that describes the intimate and complex family relationships of the Jai family, a wealthy family that suffers a remarkable decline. The Story of the Stone provides a wide-ranging analysis of the entire civilization and the ethos of imperial China, seen through the meticulous exploration of everyday life.
The Story of the Stone shifted the focus of the Chinese novel from the morally irrelevant exploits of legendary heroes to the struggling of a spiritual hero in a realistic web of societal and psychological relationships.
I must claim the quoter’s privilege of giving only as much of the text as will suit my purpose, said Tan-Chun. If I told you how it went on, I should end up by contradicting myself!