Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Ts'ao Chan

TS'AO Chan 曹霑 (H. 雪芹, 芹圃, 芹溪), d. Feb. 12, 1763, novelist, was a member of the Bond Servant Division (under the Imperial Household) of the Manchu Plain White Banner. He was a grandson of Ts'ao Yin [q. v.] and was probably the son of Ts'ao Fu (see under Ts'ao Yin). By favor of Emperor Shêng-tsu, four members of the Ts'ao family in three generations held, off and on for fifty-eight years, the superintendency of the Imperial Textile Factory at Nanking. Ts'ao Fu, the last incumbent, began his service in 1715. Ts'ao Chan was probably born about this time. Until 1728 he lived with the family at Nanking and was accustomed to all the comforts and luxuries of his father's position. But the household lived beyond its means and its vaunted prosperity came to a sudden end when in 1728 Emperor Shih-tsung ordered the confiscation of all the property. The ostensible reason was a debt of some 31,000 taels which Ts'ao Fu owed to the government, but actually this debt was only a fraction of the sums his grandfather, Ts'ao Yin, once owed. It is possible that the Emperor was motivated by economy or by a desire to rid the government of corrupt practices. On the other hand, he may have doubted the loyalty of the Ts'ao family on learning that it possessed two gold-plated figures of lions which had once belonged to Yin-t'ang [q. v.], the Emperor's arch-enemy. At any rate the family was uprooted from Nanking and some thirteen residences, 1,967 mou of land, and other property were confiscated. The household, comprising some 114 persons, including servants, was removed to small quarters in Peking which the family had owned but which were now graciously re-allotted to it by the Emperor. Needless to say, the family was now poverty-stricken.

Ts'ao Chan, a person of delicate sensibilities—and then perhaps in his adolescence—must have felt the blow very keenly. Though highly educated and widely informed, he was unprepared to make a living for himself, and at times those dependent on him lacked food. He lived as a villager near the Western Hills of Peking, and only a few friends were interested in his lot—one being the poet and Imperial Clansman, Tun-ch'êng (see under Yung-chung). In his later years he must have pondered often the memory of his early affluence and gaiety—meditations which finally took a literary form. He conceived a novel portraying life in a well-to-do family which, by mismanagement and the loose habits of its members, drifted into decay and finally into ruin. He began his writing sometime before 1754, for by that year twenty-eight or more chapters were finished. But it was far from complete when he died nine years later. At first he gave it the name 風月寶鑑 Fêng-yüeh pao-chien, and then such titles as 石頭記 Shih t'ou chi or 金玉緣 Chin-yü yüan. But its most popular title is 紅樓夢 Hung-lou mêng, translated as "Dream of the Red Chamber."

The Hung-lou mêng is a realistic novel, not in the sense that it treats of men or events known to history, but of the author's personal experiences. As such it attracted the attention of a relative whose real name is not known but whose studio had the designation Chih-yen Chai 脂硯齋. In 1754 this friend made a copy of the twenty-eight completed chapters, adding to it his own notations and comments. In 1928 sixteen of these chapters came into the possession of Hu Shih (see under Ts'ui Shu) who after a study of them gave to the world many hitherto unknown intimations concerning the novel and its author.

How many chapters of the Hung-lou mêng Ts'ao Chan completed before his death in 1763 is not known. It is known, however, that transcripts were made by eager readers before he died, and these apparently all had eighty chapters of a still incomplete novel. At least one such transcript is extant, with a preface by Ch'i Liao-shêng 戚蓼生 (T. 念切, H. 曉塘, chin-shih of 1769), which was recently reproduced lithegraphically by the Yu-chêng Shu-chü 有正書局, Shanghai. In 1792 there suddenly appeared a supposedly complete printed edition of the Hung-lou mêng, in 120 chapters, with a preface by Kao Ê 高鶚 (T. 小泉, H. 蘭墅, chin-shih of 1795), dated 1791. This was the first printing, and the source of all later popular editions. In 1793 the same publisher issued a revised edition, but it received very little attention.

The Hung-lou mêng relates the love life of a young man in a rich and noble family. The hero, Chia Pao-yü 賈寶玉, is undoubtedly a self-portrait of the author; and the heroine, Lin Tai-yu 林黛玉, his cousin, was the woman he loved. Their tragic fate has touched the heart of many a reader. But there are fifty or sixty other important characters, all portrayed in such vivid detail that the personality of each stands out very clearly. This is especially true of several young ladies and maids with whose portrayal the writer must have taken great pains. Numerous as the characters are, they intermingle in a wonderful unity, each individual constituting an integral member of a large family group, sharing its glory and its shame, contributing to its prosperity or its ruin. Some, taking it for granted that the family's fortune is irreversible, spend their days in emotional excesses or in sensual pleasures. Some, who are avaricious, contrive to profit by mismanagement of the family estate. Some foresee the dangers and so plan for their own futures; others voice warnings, but their words go unheeded. Such a panorama of complex human emotions and tangled relations, involving tens of masters and hundreds of servants, constitutes source-material of supreme value for a study of the social conditions in affluent households of the early Ch'ing period.

In the eighty chapters which can be attributed to Ts'ao Chan, the factors that led to the family's ruination are set forth, and the first signs of eventual collapse appear. The writer of the ensuing forty chapters who is now definitely known to have been Kao Ê, following closely the intimations of Ts'ao Chan, depicts the tragic end—not as well perhaps as Ts'ao would have done it, but nevertheless convincingly. Other writers attempted to supplement the story with different endings, but none of these are worthy of mention. Several devoted readers produced plays, songs, commentaries or illustrations, all based on the story: One set of fifty portraits of characters in the novel was drawn by Kai Ch'i 改琦 (T. 伯蘊, H. 七薌, 香伯, 1774–1829). These were reproduced in four volumes with poems, in 1879, under the title, Hung-lou mêng t'u-yung (圖詠).

Though the Hung-lou mêng has been popular ever since the first printing, its true place in Chinese literature was not appreciated until after 1917 when the vernacular style acquired literary importance. Thereafter it was read in school, and scholars began to study it from various points of view—a study which has in no way lost its interest. Several partial translations of the novel into Western languages are listed below.


[Hu Shih wên-ts'un (see bibl. under Li Ju-chên), series 1–3; Yü P'ing-po 俞平伯, Hung-lou mêng pien (辨); Fêng-k'uan 奉寬, 蘭墅文存與石頭記, Lan-shu wên-ts'un yü Shih-t'ou chi in 北大學生 Pei-ta hsüeh-shêng, vol. I, no. 4 (1931), Gutzlaff, K., Hung-lau mung or Dreams in the Red Chamber, Chinese Repository, vol. XI, p. 266; Thom, R., The Chinese Speaker (1846), pp. 62–89, extracts in English under the title, The Dreams of the Red Chamber; Bowra, E. C., The Dream of the Red Chamber, The China Magazine, Christmas number, 1868, also vol. for 1869, trans. of first eight chapters; Giles, H. A., Hung Lou Mêng, Jour. China Br. R. As. Soc. (1885), vol. 20, pp. 1–23, also pp. 51–52; Joly, H. B., Hung Lou Mêng; or The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Chinese Novel. Bk. I, Hongkong, 1892; Kuhn, F., Der Traum der roten Kammer, Leipzig, 1932; see also bibl. under Ts'ao Yin.]

Fang Chao-ying