Chinese Literature 140. The Greatest Chinese Novel

course poster for chinese literature 140 closeup image of chinese woman in traditional theater costume and makeup

photo of Professor Wai-yee Li - a Chinese woman
Prof. Wai-yee Li

The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin (1715?-1763) is widely recognized as the masterpiece of Chinese fiction. It is also a portal to Chinese civilization.

Encyclopedic in scope, this book both sums up Chinese culture and asks of it difficult questions. Its cult status also accounts for modern popular screen and television adaptations. Through a close examination of this text in conjunction with supplementary readings and visual materials, the seminar will explore a series of topics on Chinese culture, including foundational myths, philosophical and religious systems, the status of fiction, conceptions of art and the artist, ideas about love, desire and sexuality, gender roles, garden aesthetics, family and clan structure, and definitions of socio-political order.The Story of the Stone begins with a myth about cosmic flaws. Heaven has a hole and needs to be repaired. A goddess refines 365,001 stones to patch up this hole, and uses all but one stone. The left over stone, refined to sentience and spirituality and yet deemed unworthy to repair heaven, is reborn as our protagonist, the scion of a rich but declining family. Unprecedented in raising love to a metaphysical ideal, this work yet claims to endorse Daoist and Buddhist ideas on the need to transcend human emotions. Filled with dense details that palpably evoke a lost world, it nevertheless purports to be nothing but a dream or an absurd tale. The course will take issue with these and other paradoxes.

Undergraduate students taking this course will read the novel in translation. Graduate students will read the novel in the original. The versions uploaded on the website will include the Zhiyan zhai commentaries as well as nineteenth century commentaries.

Students enrolled in CHN 166r but not CL 140 will attend only the first 50 minutes of the seminar.

Course Website