Friday, February 28, 2014

Book 50- Dream of Red Mansions (81st Book)

"There is nothing new under the sun" Ecclesiastes 1:9. The entire time I was reading Dream of Red Mansions this is the verse that was running through my head. It has always been a favourite of mine from my days as a youth worker. Parents are always shocked and appalled at the "new" ways that youth end up getting into trouble, but in reality they are simply variations on the things youth have been up to for centuries. Dream of Red Mansions is much like that. Although the novel is written in the 18th Century in China the things the characters got up to weren't very different than the things we get up to today.

One of the first things that I was surprised at was the detailed description of drinking games that the characters were always playing. They were elaborate versions of the modern day equivalent; the only difference being that the majority of the games involved reciting poetry and remembering verses from classical literature. Some of the titles included the Finger Game, Grabbing the Red, and the Flower Game. They all involved drinking if you screwed up the task set before you and they were played by the young characters as well as by the oldest person in the book, The Lady Dowager. One of the most carefully described games was called Forfeits and the task that the characters were set was to come up with a description of A Girl's Sorrow, The Girl's Worry, The Girl's Joy and the Girl's Delight" The answers to each of these categories were both clever and scandalous! They were good for a laugh.

The other thing that surprised me was the swearing that was scattered throughout the novel. The young swore at the old, the old swore at the young. Servants swore at each other and about their masters. I am so curious what the actual words used in Chinese were, but translated they were your standard english swear words.

Lastly, the final thing that surprised me about the novel was the amount of sexual content in the novel. There were several encounters between mistresses and their lovers, several encounters with homosexual relationships and a few more scandalous comments about sex with animals.  The sexual banter seemed to be a part of the culture and didn't seem to be as frowned upon as it did in various other parts of history. For 18th century China I was surprised by the level of comfortability with their sexuality. There were a  few characters that were timid or shy, but mostly it seemed to be a more open culture.

I was reminded of reading The Tale of Genji (book 10). Even though that was an 11th Century Japanese novel I found a lot of similarities between the two. If you remember from my review on The Tale of Genji you will remember that I absolutely despised it. This book, had all of the things I loved about The Tale of Genji (the poetry and the description of the gardens) and none of the things I hated about it (the whoring around and complaining when it caused trouble). The book was filled with poetry and the young people in the book all lived surrounding a beautiful chinese garden. I loved the description of the plum blossoms and other flowers. I would love to stand in the garden and just smell what it smelled like. It sounds heavenly. Most of the homes of the main characters had colourful names such as "Pear Fragrance Court", "Happy Red Court", "Seeping Fragrance Pavilion".

I was quite surprised by how much political commentary there was in the  novel. I giggled to myself in the description by the author at the beginning of the novel as he talked about how this WASN'T a novel talking about the political climate at the time. "At present the daily concern of the poor is food and clothing, while the rich are never satisfied. All their leisure is taken up with amorous adventures, material acquisition or trouble making. What time do they have to read political and moral treatise". The novel was enjoyable for the most part, while still trying to convey a point. Even though it sits at just under 1800 pages I enjoyed most of the reading. I was happy that this novel fell when it did, as I started reading it during the Chinese New Year celebrations. The novel made several references to Chinese New Year and I was happy to have the experience of attending the parade in Chinatown and testing out dumplings during the Lantern Festival. Both of these reference points allowed me to appreciate a few of the references in the novel. Despite it's length I would recommend Dream of Red Mansions to others. It is probably a 3 star novel for me, but one that I am quite happy to say that I have read.

No comments: