The novel begins, in the David Hawkes translation, with a question: “What you may ask, was the origin of this book?”
It is a question that the novel itself attempts to answer, and it is a question that has occupied commentators and scholars ever since the novel first began to circulate in the mid-18th century. The novel circulated in manuscript form from about 1754 until it was first published in 1791, using moveable type. (Most Chinese printing at the time used woodblock printing technology.)
It was immediately extremely popular—edition followed edition; commentators wrote extensively on the novel. Poets wrote about the novel, plays and other dramatic forms were crafted based on the novel, and sequels were written. And in 2016, the San Francisco Opera produced an English-language version of the opera. As the San Francisco Opera production demonstrates, the impulse to retell the story in new forms, for new audiences, is still strong.
On this site, we will explore some of these “afterlives” of the novel and provide resources which will enable you to explore more of them on your own. We do not assume that you read Chinese, but we have provided texts and links for those of you who do.