The monk opens the opera by speaking the phrase “Welcome to my dream.” Throughout the opera, the monk provides context and connections. And at the end of the opera, the viewer realizes that Baoyu and the monk are one and the same; Baoyu is the monk as he had been in his younger days.
In chapter 1 of the novel, a Taoist named Vanitas finds a large stone at Greensickness Peak in the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains. An inscription on the stone tells Vanitas the story of the stone and its venturing into the human world. This is what gives the novel one of its titles, and the title of the best English translation: The Story of the Stone. The text of the relevant passage of the novel is on the next page.
If you saw the opera, what do you think of the decision that Hwang and Sheng made that the monk would only speak and not sing. As you watched the opera, did it make dramatic sense to you? Or did you find it jarring?
Text from chapter 1: Vanitas Finds the Stone
In the very first chapter of the novel. the Taoist monk Vanitas stumbles upon a stone and notices its inscription:
Vanitas read the inscription through from beginning to end and learned that this was once a lifeless stone block which had been found unworthy to repair the sky, but which had magically transformed its shape and had been taken down by the Buddhist Mahasattva Impervioso and the Taoist Illuminate Mysterioso into the world of mortals, where it had lived out the life of a man before finally attaining nirvana and returning to the other shore. The inscription named the country where it had been born, and went into considerable detail about its domestic life, youthful amours, and even the verses, mottoes and riddles it had written. All it lacked was the authentication of a dynasty and date. On the back of the stone was inscribed the following quatrain:
Found unfit to repair the mortal sky
Long years a foolish mortal was I.
My life in other worlds on this stone is writ.
Pray who will copy out and publish it?
From his reading of the inscription, Vanitas realized that this was a stone of some consequence. Accordingly he addressed himself to it in the following manner:
“Brother Stone, according to what you yourself seem to imply in these verses, this story of yours contains matter of sufficient interest to merit publication and has been carved here with that end in view. But as far as I can see (a) it has no discernable dynastic period, and (b) it contains no examples of moral grandeur among its characters—no statesmanship, no social message of any kind. All I can find in it, in fact, are a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only for their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue. Even if I were to copy all this out, I cannot see that it would make a very remarkable book.”
“Come, your reverence,” said the stone, (for Vanitas had been correct in assuming that it could speak) “must you be so obtuse? All the romances ever written have an artificial period setting—Han or Tang for the most part. In refusing to make use of that stale old convention and telling my Story of the Stone exactly as it occurred, it seems to me that, far from depriving it from anything, I have given it a freshness that these other books do not have.
“Your so-called ‘historical romances,’ consisting, as they do, of scandalous anecdotes about statesman and emperors of bygone days and scabrous attacks on the reputations of long-dead gentlewomen, contain more wickedness and immorality than I care to mention. Still worse is the ‘erotic novel,’ by whose filthy obscenities our young folk are all too easily corrupted. And the ‘boudoir romances,’ those dreary stereotypes with their volume after volume all pitched on the same note and their different characters indistinguishable except by name (all those ideally beautiful young ladies and ideally eligible young bachelors)—even they seem unable to avoid descending sooner or later into indecency.
“The trouble with this last kind of romance is that it only gets written in the first place because the author requires a framework in which to show off his love-poems. He goes about constructing this framework quite mechanically, beginning with the names of his pair of young lovers and invariably adding a third character, a servant or the like, to make mischief between them, like the clown in a comedy. What makes these romances even more detestable is the stilted, bombastic language—inanities dressed in pompous rhetoric, remote alike from nature and common sense and teeming with the grossest absurdities.
“Surely my ‘number of females,’ whom I spent half a lifetime studying with my own eyes and ears, are preferable to this kind of stuff? I do not claim that they are better people than the ones who appear in books written before my time; I am only saying that the contemplation of their action and motives may prove a more effective antidote to boredom and melancholy. And even the inelegant verses with which my story is interlarded could serve to entertain and amuse on those convivial occasions when rhymes and riddles are in demand. All that my story narrates, the meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of fortune, are recorded exactly as they happened. I have not dared to add the tiniest bit of touching-up, for fear of losing the true picture.
“My only wish is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces. What does your reverence say to that?”
Text from chapter 1: Vanitas Finds the Stone (Chinese version)
The links are to the text of the novel at the Chinese text project. Note that the Chinese text project has a dictionary function, which makes it particularly useful for Chinese language learners.
Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang talk about Structuring the Opera and about the Role of the Monk
In this excerpt from an interview done in 2015, Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang talk about the process of structuring the opera. They talk in particular about the ways in which they dealt with the marriage of Baoyu and Baochai. They also talk about the monk and the decision they made to have him speak rather than sing.