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 manuscript form in 1754.
Upon its publication in 1791, it became a best seller. 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. When the 1962 Hong Kong-produced film of the Shanghai Yue opera troupe performing “The Dream of the Red Chamber” was finally shown in Shanghai in 1978, 36 movie theaters showed it for 24 hours a day for long periods of time. The 1987 television show (in 36 episodes) has been rebroadcast more than 700 times.
In this volume, 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. The website is designed for English speakers, but we have included substantial Chinese text, for the benefit of Chinese speakers and Chinese language learners. On many pages we have text in both English and Chinese. On pages where we are discussing poetry, we often have sound files with readers reading texts in both the Chinese original and in English translation. Even if you do not understand Chinese you might want to listen to some of the sound files to get a sense of the sound of Chinese poetry.
We have provided substantial segments of text here–for example, if a woodblock print or a poem refers to an episode in the novel, in addition to briefly describing the episode, we often provide the relevant text from the novel, usually from the David Hawkes translation. In some cases, we also provide Chinese text (often from the Chinese text project, an online project which has a dictionary behind the text). We do this so that you, the reader, can see the ways in which the various texts we are talking about interact with one another.
At the bottom of many pages, we provide suggestions for further reading. These references are abbreviated; full references are provided on the page “Suggestions for Further Reading,” I have made no attempt to make an exhaustive list of all relevant scholarship on the novel.
If you are not familiar with the general plot of the novel, you might want to listen to my very brief summary below:
The romanization system we use is pinyin; Chinese names are given in the normal Chinese order, surname first. We are including the Chinese characters for many Chinese names and terms; some of our Chinese readers are familiar with the novel but not with pinyin. If you do not read Chinese, do not be put off by the characters.