3. Nineteenth-Century Responses to the Novel

Dream of the Red Chamber was wildly popular with a wide variety of readers, and provoked responses from many of them.  . Nineteenth-century literati reported that women in particular were captivated by the novel. Wang Lijian has identified 232 poems inspired by Hongloumeng by forty-four Qing women poets in his article “Qingdai caiyuan Honglou tiyong.”  Most of the works written by women in response to the novel are poems, though one sequel, Honglou meng ying 红楼梦影, was written later in the century by  Gu Taiqing 顾太清.

The novel was popular with women of the elite. And by the late nineteenth century, it was also popular with Shanghai courtesans, who assumed names of characters in the novel and played board games based on the novel.

But not all responses to the novel were playful. Le Jun 樂鈞 wrote (in 1794) about a young woman who was so obsessed by the novel that she stopped eating. Her parents burned the novel and called in a shaman but to no avail. The afflicted woman died, sitting at her desk, crying out “Baoyu, Baoyu.” (Schoenbaum in Lu and Schoenbaum, 179; Yisu 347)

Most obsessions were gentler than that one. In this section we present poems by a number of early to mid-nineteenth-century women writers. The writings of these women offer us a window into the imaginations of readers of the novel. In many cases, the translations are provisional–we welcome your input.

Visual representations of the novel–from texts like the Honglou meng tuyong 紅樓夢圖詠  (1879) or New Year’s prints are interspersed throughout this volume.  But at the end of this segment, we will look at several visual representations that have not come up earlier–including a fabulous narrative embroidery of the novel, embroidered clothing which features episodes from the novel, and several images which were used in peep shows which illustrate chapters from the novel.

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Dream of the Red Chamber by Ann Waltner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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