The Dream of the Red Chamber is the product of a particular time and place–China of the mid-eighteenth century, in spite of its cosmic framing. But it is not an account of life as it was actually lived; fiction never is. But it is a wealth of information, nonetheless.
One of the first scholars to call Dream of the Red Chamber an encyclopedia was Wang Xilian, the husband of Zhou Qi, who referred to it as such in his 1832 edition of the novel. Since then many other scholars have referred to it as a veritable encyclopedia of everyday life in the Qing dynasty—everyday life in a family of extraordinary wealth, that is. But what might we be able to learn from the novel about life in the Qing dynasty? Of course as we read it, we need to keep in mind that it is fiction. But there is now enough scholarship on the domestic lives of the elite in the eighteenth century that we can place the novel in a historical context.
This section of the text will set the novel in that context. It will look at what we know about marriage, about gender relations, about daily life, Qing politics, and so on and suggest ways in which what we know about the eighteenth century can inform reading of the novel. And it will suggest ways in which the novel can deepen our understanding of eighteenth-century society. It is undeniably true that the novel speaks to readers across time, across space, across languages. But how might knowing more about the contexts that produced it inform our reading of it?
There are two key developments in eighteenth-century China which we might keep in mind as we read the novel. One is the increasing pressure from European countries and the other is dramatic population growth. This section of the course will discuss both, briefly, and provide suggestions for further reading.