If you feel like you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Dream of the Red Chamber, you’re not alone. The opera—and the novel it’s based on—have been spotlit all month. Aside from being a visceral love story, Dream of the Red Chamber (pronounced “Hong Lou Meng”/紅樓夢 in Chinese) is a political intrigue, a feminist lyric and a Buddhist tale of reincarnation and spiritual awakening all wrapped into one.
The opera has been celebrated for creating more visibility and representation for Asian American opera singers and for diversifying a genre that sometimes feels trapped in 18th Century Vienna.
And while the production is one of the jewels of San Francisco Opera’s summer calendar, there’s so much more to this beloved Qing dynasty tale than immediately meets the eye.
We’ve put together a list of five ways you can experience the story—including an English translation of the novel, a traditional Chinese opera adaption, a hit TV show, a Shanghai pop standard from the 1940s, and a Canto rock ballad from the 1980s. These five entry points represent different facets of the story and can help you delve deeper into the Dream of the Red Chamber.
Dream of the Red Chamber was written by Cao Xue-qin during the Qing dynasty in the mid-1700s. Cao was born into a life of luxury but fell into poverty after his family lost favor with the emperor. Adept at both poetry and prose, he spent years spinning his family’s unraveling into an epic, magical and semi-autobiographical novel. Cao died without ever completing his masterpiece, leaving behind the mother of all cliffhangers and an untitled manuscript with five possible titles for readers to choose from.
While Dream of the Red Chamber is the most popular of the five titles, Story of the Stone ( “Shitou Ji”/石頭記) is also commonly used. It is the title David Hawkes selected for his comprehensive five-volume English translation—an undertaking so monumental that he resigned his chairship at Oxford University in order to pursue it. If you’re looking to pick up a copy of the novel in Chinese or in translation, East Wind Books should be your first stop. With locations in SF Chinatown and in Berkeley, this multilingual literary hub can outfit you with everything you need to begin reading Story of the Stone.
Dream of the Red Chamber has been adapted into an opera several times. One of the most notable examples is the Shanghai Yue Opera Company’s production in the 1950s. This adaptation was so popular that it was mobilized as a form of cultural diplomacy by the People’s Republic of China and sent on tour to the British Colony of Hong Kong. The Yue Opera was adapted into a film in 1962, starring Xu Yulan as Lin Dai-yu. This is Xu’s performance of “Buried Flowers” brought to the screen in a pink-petaled, technicolor garden.
One of the most famous scenes in the novel involves the ailing poet (and main love interest), Lin Dai-yu, walking around the Jia Family’s garden and burying fallen flower petals with a rake. Cao Xue-qin wrote an elegiac aria into the novel, which Dai-yu sings to herself, comparing the fallen flowers to her own deteriorating health. The lyrics have been adapted, reinterpreted and set to music many times. For example, Zhou Xuan, one of the Seven Great Singing Stars of 1940s China, recorded a rendition of “Buried Flowers” (“Zang Hua”/葬花). The song is an abridged version of Cao’s original poem, but it captures the same tragic tension between the brevity of spring and the brevity of human life.
On the Small Screen
In the 1980s, Dream of the Red Chamber was adapted into a 36-episode TV series which is infinitely binge-worthy. Shot in traditional four-walled courtyards with a large ensemble cast, the drama will transport you instantly into the inner workings of a wealthy household in 18th Century Beijing. The entire series is available for free on YouTube with Chinese subtitles and faithfully reconstructs all the intrigues, flirtations, schemes and retaliations that make up the novel’s sweeping plot.
You may have heard of the Hong Kong rock duo known as Tat Ming Pair. Their lead singer, Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, was arrested in 2021 for performing two songs at an election rally. But the group first rose to fame in the 1980s, in part because of a hit song titled “Story of the Stone.” With lush strings, airy synths and velvety vocals, Tat Ming Pair captures the ephemeral and emotional beauty of a 2,000 page novel in the span of four minutes. The chorus cleverly plays off the words for “true” (“zhen/真”) and “false” (“jia/假”), which sound the same as the surnames of the Zhen and Jia families in the novel. It also is a subtle nod to one of the most quoted lines in the book: “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”
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